From goddesses and rabbits to theology and ‘Superstar’: 4 essential reads on Easter’s surprisingly complicated history



Lecturer in Religious Studies, The University of Texas at Austin

What’s Easter about? In some ways, the answer is pretty simple: Jesus Christ, and Christians’ belief that he rose from the dead.

In other ways, though, the springtime holiday is far from straightforward. How did rabbits get involved? Where did the name “Easter” come from – and why is the English word different from the way many other cultures refer to the holy day? Even theologically, exactly what the Resurrection means is not universally agreed upon.

Here are four articles that delve into Easter’s history, its significance – and what a rock ‘n’ roll Broadway show has to do with it.

1. Picking the date

First things first: Easter is what’s called a “movable feast,” a holiday whose exact date changes year to year. In the Northern Hemisphere it falls soon after the spring equinox, as the world comes back into bloom – a fitting time to celebrate rebirth.

But Easter’s dating “goes back to the complicated origins of this holiday and how it has evolved over the centuries,” wrote Brent Landau, a religious studies scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. Similar to Christmas and Halloween celebrations today, Easter blends together elements from Christian and non-Christian traditions.

An older photo of a church full of worshippers, most of the women in fancy hats.
Fantastic hats: One more Easter tradition. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The name “Easter” itself seems linked to a pre-Christian goddess named Eostre in what is now England; she was celebrated in springtime. And in fact, in most languages, the word for the holiday is related to Passover, since the Gospels say Jesus traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish festival in the days leading up to his crucifixion.

But “celebrating” Easter, per se, wasn’t always in fashion with Christians. For the Puritans, Landau explained, these holidays were regarded as too tainted by merrymaking and un-Christian influences. As 19th-century American culture embraced the idea of childhood as a special time in life, though – not just preparation for adulthood – both Christmas and Easter became popular occasions to spend time with family.

Read more: Why Easter is called Easter, and other little-known facts about the holiday

2. Holy hares

The Easter bunny’s bio starts long before the 1800s, though. Rabbits’ and hares’ famous fertility has made them symbols of rebirth for thousands of years. Some were ritually buried alongside people during the Neolithic age, for example.

Of course, that fecundity also makes them symbols of sex, as anyone who’s seen the Playboy logo is aware. “In the Classical Greek tradition, hares were sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of love,” explained folklorist Tok Thompson, a professor at USC Dornsife. The goddess’s son Eros was also depicted carrying a hare “as a symbol of unquenchable desire,” and even the Virgin Mary is often painted with a rabbit, to symbolize how she overcame desire.

A painting depicting a young woman handing baby Jesus to Virgin Mary, who puts one hand around him, while holding a hare with the other.
‘The Madonna of the Rabbit,’ a painting from 1530, depicting the Virgin Mary with a rabbit. A painting by artist Titian (1490-1576), Louvre Museum, Paris.

Modern-day Easter bunny traditions stem from folk traditions in Germany and England, and there is evidence that the goddess Eostre’s symbol was the hare as well.

Read more: Sacred hares, banished winter witches and pagan worship – the roots of Easter Bunny traditions are ancient

3. Victory over death

Holy Week, the series of events in Christian churches that lead up to Easter, traces Jesus’ final days before death and resurrection, including Palm Sunday and the Last Supper. Easter Sunday itself is the climax of the story: his triumph over death.

“As a Baptist minister and theologian myself, I believe it is important to understand how Christians more generally, and Baptists in particular, hold differing views on the meaning of the resurrection,” wrote Jason Oliver Evans, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia.

A blue and gold painting showing Jesus with a large halo around his head and one woman on each side.
‘The Resurrection’ by Mikhail Alexandrovich Vrubel, 1887. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Hulton Fine Art Collection via Getty Images

Over the centuries, Evans wrote, Christians have had “passionate debates over this central doctrine of Christian faith” and what it means for Jesus’ followers – such as whether his body was literally raised from the dead.

Read more: Christians hold many views on Jesus’ resurrection – a theologian explains the differing views among Baptists

4. Superstar

There are many ways to share the story of Holy Week – and one of the most controversial ones debuted on Broadway in 1971.

Jesus Christ Superstar,” the rock musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, struck some Christians as blasphemous with its modern-day telling of the Passion and “Jesus is cool” ethos. Then there’s the show’s ending, which cuts off after the crucifixion – cutting out the Resurrection, and its theological message, entirely.

A man playing Jesus in a play in front of a cross.
The musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ has always had ardent fans and fierce critics. Blick/RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Half a century later, though, “Superstar” raises fewer eyebrows – a reflection of changes in U.S. culture and Christianity, wrote Henry Bial, a theater professor at the University of Kansas. Maybe that shouldn’t be such a shock: As he pointed out, theater and drama have always been entwined with Bible stories.

Read more: Best Easter pageant ever? Half a century of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.


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