Recently a fellow blogger and I were discussing religious traditions. She had a question about Easter and asked, “So, what’s with the bunnies?” I thought I would take the time this week to answer that question. It’s one that I asked myself years ago and here are some of the things I discovered.
Easter, like Christmas, has symbols associated with it that are both religious and secular. Originally, Easter was not called Easter by the Christians. It was celebrated on the first Sunday after Passover as the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The symbols that were associated with the Resurrection are the cross, the lamb and the empty tomb. In Latin, it was called Pascha, a word derived from the Hebrew Pesach – meaning Passover. The date changes every year depending on when the Hebrew Passover is celebrated. It has always been the highest Holy Day of the Christian religion. It is the climax of their Holy Week; Christ’s last week on earth before he was crucified and rose from the dead.
So again, “What’s with the bunnies?” For Millennia in the pagan tradition, the end of Winter advent of Spring has been celebrated. Symbols of fertility, rabbits and eggs, have been part of that tradition. Fertility goddesses and stories surrounding them have been at the center of the pagan tradition. Some believe the Sumerian goddess, Ishtar, was central to the celebration early on. As the centuries passed, Ishtar morphed into the Canaanite goddess, Astarte, then into the Greek goddess Aphrodite and finally into the Roman goddess Venus. You can hear the similarity between the words Ishtar and Easter and can see how the celebration could have gotten its name. Others think that perhaps it was named after another goddess called Eostre, the goddess of Spring.
That being said, how did two completely different traditions become comingled? Early in the fourth century A.D., Christianity became the main religion of the Roman Empire. However, it was not the only religion. Pagan traditions continued on and slowly some of the symbols associated with the pagan celebration crept into the Christian tradition. The pagan celebration of Spring was gradually moved on the calendar until it took place at the same time as the Christian holiday. Fast forward to the twenty-first century and you find that Easter is celebrated as both a secular and a religious holiday. Many people with children will color eggs, fill baskets with chocolate bunnies and have a large family dinner. That constitutes the secular celebration of Easter. Christians may also color eggs, give their children chocolate bunnies, and have a large family dinner. Their main focus however, will be to gather with other Christians to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Many people today do not question the symbolism associated with this holiday. However, a deeper look will show two completely different traditions whose trajectory has merged culturally throughout the last two Millennia.
Note: This is the abridged answer to the question, “What’s with the bunnies?” Many of the facts about the Pagan celebration were taken from the article: The Ancient Pagan Origins of Easter by Joanna Gillan published April 18, 2019 on the website Ancient Origins.