View from the Pew
The incredible egg
The symbol of fertility and rebirth in many cultures was easy to adopt as an icon of Christian Easter
The telephone caller wanted someone to point out how religious holidays have gotten so secular and what a bad thing that is. She especially doesn't like egg hunts with prizes and perpetuation of the Easter Bunny myth even in church settings by costumed characters.
(Footnote: "Myth" was her word, not mine. I believe in the E.B., always have.)
The whole thing about colored eggs and chicks and bunnies refers back to paganism, she said. I would guess she doesn't like Christmas trees either, but she wasn't the kind of caller you'd want to keep on the line with more questions.
Well, she's absolutely right that there's evidence Christianity borrowed and adapted pagan customs and symbols. The word "Easter" has Germanic roots: Eostre was the name of the goddess of spring and referred to festivals celebrating spring and fertility and rebirth. The Venerable Bede, an eighth-century Christian scholar, expounded on the subject and is quoted widely in church bulletins during this season, not to mention on endless Internet sites.
(Footnote: Orthodox Christian churches that originated in the Mediterranean area, Middle East and Asia don't use the word. They refer to Easter as "Pascha," a Greek word based on the Hebrew "Pesach," meaning Passover. Some new Christian groups have substituted Resurrection Sunday to avoid the word.)
Why wouldn't those early Christians moving west into Europe seize on the joyous celebration of spring as a way to explain their new religion centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus? People who've lived in the deadly winter would get it, the absolute wondrousness of new life, new shoots sprouting out of gray earth, the miracle of rebirth. It's hard to grasp what a profound thing that is in this place, where green never dies.
No doubt the festival of fertility might have been celebrated in R-rated rituals or imagery. But chicks and bunnies are nice; even pagan parents might have selected them as the G-rated signs of the season, don't you think? And the egg, what could be more wholesome?
Descendants of those Northern European pagans, immigrants from Germany to Pennsylvania, brought the custom of honoring the Easter hare to the United States where it was embraced and spun to the extremes of consumerism that make this country great.
The art of decorating Easter eggs also comes from Eastern Europe, where it rose to an art form. Versions are being done in households all over the world today. In America, it's cups of prepackaged dye and wax pencils and stickers. In most egg hunts these days, hollow plastic replicas with little prizes inside have replaced real eggs.
But let's contemplate the egg. Is it a pagan thing? It was a symbol of the continuing cycle of life even in the sophisticated cultures of the Romans and Greeks.
Christian poetry likens the hard shell that encloses life-giving food to the stone tomb that held Jesus, the path to eternal life.
In the Jewish observance of Passover, the Seder meal contains food significant in the story of the Hebrews exodus from Egypt. A roast egg is on the ritual platter, usually with scorch marks. It is a symbol of the festival sacrifices Jews would offer to God in the Temple of Jerusalem before it was destroyed.
For thousands of kids tomorrow, the Easter egg will be a source of happiness on a joyous day.