Yesterday morning in Sunday School, someone asked the origin of the word Easter. I have read that it is the Teutonic goddess of dawn, Eostare, or the Norse/Saxon goddess of spring, Ostara. Or maybe it was the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, the Phoenician goddess Astarte, or the Canaanite goddess Ashtoreth.
The only name I could remember at the moment was Astarte, but I did point out that it was a pagan goddess. Also that I just read a couple of days ago that English is one of the very few languages that calls the holiday by a name derived from a fertility goddess. Most European languages use a name derived from the Hebrew or Latin word for Passover.
And that led to a brief discussion of whether it is appropriate for Christians to include Easter eggs — or bunnies — in their holiday celebrations. (Or, similarly, to have Christmas trees at Christmas.) We didn’t try to resolve the issue, just to share experiences and impressions, before going on to the lesson for the day, on the resurrection of Jesus.
I’ve always heard that Easter eggs have pagan origins, but I went online to see if I could find out more. To my surprise, while most websites mentioned the pagan origins, some pointed out that there is actually no clear evidence that this is the case. I have read what I find fairly convincing evidence that the origins of modern Halloween activities do not have the kind of pagan origins often attributed to them by some Christians. Could the same be true of Easter eggs?
I find that harder to believe. The egg is so clearly tied to new life, in biology as well as literature, that it would be surprising if cultures around the world did not use it as a symbol of new life. I also found this web page, in which a scholar of ancient languages and civilizations defends his assertion that the egg was in fact used as a religious symbol.
Regardless of the true origins of Easter eggs, it’s clear that they did not come from any Scriptural accounts of the events celebrated at Easter. They belong to the whole idea of springtime/new life, so it’s easy to see why they got included in springtime celebrate of Jesus rising from death to life. The question, for Christians, is whether their inclusion adds to or detracts from a celebration of the Resurrection.
If the custom of Easter eggs didn’t exist, I’m sure I would feel no need to add it. The butterfly has also long been used as a symbol of resurrection (it was especially loved by my mother-in-law, who had a large collection of butterfly jewelry, magnets, etc. for that reason), and unlike the egg it includes the symbolism of the death that precedes resurrection.
But the fact is that Easter eggs are a well-established part of our culture. Hard-boiled eggs dyed various colors, plastic eggs filled with candy or toys, foil-covered chocolate eggs, other egg-shaped candies such as jelly beans and robin eggs (my favorite are the ones that are malted milk balls, not just chocolate under the candy coating) – and of course Easter egg hunts to search for all of these.
So whether we do Easter eggs or not, the mere fact of doing or not doing them carries some kind of message – probably multiple messages. And unless we go out of our way to explain our reasons, some people will assume things that have nothing to do with our real motivations.
One woman in yesterday’s Sunday School class said that they never had a Christmas tree when she was young. She never thought much about it at the time, and looking back now she has no idea whether it was because her parents thought Christmas trees were wrong, because they couldn’t afford one, or because none were readily available in the area where they lived (either commercially or growing wild). But I know some people will assume that a lack of visible Christmas decorations says something about one’s religious beliefs.
I could choose not to do Easter eggs because
- they probably have pagan origins
- they are part of the increasing commercialization of a once strictly religious holiday
- they cost money that could better be spent elsewhere
- especially with younger children, they can distract from the real meaning of Easter
And unless I tell you, you’d just be guessing which my real motivation was.
On the other hand, I can choose to do Easter eggs because
- they’re fun to decorate
- they’re fun to hide/look for
- I like hard-boiled eggs and they’re a healthy snack (compared to most Easter treats)
- I like chocolate and malted milk balls and jelly beans and all that other unhealthy stuff
- they provide an opening to talk about new life
- the plastic ones can hide small symbols to use for telling the Easter story
But someone observing me could think I just don’t care that I’m contributing to the commercialization of Easter and to syncretism (mixing elements of different religions).
There are all sorts of other elements of culture that provoke similar kinds of questions. Music is one of the most controversial, at least among some Christian traditions. There are those who believe that certain musical styles are inherently evil, while others see musical style as amoral (neither good nor bad in itself).
Clothing is another big one. Even aside from questions of modesty and whether it’s acceptable for males and females to wear similar kinds of garments, there are styles or items of clothing that are closely associated with some particular lifestyle, product, or attitude.
I used to dislike all those T-shirts that imitate some well-known pop culture image but alter it slightly and turn it into a Christian message. Then I saw one that, at first glance, seems to say “Lord of the Rings” in the style used by the movies based on the trilogy. Looking closer, you see that it says “Lord of All Things” and has a Bible verse, 1 Cor. 8:16. I bought the shirt, and I enjoy wearing it. (About half the people who comment on it think it refers to the movies, and I point out the “all things.”)
I’m sure there’s no easy answer to how to determine which aspects of culture can help convey the Christian message effectively and which detract from it. A lot has to do with one’s own background and experiences. For instance, I know someone who, at an earlier time in her life, was involved in Wicca. Because of her background, she will have nothing to do with Halloween celebrations, Harry Potter books and movies, or anything else that uses ideas or images from the occult.
To me, having my son dress up as a Viking or jester for Halloween, wearing a shirt depicting a dragon, and having computer games that use settings such as a haunted house and characters such as wizards, are all ways to use creativity and imagination and have fun. To her, they are gateways to dangerous encounters with evil supernatural forces.
I’m not going to stop doing Halloween or get rid of my T-shirts, books, movies, or computer games. But I wouldn’t take my son trick-or-treating to her house, wear my dragon shirt when visiting her, or suggest she or her daughters read Harry Potter or watch the movies.
I don’t know anyone who would have similar problems with Easter eggs (unless maybe she does – I never asked). If I did, I would certainly restrict my Easter-egg-related activities accordingly (e.g. not invite the children to an Easter egg hunt). But I don’t think we need to let the possibility of such a person having a problem with those activities keep us from doing them at all.
I actually didn’t think we were going to dye any eggs this year, not due to any scruples but just because Al hadn’t asked about doing it. I hadn’t even bought any extra eggs, and after cooking six for breakfast yesterday and needing one to make corn casserole for Easter dinner, that left two in the box. But yesterday morning he asked, and it occurred to me that with my egg cooker, it really didn’t matter how few eggs I cooked (I used to try to fill a pan to boil eggs, but now I just adjust the amount of water depending on how many eggs are to be cooked).
Plus, I had an egg-coloring kit (purchased on clearance after Easter two years ago) that didn’t require dissolving pellets of die in cups of water. (I was taught very young not to waste, and it’s always uncomfortable for me to prepare cups of egg dye that would easily dye dozens of eggs, then only dye one or two eggs in each cup.)
Besides, Al kept asking to make “tie-dyed eggs.” The image of trying to tie a string around an egg to die it just struck some kind of funny bone with me. Each time he’d realize that wasn’t what he meant to say, but it kept coming out that way. (We did a lot of laughing yesterday, between his tie-dyed eggs and a lot of other stuff.) And this particular kit made a way to color the eggs that reminds me a bit of tie-dyed, with the different colors mixed together and some un-dyed white shell still visible.
What the device reminded me of when I saw it in the store is spin art. I always wanted to do spin art as a child, but on those rare occasions when there was a spin art booth around (and I don’t even remember where there would have been, as I don’t remember going to county or state fairs as a child), it was always too expensive and/or there was too long a line.
Now that inexpensive spin art devices are available for home use (though I understand the quality of the devices is sometimes questionable), I would love to have “craftsy” kids who took an interest in such things (which would justify the purchase and let me have fun with it myself). But my boys have never been into arts and crafts. However, getting a spin device for coloring Easter eggs – especially at half price – now that was a perfect opportunity.