* Editor’s note: Debra is on vacation. This column ran originally in 2010.
“Mom, did Jesus get a chocolate bunny in his Easter basket too?”
Ermmm…. Uhhh…. There were no Easter baskets back then, sweetie.
“Then how come I get an Easter basket when we go to church on Easter?”
Ermmm…. Uhhh… Hey, let’s go get an ice cream cone!
Nice sidestep, Mom. Or Dad. Thing is. the question will arise again. And you have to come up with a better answer before it does. But that’s really difficult if you’ve been conditioned into believing that everything pagan is evil and you must never even think about thinking about it.
It doesn’t have to be that scary. Jesus won’t hate you for thinking, questioning, learning, finding truth. He was all about that. He might hate you if you hate others, though. But, in the end, he’ll forgive you. So, let’s start working on that answer.
Easter. What’s up with the colored eggs and the Easter bunnies anyway, and how did these joyful things get mixed up with the cruelty and carnage of the crucifixion and the miracle of the resurrection? What could they possibly have in common? Plenty.
Long before Jesus stood atop the Mount and encouraged people to just stop being so cruel to each other, there was a thriving pagan culture that embraced the seasons, environment, stars, plants, animals… the inhale and exhale life. The ancients recognized that some things sprang to life at certain times of the year, and other things withered and died.
The ancients yearned to understand these mysteries, and more important, be in sync with them. It meant survival. They had to know when the snows would come and it was time to move to warmer territory, or when the ground would warm and it would be time to plant seeds to grow food.
To track the seasonal cycles, the ancients watched the heavenly bodies. The passing constellations and phases of the moon allowed them to track the turning of the seasonal wheel. They knew when the longest day of the year would come, and the shortest, and when the halfway points between each would occur. Today, we just flip open the calendar to find that out. But we’re really doing the same thing the ancients did – watching the seasons, noting the time of year.
In the course of the year, there’s a halfway point after the shortest day of the year and before the longest. What we now call the first day of spring or the vernal equinox – a day of equal light and dark — the ancients called “Ostara.” Ostara. Easter. Say the words out loud, and it’s not hard to imagine how one sprung from the other.
So, all was well with the ancients, observing the wheel of the year, decade after decade, century after century, until a new power appeared in the world: Christianity. And I say power, because from its humble and pure beginnings, Christianity was eventually hijacked by the Roman Empire and used as a weapon against the ancient pagan world. The Roman Empire and its Church attempted to crush anything and everything associated with the old ways. I say “attempted” because the onslaught wasn’t completely successful.
Some things, particularly the pagan holidays, could simply not be crushed. Ostara was one. Samhain and Yule were others. Samhain, a sacred time for honoring deceased ancestors, was adapted by the Church into All Saint’s Day, with our hairy, scary modern Halloween evolving from All Hallow’s Eve. Yule, with its log blazing in the hearth, holly, and decorated pine trees, became Christmas — not just a rebirth of the sun, but the birth of The Son.
The pagan holidays were so beloved, so stubbornly engrained amongst the pagan populace, that the Church couldn’t obliterate them, so it reframed them in Christian terms and looked the other way when it came to the pagan symbolism. Like bunnies and eggs at Ostara. As long as worshipping Jesus was mixed in there somewhere, the Church let it go. It kept the peace. And besides, you can’t kill all the pagans, or there’s nobody left to oppress.
So. What about those bunnies and eggs.
Both are symbols of fertility and new life – the essence of spring. The mysterious appearance of animals from underground and hatching from eggs, and fresh green leaves springing from trees that looked dead only days before … It means we’ve survived another long, harsh winter! There’s life! There’s hope! It’s cause for celebration! Think about Jesus’ resurrection – see the parallel?
The Christian honoring of Jesus’ resurrection and the pagan celebration of spring’s fertility and rebirth is serendipitously harmonious. Jesus died on the cross, then miraculously sprang to life, offering hope that we may yet survive this mess if we could just stop being so cruel to each other … Mother Earth, reviving, rejuvenating herself, offering hope that no matter how dark it gets, the wheel of the year keeps turning. For both Jesus and Mother Earth, life springs eternal at Easter/Ostara.
So, on Easter Sunday, children will joyfully wear their frilly Easter dresses and little suits to church and then smear chocolate bunnies all over them later at the Easter egg hunt, and sing “Jesus Loves Me” in one breath and “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” in the other, and never question or fret over the conundrum of the whole thing.
It all works for them. It’s a happy day, when life is colorful and parties are aplenty. Never mind if it doesn’t make a lot of sense (even though it kinda does). It’s just good. Enjoy it. And… if the seemingly opposing beliefs of Easter and Ostara can coexist happily in a child’s heart… couldn’t they also in our world?
Jesus said, “Be as little children.”
Amen to that.
— Email Debra at firstname.lastname@example.org; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com, www.edebra.com and www.ipinion.us