Easter eggs and Easter bunnies are commonly believed by today’s secular world to be the perfect gifts for the Easter holidays. Though very few people know about the history of these Easter gifts, their practical origins, and their cultural and religious roots, these Easter gifts are actually ancient.
The most ancient Easter gifts, as far as my exploration goes, are the Easter eggs. Even the concept of Easter itself is ancient. The tradition of Easter eggs, much less the giving of Easter gifts, did not begin with Christianity at all. Rather, it started much earlier, at the time that ancient human societies first observed the cycle of birth and rebirth, the cycle of endings and beginnings, the cycle of life and death (both in nature and among humans), and the cycle of the seasons. It started with ancient societies’ joy for the arrival of spring. It wasn’t known as Easter yet.
Easter and the Joy of Spring
In areas that go through long and bitter winter, the coming of spring is a much-anticipated and wildly reveled moment. Imagine months of coldness, ice, and snow. Imagine everything around you coming to a seeming halt, or appearing dead and desolate, or showing no signs of growth. Crops do not grow in winter, so no harvest can be reaped. Many animals either perish in the cold, or hide from it. Nature is asleep and snoring loudly. It’s a sad picture, really. Then, imagine all of that sadness melting away and nature waking up from its sleep when spring comes—and in full color at that. Oh, joy!
Ancient peoples celebrated the joy of spring. The coming of the vernal equinox, also known as the spring equinox, plays a pivotal part in the celebration, since most cultures pin their spring celebrations on the day when spring is at its peak; that is, during mid-spring, which coincides with the vernal equinox, at which time the sun casts its rays right above the earth’s equator. The position of the sun during this time of the year gives rise to approximately equal number of day and night hours.
For ancient Persians, most of whom were Zoroastrians, the spring equinox signals the beginning of a new year, a time of renewal and regrowth. Thus, they celebrated Nowrooz—the Zoroastrian New Year—on the same day as the sun divides time into two equal parts. Do you know how ancient Persia and modern-day Persia (Iran and nearby states) have been celebrating the coming of spring for the past 2,500 years? With painted eggs! The bas relief sculptures on ancient Persepolis walls show priests bringing eggs and other gifts to the king for the Nowrooz celebration. The Persians are probably the very first people known to offer eggs and other Easter gifts to their gods in exchange for an abundant and bountiful year.
Word Origins of Easter
Easter has always been about spring, literally and/or symbolically. It is about bountiful harvests, abundance, and fertility. The very word Easter itself comes from the Old English Eastre or Eostre, which, according to the Venerable Bede (Beda Venerabilis), is also the name of an Anglo-Saxon pagan goddess of spring and fertility. According to Bede, the month called Eostur-monath (alternately spelled Esturmonath) in the Germanic calendar was named after the goddess and was equivalent to the month we now know as April. The practice of giving Easter gifts to one another may have come from the more ancient ritual of offering Easter gifts to the goddess of spring.
In the 19th century, Jacob Grimm (yup, the popular fairytale author, who also happened to be an expert on linguistics) compared several linguistic sources of Germanic origin and reported his reconstructed name of the Spring goddess—Ostara. He calls her “the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, and whose meaning could easily be adapted to the resurrection day of the Christian God.” (The adaptation, of course, was formally introduced to Christianity through the First Council of Nicaea, convened by order of the Roman Emperor Constantine. One of the highlights of that Council was the resolution of the precise date for celebrating the Christian Easter, which varied among the early churches. But, this topic deserves a discussion of its own.)
Until today, scholars continue to consider Grimm’s derivation of Eostre’s name as speculation. Current scholars and historians have not yet found proof that Eostre or Ostara ever played a part in Germanic religions.
To talk, then, of Easter eggs as Easter gifts is to think of eggs as offerings to the Easter goddess of spring. You probably now see the logic behind the association between eggs and spring. But, where does the rabbit come in?
The Easter, Eggs, and Hare Connection
First of all, although it is quite logical to associate Easter eggs and spring (since both are about new life and fertility), neither Bede nor Grimm ever mentioned anything about eggs and rabbits in relation to Easter, Eostre, or Ostara. But, Georg Franck von Franckenau did, in 1682. He gets the right of first mention, according to several scholars and historians. Second of all, it wasn’t a rabbit but a hare; the two may look alike, but Franckenau was talking about a hare.
In his essay “De Ovis Paschalibus” (On Easter Eggs) published in 1682, Franckenau expressed his concern about a lot of people getting sick from eating too many eggs at Easter time. During his time, people have been giving one another eggs as Easter gifts. His essay mentions the myth of the Easter Hare, which was a tale handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. The Easter Hare was said to lay and hide eggs. Both young and old searched for these Easter gifts from the hare and ate them. Franckenau observed this tradition to have been practiced in Alsace, which lies in the southwestern part of Germany, and in the Upper Rhineland.
Some researchers believe that the association between Easter and hares may have been made via the egg link. There is a body of evidence showing the possible realistic confusion (which is easy to make in this case) between a hare’s nest and a plover’s nest. Both animals build their nests on the open ground, usually in shallow depressions or a nest built from flattened grass.
A Prolific Easter Rabbit
The tale of the Easter Hare in Alsace and the Upper Rhineland may probably be the earliest written account pointing to the origin of this other popular Easter symbol. German literature in the 16th century includes several references to the Easter Hare and Easter eggs. As the practice slowly spread to other regions, the hare often got confused with rabbits and bunnies. America had its first taste of the Easter Hare, known as the Osterhase, via German emigrants settling in Pennsylvania in the 18th century. The German settlers taught the local inhabitants about the Easter Hare who would lay colored eggs for children who have been good. Sometimes, real eggs are replaced by candy, pastry, or other Easter gifts for children.
The hare, apparently, is also a frequent symbol of fertility among many ancient cultures worldwide. Thus, it is quite easy to associate the hare with a spring goddess such as Eostre or Ostara. That is why the Easter hare or bunny is a common Easter gift these days. The hunt for Easter eggs may even actually have come from the 17th- and 18th-century customs of hare hunting at Easter time. The idea is this: where the Easter eggs are, there the Easter Hare will be.
But, why would folks hunt for the Easter Hare? One possible explanation is that the hare is commonly held as the spring god’s or goddess’ protected animal, and to offer it to the deity often results in a favorable harvest. Researchers have documented ancient spring rituals that involved sacrificial killing and eating of hares as part of a fertility ritual at springtime. Over time, people may have stopped the murderous practice but have retained the custom of hunting for the hares.
Easter, Easter eggs, and Easter bunnies (or Easter hares, if you prefer) have enigmatic and often colorful, sometimes confusing, roots. Although the historical path of these popular Easter gifts may be hard to trace, one thing is certain: they’re all about spring, fertility, new life, and abundance. Whatever religious persuasion you may have, the perfect gift for Easter will always be one that refers to those ideas.
- “Ostara” (by Johannes Gehrts, 1901) on Wikimedia Commons