In the Northern Hemisphere, the Spring Equinox is most widely known as the first day of Spring, when the nights really begin to lighten and the cold grip of winter finally relinquishes control of the atmosphere. Springtime itself is marked somewhat unwittingly by the planting of daffodils and the growing interest in the Easter season, with chocolate eggs beginning to fill our shelves and sculpted chocolate bunnies becoming everybody’s favourite snack. It’s perhaps the most pleasant part of the calendar as it gives us a sense of positive anticipation, something to look forward to but without the pressure and cost of Christmas.
This is true for Christians and atheists alike, for today’s materialistic society has commodotised Easter to such an extent that the lines between those of faith and those not of faith are non-existent when it comes to the economic participation in the festival. Even so, the festival of Easter and the aforementioned Spring Equinox are of great importance in an historical and cultural sense, regardless of daffodils, bunnies, bright evenings or holy communion. Some may also find that, whether they care for the seasonal idiosyncrasies or not, the Spring period in a religious context is rooted in the history of our peoples rather than a thousand year old import from the Middle-East.
Throughout the first millennium after the birth of Christ, the religion of Christianity gradually expanded until it had claimed almost every European as a worshipper. Before this time, the peoples of Europe had their own belief systems native to their lands with their own Gods, customs and festivals. So, in order to make Christianity more acceptable to the native peoples of Northern Europe, much of the ‘pagan’ custom that they held was incorporated into their new religion. Christmas is a good example of this; the Germanic peoples of Europe celebrated yuletide with a feast toward the end of December, which is why Christmas was inserted at this stage of the calendar and many of the pagan customs carried through.
The festival of springtime that we’ve come to know as Easter is no different. The word is derived from the old Germanic words Ēostre (Old English), or Ostara (Old High German), names given in their respective languages to the Goddess of fertility. The month of April in the old Germanic calender was named Ēostre-mōnaþ in Old English, after the same Goddess.
However, it is not just the name that was adopted and carried forward masquerading as a Christian tradition. The other aspects of Easter that we have come to celebrate such as chocolate eggs and rabbits have nothing to do with Christianity at all, but rather they are symbolic items that can be attributed to the Goddess Ēostre. The rabbit symbolises fertility, whilst the egg is a symbol of the fertile purity of the Goddess herself – this perhaps explains the unanswered question as to what eggs and bunnies have to do with crucifixion and resurrection: very little indeed.
The celebrations of the deity of fertility were held on the day of the Spring Equinox, 20th March of each year, contrasting with Easter which is celebrated over a weekend at different periods around the same time each year. The Spring Equinox was also important to the Germanic peoples of Europe in that they used this day to celebrate the passing of winter and the dawn of the new spring – this is why the Goddess Ēostre is also sometimes associated with concepts like ‘rebirth’ and ‘the dawn of a new beginning’. This festival, like all Germanic religious celebrations, was marked with a great feast shared by families and communities.
This leads us nicely (and finally) onto the most important aspects of all of the Germanic festivals, namely those of family and kinship. The peoples of Northern Europe held these concepts at the very heart of all their spiritualistic customs, for their belief was not in a far away God in the clouds, but that they are the descendants of the Gods and Goddesses in which they believed. It is for this reason that they did not wish to pray to a God above them, but see divinity in their flesh and blood, their families and communities all around them.
Whilst all of Europe currently celebrates Easter as a Christian festival, it is important for more than simple historical context for us to recognise the origins and the meanings behind this seasonal celebration. In a time when Europe is falling apart around us, the traditions and history of our people that we can hold onto are our only hope in our quest for a better future.