Every spring time it’s the same: as Jewish children munch on their unleavened matzah while listening to an older relative read out the precise explanation of every Passover tradition, goy kids are left to wonder what the heck painted eggs and chocolate bunnies have to do with the resurrection of Christ. As is often the case, holiday traditions don’t so much illuminate our culture’s past as muddy it all up.
Easter appears to go back, at least etymologically speaking, to the Germanic goddess Ēostre. Pagans had already stopped dedicating feasts to her during Ēostur-monath (Ēostre’s month, probably April) when Bede, the monk and early British historian, wrote about her in the 8th century.
Bede’s account is the only one we have of this goddess of ertility and light and some have speculated that he may have made her up. Other scholars have attempted to connect her to later Easter customs. John Andrew Boyle has suggested a linkage with those popular bunnies: “Little else […] is known about [Ēostre], but it has been suggested that her lights, as goddess of the dawn, were carried by hares. And she certainly represented spring fecundity, and love and carnal pleasure that leads to fecundity.”
There isn’t much agreement on the origins of the Easter Bunny or who started painting eggs. The people of the Alsace-region of France and southwestern Germany were doing it by the 1500’s, but Persians had coloured eggs during the spring time Nowruz since ancient times.
The emphasis on chocolate didn’t come until the 19th century when chocolate moulds were greatly improved.
What’s remarkable about Easter traditions is how varied they are by country: in the British Isles kids rolled eggs down hills, in Louisiana they ‘knock’ them to see whose breaks first, and in Finland they apparently settle down and read mysteries. Instead of a bunny, the Australians have an Easter Bilby, a cute little marsupial that hops around at night.
But the award for the most bizarre Easter tradition goes to Slovakia and the Czech Republic: they have a custom of spanking their women. On the morning of Easter Monday, men will spank women with a special home-made whip of willow rods and red ribbons. According to the Ultimate Authority (wikipedia), “The spanking is not painful or intended to cause suffering. A legend says that women should be spanked in order to keep their health and beauty during whole next year.” Women can show appreciation for this attention by giving the men a painted egg. Alternatively, they can seek revenge by dousing them in cold water.
I wonder what Ēostre feels about this.
Below is a screen shot from ‘Easter Parade’, the 1948 musical based on the song of the same name by Irving Berlin. Berlin, that most American of song writers (who also penned ‘White Christmas’, ‘There’s No Business like Show Business’ and ‘God Bless America’), was, naturally, a Jewish immigrant.