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Easter is known in Christian countries as a predominantly religious holiday commemorating the supposed resurrection of Jesus, but the holiday's contemporary traditions are an amalgamation of Jewish, Christian and pre-Christian pagan practices.
The etymology of the word "easter" is debated, but allegedly the word comes from the name of the pre-Christian Germanic pagan fertility goddess Ēostre (or Ostara), who was honored with feasts during Ēosturmōnaþ (Easter Month) which approximately corresponded to the current month of April. Ēostre is believed to be a later version of the Proto-Indo-European dawn goddess, Hausōs, who was also the goddess of spring.
Spring has long been celebrated as a season of rebirth, mostly notable for the return of crops after a long winter. It has also been associated with pre-Christian gods and goddesses. In one notable example, 200 years before Jesus, the Cybele cult (which, ironically, was situated on Vatican hill, although of course it was not called that at the time) honored annually the death and resurrection of Attis, the consort of the goddess Cybele. Attis was the Phrygian god of vegetation and his death by crucifixion and resurrection after three days was celebrated annually by farmers as a symbol of the return of crops. (Attis was also said to have been born of a virgin on Dec. 25, and was commemorated by worshipers at a sacramental meal of bread and wine, representing his body and blood.)
No one knows the exact date of the alleged crucifixion of Jesus and the first generations of early Christians didn't commemorate it (or any other festival) as an annual event. The Christian observance of the holiday Pascha began sometime in the 2nd Century and there was much controversy over the date, specifically whether to fix the holiday on Nisan 14 of the Hebrew calendar, "the Lord's passover" -- by tradition, the fourteenth day of the "moon of Nisan" -- to attach it to the lunar cycle, to associate it with the vernal equinox or to apply a combined computation of the above.
The debate continues to this day. At the World Council of Churches in 1997, it was proposed that the date of Easter would be "the first Sunday following the first astronomical full moon following the astronomical vernal equinox, as determined from the meridian of Jerusalem." This latest schedule has yet to be enacted.
What about the tradition of the Easter bunny, eggs and candy?
The hare (which is not a rabbit) is a pre-Christian, pagan symbol of Spring and was connected to both Ēostre and the Norse goddess Freyja. Ēostre was a goddess of the dawn and hares were said to have carried her rays of light. Hares' promiscuity also made them symbols of fertility, likewise celebrated by pre-Christians in the spring.
Eggs are also (and more obvious) symbols of fertility and had been associated with hares (regardless of the fact that hares don't lay eggs) for hundreds of years before Christianity. The association of the Christian Easter and an egg-laying bunny apparently was a long-standing German tradition prior to its popularization in the U.S. in the 18th century.
The tradition of giving treats at Easter is said to have originated in the 14th century with a monk named Father Thomas Rockcliffe, who gave Hot Cross buns to the poor on Good Friday. During the 1800s, chocolate was the rage in Europe and merchants sought to capitalize by selling egg-shaped chocolates. That commercial tradition, of course, continues.
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