If you are looking for something to criticize, the secularization of Christian holidays is an easy target. How did the celebration of Christ’s birth turn into a season of tinsel and crowded shopping malls? How did the feast of St. Patrick turn into an excuse for excessive drinking (even if the beverage is green)? And how did the story of Jesus’ resurrection ever get linked to Peter Cottontail laying chocolate eggs? It seems a regrettable corruption of our Christian holidays that they have been so completely co-opted into the mass culture for the blatant purpose of consumerism. At the very least, it is undeniably strange that Christian holidays are so widely celebrated …. minus the Christian holiday.
Yet for many of us, we can be confused or critical on one level, and on another level enjoy the secular traditions that are associated with our Christian observances. In fact, although we may wonder at how the secular world can so boldly overtake the symbolism and meaning of holidays that are so obviously rooted in the Christian story, it is actually the Christians who were the first ‘holiday thieves.’ Easter, like many of our other celebrations, gained popularity and acceptance by taking over already-established pagan holidays. Eastre was the Anglo-Saxon pagan goddess of fertility, whose symbol was the rabbit.
Luckily, the celebration of fertility took place in the spring, around the same time that the death and resurrection of Jesus was commemorated in the infant church. As Christianity became the accepted and standard religion of the AngloSaxons, it was a natural fit for the two to morph into one celebration of Easter.
As for the egg, it too was an early pagan spring symbol used to celebrate the rebirth of the earth. But it also happened to work as a symbol of the resurrection – the shell a metaphor for the grave where life lies dormant within, and the hatching of new life an appropriate image for the risen Christ.
Whether or not eggs were originally also a symbol of the goddess Eastre’s fertile hare is hard to say. It seems easy to believe that as Christianity spread, the various symbols and traditions began to interplay and combine, to the point that an egg-laying bunny became associated with Jesus’ resurrection.