Easter, the holiest day in the Catholic calendar, has been connected to various images that seem to have little connection to the empty tomb of Christ. The word “easter” is not found in the Bible. It has an interesting etymology. It seems that the word evolved from the Proto-Germanic austron-, "dawn," also the name of a goddess of fertility and spring, perhaps originally of sunrise, whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox, it is also connected with the dawn. Old English developed Easterdæg, from Eastre (Northumbrian Eostre). Therefore, in its earliest forms the connection to sunrise is apparent which is the first tie to the Resurrection as each Gospel places the discovery of the empty tomb very early in the morning. In AD 595, 40 Roman monks were sent by Pope Gregory to England with the assignment of converting the Anglo Saxons to Christianity. Under the Pope’s instructions, the 40 missionaries convinced the pagan Britons to integrate their ancient celebrations with Christian festivities, where both festival calendars coincided. But knowing that the pagans were unlikely to simply drop their beliefs and embrace Jesus overnight, he instead gave a blueprint for conversion through coercion. Pope Gregory instructed his missionaries to embrace, rather than reject, local pagan customs in order to make Christianity more palatable for the potential converts. Over time, Christian symbols and messages were worked into these long-standing traditions, a form of syncretism. Christianity became ubiquitous, and knowingly or not, the pagans slowly became Christians. Similar to Christmas and Halloween, Christians attempted to blend elements of pagan religion with Christian tradition, in order to make the message of Christianity more palpable to those of other religions.
What of the other images surrounding Easter? An Easter basket and blessing of the food is an essential part of Easter in many cultures, especially in Eastern Europe. As it turns out, food eaten on Easter also carries significant meanings referring to faith. For this reason, many Christians pay a special attention to what they put in their baskets. Many want to ensure their baskets are made of wicker. It’s particularly important, as the plant symbolizes the ability to be reborn. The basket must contain a lamb, which symbolizes purity, obedience and Jesus himself, who agreed to redeem the sins of humanity. Ducklings and other newborn animals are images of new life, as are images of various flowers like the lily. Eggs are another symbol of Easter. Interestingly enough, people in some cultures share them while offering best wishes to each other. Eggs symbolize new life and indicate fertility.
The most famous image of Easter, the Easter Bunny, has a history going back to antiquity. In ancient times, it was widely believed, as typified by Pliny, Plutarch, Philostratus, and Aelian, that the hare was a hermaphrodite, an idea that held a rabbit could reproduce without loss of virginity. Later, mistakenly, the misunderstood rabbit was associated with the Virgin Mary. In Ancient Rome, and even prior, rabbits were associated with rebirth and new life. Because of this, people would include rabbits on their gravestones. According to historians, The Easter Bunny origin, however, can likely be traced back to the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon era where pagans would worship a deity that took the form of a rabbit: Eostre. Known as the goddess of springtime or dawn, Eostre (or sometimes seen as Eostra or Eastre) is associated with rabbits, pastels, and springtime celebrations. A popular legend tells the story of Eostre entertaining a group of children. As part of the demonstration, she transformed her pet bird into a pet rabbit. To the astonishment of the audience, this rabbit could still lay eggs like a bird. And thus, rabbits and eggs become inexorably tied to the Easter tradition. Thus, what began as a celebration of a Germanic goddess with an egg-laying rabbit transformed into the holiday we know as Easter today.
The first documentation of the Easter Bunny was recorded in the form of a myth in the 1500s. The first fictional story of the Easter Bunny was published by the 1680s. These traditions were spread by the Pennsylvania Dutch in America. The Easter Bunny story started to become common and popular in the 19th Century. The creature is known to carry colored eggs, candies, and toys in its basket for the children, and are considered similar to Santa Claus as both of them get gifts for the children a night before their respective holidays. Following the lead of Pope Gregory, we need not dismiss the symbols of Easter. They all tie to the idea of new life. The secular, even pagan-derived, images serve as a fun and colorful way to remember the new life in the Kingdom which is represented in the Resurrection.