The majority of Christian festivals have dates which are set in stone; Christmas and all the saint’s days are celebrated on specific dates which never change from year to year. Yet Easter, which commemorates Christ’s death and resurrection and so surely should have a specific date attached, is a moveable feast. We never seem to know exactly when it will be celebrated until we see it on the calendar. Will it be in March? Or April? Exactly when will we have our longed-for Bank Holiday weekend? We could work it out for ourselves, in fact, because Easter Sunday is always on the first Sunday after the full moon which follows the 21st of March. Unless the full moon is on a Sunday, in which case it’s moved to the following week. Got it?
It is puzzling, is it not, that the Christian calendar has not fixed a date for Easter, (arguably its most important festival) but instead celebrates it in conjunction with the vernal or Spring equinox and the cycles of the moon. Does this hint that the Christian festival replaces an earlier, pagan one? Certainly there is evidence that this is the case.
The Venerable Bede, born in AD 676 and so just about contemporary with the Anglo-Saxons, knew enough about their customs and mythology to state with some certainty that Easter was originally a festival lasting for the whole month of April, in honour of the goddess Eostre.
Eostre was known in many cultures, long before Christianity. She was goddess of the dawn. Her name derives from a word in one of the most ancient of our languages, a word which means ‘to shine’. Eostre was the light-bringer, a harbinger of Spring, a promise of new growth and fertility. (Her name is also the origin of oestrogen, the hormone so important in our reproductive cycle.)
Our modern Easter custom of feasting, then, derives from the ancient feast in honour of the heavenly Goddess of the Dawn, the bringer of Light. Christianity replaced it with a festival in honour of Christ’s resurrection – but retained the name.
Certain customs associated with Easter also have their origin in the story of Oestre. The ‘Easter Bunny’ derives from the hares who carried Oestre’s lights, at the break of the first dawn. In fact, the hare had been venerated for many centuries before being adopted by the worshippers of Oestre. It is interesting that in later centuries hares were often associated with witches, who were notably un-Christian in their beliefs and practices.
Easter eggs, also, are an obvious symbol of the fertility associated with Oestre. Before chocolate eggs became the norm, the custom was to decorate chicken’s eggs with bright colours, including red to denote Christ’s blood. For early Christians, just as an egg appears lifeless but new life lies within, the painted egg represented Jesus’ tomb and the act of cracking the egg symbolised the resurrection. However, in all cultures as far back as the Egyptians, the egg was seen as a symbol of the universe and continuing life.
Long ago in Lancashire, during Easter week, from Monday to Maundy Thursday, children would delight in dressing up as a variety of strange characters, sometimes wearing masks, and would go from door to door begging for Easter eggs from their neighbours, in much the same way modern children tour the neighbourhood at Hallowe’en. The children would use the eggs in games, often rolling them down hilly ground until the shells broke, or smashing them into each other like marbles. This was known as ‘pace-egging’ and in Lancashire this custom is still observed in many towns, especially in Preston where hundreds gather on Avenham Park each Easter Monday to roll their chocolate eggs down the gentle hills. The name ‘pace’ derives from the old term Pasche, which referred to Easter – the word deriving from the Hebrew Pesach, or Passover.
The symbolic meaning of eggs and their importance in the Easter ritual may also have been the reason why they were off the menu during Lent, the last of them being used up in pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. The chickens, of course, knew nothing of this and kept on laying, but the eggs were hard-boiled in order to preserve them. When children came knocking during Easter week, then, there were always plenty of hard-boiled eggs to be had and as they might have been hard-boiled for weeks and hardly edible, it would not matter that they were broken to bits in children’s games.
Even our modern hot cross buns have their origin in antiquity. Similar cakes were eaten during the month long festival of Oestre by our Saxon ancestors – marked later with a cross to link them to Christianity. In Lancashire of old, Good Friday (God’s Friday) was the day when children would go knocking on their neighbours doors bearing a basket for the collection of small cakes which were made specifically for this day; made with wheat flour, no leaven and lots of butter, they were more like shortbread and may well have resembled the old Oestre cakes more than modern hot cross buns.
So, Happy Oestre, folks! Let’s celebrate the coming of Spring and the Bringer of the Light, and longer days and warmer ones, and new growth all around us. Whether you’re celebrating with chocolate eggs or painted ones, enjoy.
And one last tip – don’t eat all the hot cross buns; save one and keep it safe till next Good Friday, for then it will have acquired the magical property of being able to prevent whooping cough…