Spring celebrations abound throughout time and cultures, and few are as joyful as the return of warmth and light after the cold darkness of winter. In the northern hemisphere the vernal equinox marks the time when daylight begins to overtake darkness, and the earth begins to warm and soften. From the ancient Romans’ festival celebrating Kybele and her slain-then-resurrected lover Attis to Ireland’s St. Patrick, societies everywhere seem to find reasons to mark the time of year when we can perceive the lengthening days.
The solemnity of the Christian observation of the death of the Christ on Good Friday is offset by the joy and awe of His rising from the dead on Easter Sunday. It is interesting that the dates are not set, but fluctuate according to the church’s historical tables which set the dates of the Ecclesiastical Full Moons, and place Easter on the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon, that is the first full moon after the vernal equinox. While not strictly a lunar calendrical reckoning, it does not follow generally accepted practices for observing events that occurred historically.
Also of interest is the name of the Christian holiday itself. The most popular explanation is that the Christians, while trying to subsume native Pagan religions, co-opted the name of a Germanic dawn goddess, Ostara, and incorporated elements of Her worship into the cult of their own deity. It is a very satisfying explanation. Unfortunately, our only source for it is the Anglo-Saxon cleric the Venerable Bede, who may very well have invented or exaggerated the actuality of Ostara (or Eostre.) The name shares a root with our modern words ‘estrogen’ and ‘east’. But there are no other mentions of this goddess in earlier writings. Some link the name of Ostara to the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, but there is little basis to make the leap other than the similarity of the names.
Rabbits and eggs have overtones of sex, fertility and birth, all of which strongly relate to Pagan spring celebrations but which have been oddly associated with the Christian holiday. Hares or rabbits are sacred to both Artemis, goddess of wild animals and newborns, and to Aphrodite, goddess of fertility and sexuality. Rabbits are an ideal symbol for the fresh new aspect of springtime and the wild abundance of procreation as the world wakes up. The encapsulated potential represented by eggs is likewise very spring-like, if not recognizably Christian. And yet the deeper meaning of the Vernal Equinox, life returning from the realm of death, is shared by the older Pagan religions with Christianity’s message.