I clearly remember a scene when my then two-year-old granddaughter participated in her first Easter egg hunt. We were invited to the home of a friend whose beautiful garden offered endless hiding opportunities for treats. My granddaughter had never been to such an event and was a little overwhelmed by the dozens of fellow-toddlers with parents in tow, all competing for the best treasures.
Every time she detected a colored egg, or a chocolate bunny, or whatever else the hostess had hidden behind grass bushels and tree trunks, she shrieked with delight. It was up to her father, my son, to collect all her findings and keep them safely stored in a hand basket given to him for the occasion. To ensure there was enough for everyone, he every so often put some of the growing bounty back in the grass only to be picked up by the child for a second time with undiminished joy. She had no idea she was having déjà vu experiences.
Only afterwards she asked me why she had gotten so many eggs. Because it's Easter, I said. On Easter people like to eat eggs. Oblivious to the historical roots of Easter egg hunting, I hoped she wouldn't want me to go into further detail. I was mistaken. She was at the age when everything had to have a specific reason for its existence. Why eggs? Why are they hidden in the grass? Who put them there? -- she demanded to know.
I didn't want to lie to my own grandchild, not in such important matters anyway, so I did some research. Here, in a nutshell, is what I found out. Mind you, this is the adult version.
Although Easter is a Christian holiday, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, many of its traditions predate Christianity. Even the name goes back to pre-Christian beliefs when early Saxons celebrated an annual feast in honor of the goddess Eostre on Equinox, around March 21. She was depicted holding a spring hare, symbolizing fertility and the return of life after the cold winter months -- perhaps a precursor of today's Easter bunny.
The Easter egg has similar pagan roots. Many cultures around the world have long regarded the egg as a symbol for life and fertility. Engraved and decorated ostrich eggs found in Africa date back thousands of years. The early Christian communities adopted the custom of painting eggs, usually in bright red, as a reminder that the blood of Jesus was shed on the cross for them. Over the following centuries, the evolving Christian church often made use of symbols, rituals and festivities of other traditions and incorporated them as its own.
Some of those had important practical implications. For instance, during lent (also a tradition shared among many cultures and religions), believers were required to abstain from most animal products, including dairy. Eating eggs on Easter then also signaled the end of the fasting period.
Our contemporary ways of celebrating the Easter holiday is also a hodgepodge of customs and practices. Easter egg hunts and egg rolling were brought here by European immigrants. The idea of hiding eggs for children to hunt after is similar to a component of Seder, the Jewish Passover ritual, where a piece of matza bread is hidden by the head of the household and searched for by other family members.
Obviously, my granddaughter would not have known what to make of all these complex explanations at the time. But what intrigued me in my research was that although many of these traditions have become more or less opaque over time, they still have not lost their appeal entirely.
For example, I was struck by how important the time of lent must have been for our forbearers who had to carve out a living off their land and by their hard labor. Unlike for us, for many of them it was not merely a voluntary act of self-deprivation but also a necessity when food supplies ran low. Easter then was the end of a worrisome time and the beginning of a new season when all life returned -- a resurrection, if you will. I'm sure, no matter what this holiday means to us now, we all can relate to that to some extent. Happy Easter.