This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for April 18, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
Just as European-American children will find chocolate Easter bunnies in their Easter nests this coming Sunday morning, Australian youngsters will find chocolate Easter “bilbies.” The bilby, now on the endangered species list, is not actually a rabbit or bunny, though it looks a little similar; but like the kangaroo, it’s a marsupial (baby is in a pouch on mother’s belly). In Mexico, children will enjoy chocolate bunnies, because of the European (Spanish) influence there, though some of their traditions were influenced by the Native American Mayas, Aztecs, Olmecs, etc.
No doubt because of the commercialization of Easter and other Christian holidays in the world today, there is a tendency to focus on the pagan side of Easter. The term “Easter” itself comes from “Oester,” the pagan Germanic goddess of Spring and Fertility, to whom the hare or rabbit and the snake egg are sacred. Most folks are not aware of that fact as they color and hide Easter eggs, or eat candy rabbits. Our Wendish tradition, similar to the Czech tradition, is to draw elaborate designs on boiled eggs with beeswax before dropping them in the dye. The Wends, in America, as well as in Europe, dye all the eggs red or orange-red to symbolize the blood of Christ; most Christian families in Greece do this, also, no doubt to Christianize a tradition with pagan origins.
My maternal grandparents, who followed the Wendish tradition of dying eggs a reddish-orange, symbolizing the blood of Christ, would, before dyeing, draw crosses and print “He is risen” (in German) on the eggs. I suppose they weren’t artistic enough to draw the elaborately complicated Wendish designs on each egg.
The Native American pagan gods of Mexico also have influenced Easter customs there, though very few folks have any idea of pre-Christian origins. For example, in Mexico City, an annual Xochimilco Festival is celebrated (originally in pagan times to honor Xochipilli, the goddess of flowers). Some towns used to choose a “goddess” of flowers as part of the celebration, similar to choosing a May Fest Queen in German towns. Out of the ancient festival of Xochimilco has grown the tradition of decorating with flowers at Easter.
Easter, which should be called “The Resurrection of Jesus,” is considered by Christians today as the most important Festival in the Church Year; however, in actual practice, I don’t think it has come close to matching the celebratory extent of Christmas in the United States. In Mexico, it comes closer to matching, or exceeding, the significance of Christmas. My point is not to argue the significance of Easter versus Christmas, but to oppose the trend of commercialization in both cases.
In the Czech Republic and in Slovakia, whip-cracking is an Easter custom, as strange as it may seem. In following this tradition, men and boys go around town with willow switches, decorated with colorful ribbons, trying to find women and girls to gently switch. The supposed purpose of the custom is to ensure the good health and beauty of women and girls, though, I would suspect the ladies might want to stay inside. This is obviously the remnants of a pagan festival. In Hungary, the ladies get splashed with water rather than switched. The Wends, who were the last of the Slavic tribes to be converted to Christianity, probably have more of these unusual vestiges of pre-Christian life than any of the other Slavs.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Christians today see the rabbits and bunnies and eggs of Easter fun for our youngsters as just that, — fun, — disassociating them from the meaning they had in ancient times of paganism, and I’ve certainly enjoyed sharing the Wendish fun of celebrating Easter with my children and grandchildren. But I try, as I know other Christians do, to focus on the real reason for the season: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor.