In modern times, Easter is celebrated by Christians as the day Jesus Christ supposedly came back to life after having being crucified the previous Friday. However, like many holidays, the origins of Easter and many of the traditions associated with the holiday have their roots in ancient pagan and pantheistic rituals and celebrations. Indeed, because Easter is a springtime holiday and many cultures and traditions celebrate the arrival of spring, the modern celebration of Easter and the traditions associated with it are derived from many of the cultures and traditions from the Romans, Christians, European Pagans and Jews.
Most scholars agree that the word Easter is derived from the Scandinavian word Ostara and the Teutonic words Ostern or Eostre. Originally, pagan Europe celebrated what is now called Easter on the vernal (spring) equinox. The celebration was dedicated to the goddesses of fertility. Many of the traditions that we associate with Easter, like eggs and bunnies, clearly have nothing to do with the Christian holiday, but they were integral parts the pagan celebration. For example, rabbits were a symbol of fertility, for obvious reasons, to the ancient pagans. Eggs, also a symbol of fertility, were also originally painted by the ancient pagans to represent the colors and light of spring. These eggs were given as gifts, tokens of good luck and affection. The tradition of Easter Egg roles and hunts also began in these celebrations to the fertility goddesses.
The Ancient Romans celebrated many holidays throughout the spring. One of special interest as it relates to the modern celebration of Easter festivals was part of a nine day festival dedicated to the god Mars, the god of war. Specifically two rituals were clearly adopted by Christians who made the traditions part of their celebration of Easter. One of those traditions involves priests carrying palm trees down the street as a form of blessing. This day of the festival to Mars was known as the Festival of the Trees. It is the precursor to the modern Christian celebration of Palm Sunday, the Sunday that precedes Easter Sunday. The day now known as Good Friday originated from the rituals performed by the Romans on the last day of this festival. The Roman’s called this day the Day of Blood. On this day, people would break the fast that had been taking place for the previous nine days. People who worshipped the goddess Cybele would ritualistically beat themselves on this day. Some Christian sects still continue this practice of self-flagellation on Good Friday.
Finally, the Jewish celebration of Passover played an integral role in the development of the Christian incarnation of the Easter holiday. According to the Bible, Jesus was crucified by Roman soldiers just outside of Jerusalem acting under the orders of Pontius Pilate, a governor appointed by Rome to administer the area. According to the legend, the city was packed with people for the Passover Celebration. Through the course of events, the masses, previously supportive of Jesus, turned on him and demanded his death. The crucifixion had to take place on Friday because once Passover began, at sundown on Friday; no executions could take place until the end of the Passover festival.
Today, Easter is celebrated all over the world, mostly by Christian groups. The traditions vary depending on who is doing the celebrating. For example, in parts of Africa, Christian communities decorate their churches with cloth butterflies, flowers and trees. They also celebrate with a feast in which they eat meat, something that is only done on special occasions in most parts of Africa. In Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, Easter is celebrated by baking a special bread and painting eggs bright red. The people take the eggs and the bread to the church where the priest blesses them. An egg is cracked on the wall of the church and this is the first egg eaten after the fast that precedes the holiday.