Origins of Easter and the celebration of rebirth

chocolate easter egg

The Christian Church recognised eggs as part of Easter around 1610 - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Like many Christian celebrations, Easter has pagan roots. Many argue some of its origins stem from early pagan rituals which celebrated the coming of spring after the trials of a long hard winter.

This is not to deny at all that Easter is essentially based around the Christian idea of commemorating the resurrection of Jesus. That said, the name ‘Easter’ is thought to originate from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of dawn and spring, ‘Eostre’. The day itself also has links to the Jewish Passover Festival, the end of which also occurs on Sunday, April 4.

Easter is a “movable feast” and is held on a different date every year. Even today it is often held on different days throughout the world. There was a lot of disagreement over this in the early days of Christianity, basically because no one could agree exactly when Jesus had been crucified. For the record, he almost certainly wasn’t born on December 25th either. The first Council of Nicea in 325AD attempted to settle the whole matter beyond doubt. It didn’t entirely succeed.

Today, in Britain, Easter is observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon, after the first day of spring (in the northern hemisphere). This leads to some interesting variations.

This year’s Easter, for example, is very slightly early. April 4 is 13 days after the earliest possible date and 21 days before the latest. Were it on April 8 it would be exactly in the middle - neither early or late. The last time this happened was in 2012 but will not occur again until 2091.

The earliest possible date for Easter is March 22. None of us will ever experience this, as it hasn’t happened since 1818 and won’t happen again until, wait for it… 2285! The latest possible date it could be is April 25. This has not happened since 1943 and will not recur until 2038.

If you want to update your diaries, incidentally, the next few Easters are on April 17 2022, April 9 2023, March 31 2024 and April 20 2025. 

The Good Friday tradition of Hot Cross Buns is obviously linked to the crucifixion. Theories vary as to where the bun bit comes from. Some trace it to a monk called Thomas Radcliffe who began distributing a very similar type of bun to the poor in St Albans in 1361.

The Easter tradition of eating chocolate eggs might seem odd in some ways. The vegan comedian Simon Amstell (speaking with his tongue very much in his cheek) once described Easter as “a chilling artefact of a culture that once stole a cow’s milk and moulded it into the shape of a chicken’s egg.” In reality, eggs have obvious links to pre-Christian notions of spring, fertility and rebirth. Some claim a Christian link through a legend about Mary Magdalene distributing eggs as a means to help promote the Gospel. People have been painting eggs for thousands of years, but the Christian Church seems to have recognised eggs as part of Easter in about 1610, perhaps a bit earlier.

The first chocolate eggs appeared in the court of King Louis IV in Versailles in 1725. Initially, they filled empty chicken egg shells with chocolate. Chocolate eggs as we know them were first introduced for sale in 1873 by JS Fry & Sons. Today, 80 million eggs are sold in Britain every year, comfortably more than one per person. Various traditions are associated with it both today and in the past such as egg rolling and the traditional Easter Egg hunt.

The idea of Easter bunnies arose from the notion of rabbits being associated with spring, rebirth and fertility, although how this translated into them distributing eggs themselves remains to be seen. In Switzerland, legend has it, Easter eggs are delivered by a cuckoo and in parts of Germany by a fox.

Needless to say, all that remains is to wish everyone reading this a very happy Easter and an enjoyable extended weekend.

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