The origins of Easter

The arrival of spring has been celebrated since ancient times

easter witches

Photo: swedennewyork / Flickr
In Sweden, children, both boys and girls, still dress up as påskkärringar or witches the Thursday before Easter. According to legend, witches were the most active in the springtime, right around Easter.

ERIC STAVNEY
Mukilteo, Wash.

In Scandinavia, Easter is the time for religious observance, colored eggs, Easter bunnies, and in Sweden, kids dressing up as witches on Maundy Thursday. Witches? This is a clue that there’s more behind the word “Easter” than the celebration around the resurrection of Christ.

There are those who maintain that Easter is a pagan festival. This statement is probably more intended to bait Christians into a hot debate rather than engender a discussion about the origins of Easter. There are actually many things that humans have celebrated around Eastertime, some with roots in ancient celebrations.

stonehenge

Photo: Stonehenge News / Creative Commons
The ancient structure of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in England is believed to have portals or towers aligned with the sun’s position during the vernal equinox.

Springtime, specifically March 19–21, is the time of the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere, when the sun shines directly down upon the equator.  The length of daylight is equal to the length of night. 

In the Nordic countries, spring is the time when snow starts to recede, flowers like blåvise (liverleaf) start to bloom, leaves are bursting from their buds, and daylength is getting longer after the dark days of winter. Springtime is a time of rebirth, the resurgence of plants, the return of migratory birds, the increase in the wildlife population (yes, including rabbits), and food becomes more plentiful. Humans can finally start coming out of their homes without wearing heavy coats and mittens. 

We know the spring equinox has long been a special time to celebrate. Ancient structures, such as Stonehenge, appear to have portals or towers aligned with the sun’s position at the spring equinox. Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain in England was built over time starting around 3,100 B.C.

Ostara

Image: Johannes Gehrts / Wikimedia Commons
The Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre or Ostara was honored as the bringer of dawn and fertility.

The Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre or Ostara, honored as the bringer of dawn and fertility, is associated with springtime. That’s according to a monk named Bede, who lived in northern England (Northumbria) in A.D. 672.  While it’s possible Bede invented the goddess Eostre, Wilhem Grimm, the younger brother of the Brothers Grimm, insisted that she was indeed part of folklore.  He suggests that an old Norse word, Austra, may refer to the goddess.  At any rate, there is some evidence that the word Easter evolved from Eostre.

Another special day that occurs around springtime is Passover, when people of the Jewish faith celebrate the exodus of the Jews from Egyptian slavery.  The Hebrew word for Passover is Pesach or Pasah. The Nordic word for Easter, påske, is thought to have evolved from the word for Passover. 

In the period between 1600 and the early 1800s, the pagan practice of witchcraft attracted the attention of the Christian church and was condemned as being associated with the devil. The spring season was the time that witches were assumed to be the most active, greasing their broomsticks with an ointment that enabled them to ride them through the air.  Witches were persecuted, if not outright burned at the stake, the punishment for witchcraft according to Swedish law in the late 1600s.

Rabbit

Photo: Juni Rosann Engelien Johanssen
The Easter bunny came to Scandinavia from Germany. Like Santa Claus, he went around the community and judged whether children were naughty or nice. The white land rabbit is native to Norway.

After the dark days of the witch craze, which occurred outside of Sweden as well, the belief in magic and witchcraft faded, but dressing up as a påskekäring (Swedish for “Easter witch”) became a way to frighten people. This then became more of a joke, and then a tradition. Dressing up as a witch (both boys and girls) in springtime became associated with the Thursday before Easter. 

What about Easter eggs?  Easter eggs, also called Paschal eggs, are dyed bright colors and become the subject of egg rolling contests, egg hunts, and gifts.  Eggs are a traditional symbol of fertility and rebirth.  It’s thought that for early Christians, the egg was a symbol of the empty tomb of Jesus.  Some sources trace Easter eggs back to Ostara as a symbol of rebirth, and the hare her sacred companion. Originated among German Lutherans, the Easter bunny circulated the community and judged whether children were naught or nice (similar to Santa Claus).

So, we have many traditions surrounding Easter, which are practiced by Christians and non-Christians, both here and in Scandinavia. Whether it’s the Easter bunny delivering a basket of eggs, going to church, planting flower bulbs, or celebrating the lengthening days by the spring equinox—it’s all part of the human experience.

This article originally appeared in the March 26, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Eric Stavney

Eric Stavney is a graduate of the University of Washington Department of Scandinavian Studies and hosts the interviews and music podcast “Nordic on Tap” at NordicOnTap.podbean.com.

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