When a person celebrates a holiday every year for their entire life, it can become easy to brush off strange, unexplained traditions. As many Americans munch on chocolate bunnies and cream-filled eggs this Easter morning, how many of them will wonder – why? What do these customs have to do with Easter’s roots?
Although the hallmarks of the holiday's festivities rarely provoke questions from those who’ve grown up knowing about the occasion, international students at UCF who do not normally celebrate Easter are unaccustomed to its quirks.
Understandably, some international students hadn’t even heard of the holiday. When asked if he knew what Easter was, Mohammed Algahtani, a master’s degree student from Saudi Arabia, choose to reply cautiously: “What do you mean by Easter? The area or the company?”
Karima Lasri, an electrochemistry researcher from Morocco, knew a little more about Easter, along with some of the practices associated with it. She described her experience watching others celebrate the day in Sweden.
“I saw the people there going to get coffee together. It was nice to see everyone out and about,” Lasri said. “I went to the zoo later, and there they gave us eggs of different colors, and took pictures of us holding them.”
The recognition of these common symbols of Easter – colored eggs and rabbits – was frequent among many international students. When asked about the holiday, these symbols were often the only things that students knew about it.
A case in point was Hasa Ablebrahim, a biology student from Kuwait who knew that Easter had something to do with eggs and fell on a Sunday.
“Where I come from we only have two religious holidays, so it’s hard to keep track of all the different American ones,” Ablebrahim said.
These traditional symbols can be both overwhelming and mysterious to students from other countries.
“I notice [them] all the time on TV and in the supermarket. During this time of year, you start to see products in the shape of rabbits and eggs everywhere” said Sarah Sultan, a clinical psychology major from Saudi Arabia.
And they really are everywhere. As soon as February 15 rolls around, forgotten Valentine’s Day commodities are quickly sold so that colorful eggs and wide-eyed stuffed rabbits can quickly take their place. But what do these cute, springtime symbols have to do with Easter as a holiday?
It turns out that while Easter is a Christian holiday rooted in the resurrection of the historical biblical figure Jesus Christ, these trademark symbols actually have their beginnings in much older, pagan roots.
In fact, the use of eggs and bunnies in springtime celebrations can be traced to 13th century pre-Christian Germany, during a time when it was common to worship many different gods and goddesses. A deity named Eostra or Eastre, which are both variations close to the holiday’s present name, was the goddess of spring and fertility.
Feasts and celebrations were held in Eostra’s honor during the Vernal Equinox, an astronomical event that takes place on March 20. Interestingly, modern day Easter celebrations usually occur anytime between March 22 and April 25.
Eggs, a historical symbol of birth and new life, were painted in the goddess’s honor during these festivals. As for rabbits, Eostra was often associated with them because of the animal’s high reproductive rate.
When Roman Catholicism became the dominant religion in Germany in the 15th century, Catholic traditions were merged with the pre-existing pagan ones to ease the process of conversion. The first Easter bunny legend was documented in the 1500s and brought to the United States two hundred years later when German immigrants settled in the Pennsylvania Dutch colony.
These immigrants continued to practice the pagan traditions now merged with the Easter holiday, and it is from them that the rest of the United States adopted those same traditions.
Megan Hull is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.