Skip to main content
Opinion_

The origins of Easter

13 April 2017
From changing dates to the rise of the Easter Bunny

Have you ever wondered why we call it "Easter"? Professor Carole Cusack, from the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, reflects on the origins of some of the more familiar elements of the Easter season.

Jesus Christ window

The Date of Easter

While Christmas (the feast celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ) falls on 25 December every year, the date of Easter (the festival that celebrates Jesus’ resurrection), is not fixed and often falls anywhere between late March and late April. This is because the date attempts to reconcile the solar and lunar calendars.

In 325 AD the first major church council, the Council of Nicaea, determined that Easter should be the Sunday that follows the first full moon, after the Spring equinox (Autumn equinox in the Southern Hemisphere). Easter Sunday is therefore celebrated by Catholic and Protestant Christians on a Sunday between 22 March and 25 April.

Orthodox Churches however still use the Julian Calendar (named for Julius Caesar), which was abandoned in Western Europe after 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII instituted a new calendar to be known as the Gregorian Calendar, after himself.

This was revolutionary, as it made century years only Leap Years if they were divisible by 400 (so 2000, but not 2100), and moved the date of that day from 5 October to 14 October. England did not adopt the Gregorian Calendar untill 1753 (as it distrusted anything to do with the Pope and the Catholic Church) and by that time it was 11 days behind the rest of Western Europe.

Chocolate easter bunny

Chocolate eggs became popular in the 19th century. Image: iStock

Why is Easter Called “Easter” in English?

The English word for Easter is derived from the name of a minor Anglo-Saxon goddess, Eostre, a goddess of the dawn or spring. Feasts in her honour were often celebrated in April. In German, the word for Easter is “Ostern” and is derived from the German version of Eostre, called Ostara. In both these names the linguistic element meaning ‘east’ (eostost) reinforces the connection with the dawn.

Most other languages derive the name from Pesach, the Hebrew name for Passover. This means that in Greek, Easter is called Paskha, Italian Easter is Pasqua, Paaske is Danish Easter, and in French it is Pâques.

The rise of Easter Eggs and Easter Bunnies

Eggs became associated with the Paschal feast in the early Christian era, as eggs are symbols of new life. In Spring, eggs provided a symbolic analogy of Resurrection; after the chill of the winter months, nature was coming to life again.

Easter bunny

The rabbit became popular in the nineteenth century with the growth of the greeting card industry.

In the Middle Ages, it was a special treat to eat decorated eggs after Mass on Easter Sunday, following a period of fasting through Lent. The chocolate eggs that we delight in today began to be manufactured in the nineteenth century.

The first association of the rabbit with Easter is a mention of the “Easter hare” in Germany. Georg Franck von Franckenau, a Professor of Medicine at Heidelberg University described it in his book Satyrae Medicae, published in 1722.

There are two reasons that hares/rabbits are associated with Easter: First, they are known to breed rapidly, again creating a connection with new life. And second, in European folklore, hares were said either to lay eggs, or to hide the coloured eggs that children hunted for in the garden. The rabbit became popular in the nineteenth century with the growth of the greeting card industry.

 

Professor Carole Cusack from the University's Department of Studies in Religion is an expert in medieval Christianity. 

Annika Dean

Assistant Media and PR Adviser (Division of Humanities and Social Sciences)