Unlike Christmas, which is always December 25th, Easter is a moveable celebration where the date is set by the Church and computed according to the cycle of the moon.
Lunar deities have been worshipped by Pagans for thousands of years, but referencing this Pagan almanac is about the closest thing that the Christian Easter celebrations get to any Pagan roots.
'Easter' is an Anglo-Saxon word derived from the Germanic calendar month Eastre (West Saxon) or Eostre (Northumbrian), reputedly named after the goddess Eostre. We cannot be certain how influential this goddess of the dawn was, or even if she was part of old European culture at all, but it's quite plausible that such a goddess was called Eastre since the sun rises in the east.
Dawn brings a new day, just as April (the month of Eastre) brings a new spring. Old customs involving the images of spring, such as hares and eggs, remain today with the Easter Bunny and decorated or chocolate eggs.
The egg is an obvious candidate for a symbol of birth and regeneration. The egg has been honoured during many spring rites through the ages: Egyptians, Persians, Romans and Gauls, and even the Chinese, have held the egg as possessing magical powers which can benefit new beginnings. Whether it was the commencement of building a bridge across a river, sowing a field of wheat, or launching a new fishing boat, the egg was used as a good luck charm.
When Christianity began, the egg was already a representation of new life, and Christians adopted this to represent the new spiritual life which can be attained through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Just as temples were adapted to become churches, altar sacrifices, prayer, and so many other old Pagan customs, the egg was employed as a well-developed image of new life.
Now all this may be moderately interesting (and some may even be true) but frankly, none of it is very important for the meaning of Easter today.
Easter, for Christians, is the special time to celebrate the passion of Christ.
The Crucifixion happened around the time of the Jewish Passover, commemorating the Hebrews' escape from enslavement in Egypt hundreds of years earlier. Passover traditions include the consumption of unleavened bread, and Jesus distributed the same to His disciples at the Last Supper (see Communion Wafer).
The Passover celebrations also included the sacrifice of lambs. (Hebrew slaves in Egypt marked their doorposts with the blood of such sacrifices so that the angel of death would pass-over their families.) Similarly, mankind can be saved from spiritual death through the blood spilled by Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross (see Meaning of the Cross).
So both the timing and the symbolism of the Passover have a strong connection with the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. For the Pagan Easter customs, where hares and eggs have been symbolised new physical life, the Christian Easter celebrates the new spiritual life.
Christians have innumerable other symbols for commemorating Easter, and most of these feature neither hares nor eggs:
- Paschal Candles light churches throughout the Easter period and the priest may wear special vestments.
- Relics, such as fragments of the True Cross, are particularly revered. The skull and crossbones remind us of the original sin of Adam, which we have all inherited. The cleansing of sin was the purpose of Christ's sacrifice.
- Forty days before Easter, the first day of Lent, some Christian churches celebrate Ash Wednesday by marking the Sign of the Cross on the foreheads of believers, as a reminder of their mortality (hence ash) and penance for their sin (dirt).
- The Crown of Thorns symbolizes the majesty of Christ. The lily also has long associations with royalty and this flower frequently appears on crosses at Easter. (See Fleur de lis Cross and Lily Cross)
- Various implements used in the torture of Jesus, such as nails, can be seen on the Armaments of Christ Cross. These include the cock, dice, hammer, ladder, pincers, chalice, reed sceptre, robe, scourge, spear and sponge.
- The cross is obviously the main Easter symbol, and variations include: