As everyone knows, it's that time of year when we celebrate the religious festival dedicated to St. Easter, the patron saint of chocaholics. Wait, no, that can't be right... Ummmm.
In fact, Easter is just one of many confusingly indistinct holidays that blend weird paganism, Christian theology, and modern marketing into a seamless melange of oddly abutting practices and customs. Christmas and Halloween are equally strange, and are growing in popularity despite an increasingly secular world, so how much of Easter really is Christian in origin? It may be more than you realise.
Easter is, of course, an extremely reverential period for Christians around the world, as they commemorate the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. But the nomenclature of the festival is entirely pagan, and has nothing to do with Christianity whatsoever. It is generally agreed by historians that Eostre was a pagan goddess in the Saxon religion, possibly associated with the dawn and the bringing of light. Put simply, she was the harbinger of spring after the long cold winter. As harbingers go, she was way more popular than Doom and Sorrow, who were total and utter berks that nobody liked... not even their mums.
Pagan beliefs are hard to identify clearly in the historical record, but we know of Eostre thanks to the Venerable Bede, a brilliant monastic scholar who documented the transition from paganism to Christianity in Dark Ages England. He was pretty vague on how Eostre was celebrated by the Saxons, but it seems to have been a fertility rite. This would make sense, what with all the lambs being born, and flowers blooming... Of course, the story of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection fitted rather snugly into the pagan model of death (winter) followed by rebirth (spring), meaning the Church could effectively bolt the former onto the latter without angering too many heavily-armed bearded warriors.
Superimposing Christian rites onto pagan traditions was hugely successful for the Church, as you will notice by the dating of Christmas to the same week as Roman Saturnalia, but the consequence was a certain fuzziness in how people behaved. Historians dub it 'syncretism', while cynics prefer 'hedging your bets'. In any case, early medieval Christians clung onto some quirkily pagan habits. My favourite is this 'spell' for fertile crops...
1) At night, dig up four clumps of soil from the four corners of the field
2) Then take a sample of every grass, herb, tree in the field, and add it to milk from every cow, and honey from every bee hive.
3) Now add holy water to this concoction, and drip it in the holes...
4) Now sing an incantation, asking them to grow.
5) Now sing the Lord's Prayer, several times
6) Now take the four clumps of earth into the church, and get your local priest to sing four masses... one for each clump
7) Now get four crucifixes and write Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on them. Place the crucifixes in the holes you have dug, and shout 'Grow!' nine times
8) Now sing the Lord's Prayer nine times
9) Now turn east, bow and say a prayer
10) Now turn around clockwise three times, and then lie prostrate on the ground while chanting about your lovely green fields
11) Now bless the plough and bless the seed
12) Now plough a furrow, and place a cake of honey and milk in it.
13) Well done, you now have a fertile field!
This enormously elaborate ritual has all the hallmarks of a pagan fertility rite, except with the not-very-subtle substitution of pagan gods for the Gospel-writers. It's as if farmers just clicked 'Find & Replace' on their laptops and figured God probably wouldn't care. It seems that a relatively lax attitude by parish priests meant that switching from paganism to Catholicism was the equivalent of changing your electricity provider - a bit of a nuisance, but ultimately you could still power the dishwasher.
However, the switchover was not as simple as that at an institutional level. For starters, the wider Christian Church was in total in disarray over when Easter should be observed. In the early 2nd Century, there were some who celebrated it on the Jewish festival of Passover, on the 14th day of the moon. This had the habit of landing on random days of the week, which didn't seem suitably sacred. Apparently, Tuesdays just didn't cut it when it came to miracles... (Incidentally, our days of the week are still named after pagan gods - Mona, Tiw, Woden, Thunor, Freya, Saturn, Sunne) Soon after, Syriac Christians suggested Easter should fall on the Sunday after Passover. In 325AD, the Council of Nicaea decided to enforce this worldwide... unfortunately, they had not counted on Britain failing dismally to tow the European line (sound familiar?)
When St Augustine arrived in Canterbury in 597AD, having been sent to convert this pagan isle to Christianity on the back of a terrible pun from the Pope ("not Angles but Angels!"), he discovered the Irish Church had decided on its own dating of Easter. The confusion reigned for another 70 years, with one famous Saxon victim being Queen Eanflaed who was forced to watch her hubby, King Osway, stuff his face at an Easter banquet while she was still fasting during Lent. It seems the King and Queen were on separate calendars - she Roman, and he Irish. The Roman calendar finally won out in 664AD at the Synod of Whitby. Today Whitby is known for its excellent fish and chips, and a weird legend about Dracula... I'm not sure if they are connected but it seems unlikely.
So, do we today celebrate Easter on that day declared by the Council of Nicaea? Nope! Yet more tinkering, this time in the late 16th century, saw Western Europe switch to the Gregorian Calendar instead of the Julian Calendar. So, now West and East were on different systems again... except, typically, Britain once again caused confusion by refusing to jump to the Gregorian system until 150 years later, when it found itself having to drop 12 days from September to catch up... meaning September 2nd was followed by the 14th. Sigh. In short, this now means that Easter can fall on one of 35 days, and the computation has become more complicated than trying to assemble an Ikea space-station.
To add yet more chaos into the mix, Easter has now become synonymous with chocolate eggs and rabbits. On the face of it, this seems as logical as declaring Christmas the yoghurt festival, and having Santa's sled pulled by newts. Yet, there is a curious obviousness to both of these interlopers.
Rabbits are often said to be fecund little critters, frequently noted to be shagging like... well, rabbits. Oddly, this extraordinary sexual fertility was interpreted in ancient science as the exact opposite - goodness knows why, but it was thought that rabbits and hares were hermaphrodites who could impregnate themselves. This gave them a slightly weird association with virginity, which the Christian Church soon picked up on. Surprisingly for such rampant humpers, hares and rabbits became animal ciphers for the Virgin Mary in medieval Christian art. Of course, to the slightly backwards Saxon syncretists who were still prostrating themselves on their fields and chanting gibberish to their crops, animals noted for their constant reproduction made perfect sense for an Easter fertility association.
Eggs, in theory, have nowt to do with Jesus. He didn't have to climb out of one, like in that weird bit in The Matrix. Yet, in the Greek Church it is said Mary Magdalene brought boiled eggs to the tomb of Jesus, to feed the other mourners, and when the tomb was found to be open the eggs miraculously turned blood red. A second story states Mary was proclaiming the resurrection to Pontius Pilate when his eggs also turned red, upon his refusal to believe her. These stories may be apocryphal, but they carry a weight that has lasted through history. The tradition of egg-painting, particularly in the colour red, is still very common in Eastern and Central Europe - and there are charming ceremonies where baskets of eggs are blessed by the priests.
You may be wondering where does the egg-eating come into it? Well, in the medieval era eggs were considered to be dairy products (they were derived from animals without causing harm or the spilling of blood) so they were banned for Lent. This gave them a tinge of luxury when the 40 days of fasting was over... people were eager to eat them again. Don't worry, I'll refrain from making a terrible egg-citement pun. Oh, crap. Sorry.
Of course, as always, eggs are the most blindingly obvious symbol of fertility and neatly tie into the pagan Eostre. It is easy to forget in this age of battery chickens that medieval hens only laid from spring to autumn - the Saxons would have had every right to associate Easter with the arrival of eggs. Indeed, to this day there are still curious local Easter traditions such as egg-rolling (where eggs are rolled down hills) and egg-tapping (basically a game of conkers, but with hard-boiled eggs). It's hard to know how ancient these are, but they are certainly pre-date the modern age.
In the 19th Century, Father Christmas evolved into Santa Claus with the express purpose of educating children about divine morality - if you're good, you get a reward. He's basically a training-wheels version of God for kids too young to comprehend an invisible deity. In the 17th Century, a similar thing seems to have happened in Germany with the Easter Bunny. This anthropomorphic personification appears to be almost entirely pagan in concept (it's also really, really weird - a mammal that lays eggs? They should have called it the Easter Platypus...) However, the Easter Bunny (actually, it's a hare in Germany) rewarded only the well-behaved boys and girls, teaching them to be moral and Christian. It became popular worldwide once it was taken to America and spread outside of the German communities of Pennsylvania.
Of course, modern Britain is becoming increasingly secular and many of the religious overtones of Easter are being forgotten. Ironically, it seems to be returning to a springtime fertility festival, where we eat roast lamb and spread daffodils around the house. Yet the Christian elements are very much there, even if they seem to be entirely nonsensical upon first glance.
So, in short, Easter has continued its relevance for more than two millennia, and thanks to the invention of chocolate, it doesn't look likely to vanish anytime soon. As an unashamed chocolate fiend, I for one am very glad...