Easter is the Sunday following the first full moon after March 21. The fact that it is a movable date should suggest that it was an astronomical festival, and not one celebrating any human event. If some crucified Jew rose from the dead, he must have done so on a particular day, and the anniversary of that day should be regularly kept, But Christians have never fixed even the year when their man God is said to have crossed swords with Death and won. The ascription of the crucifixion to a Friday, the first day of the Passover, is incorrect, for, according to fixed rules of the Jewish calendar, the first day of Passover never can fall on a Friday, and to suppose that Jesus was crucified during the sacred festival is as absurd as to allege that some English criminal was hanged on a Sunday or Christmas Day!
The name Easter, from Eostre, the Saxon goddess of the East, standing for the dawn and spring, expresses its real meaning. The Saxon Oster means "to rise." The resurrection celebrated at this time is that of vegetation, the bursting of life from the underworld, the triumph of light, warmth, beauty, and promise of plenty over winter and scarcity.
The determination of Easter by the moon is a sign of its antiquity. Our hot-cross buns on Good Friday are really similar to the cakes which Jeremiah xliv. 19 speaks of as made for the queen of heaven. All the chief customs in connection with Easter show both its antiquity and its foundation in nature-worship rather than in Christianity.
Easter time brings in various games. Many of these, such as marbles, whipping tops, battledore and shuttlecock, are really portions of ancient magic. Ball-playing was an ancient rite, and formerly was practised both outside the church-walls and inside the church at Easter.
The custom of wearing new clothes, like the sports of Easter, is probably part of the Sympathetic Magic to which I have devoted a chapter in my Footsteps of the Past, in which, by the way, I have given fuller explanations of some Easter customs than is here possible. Few in the towns now take heed of the old admonition—
At Easter let your clothes be new,
Or else be sure you will it rue.
But in some parts of the country this is still an article of popular belief and practice.
Much has been written on Easter eggs. Early philosophy places the seat of life not in a cell, but in an egg. The virtue of the egg was supposed to go into the eater. In parts of Ireland still the custom prevails of the young men eating eggs on Easter day till they become well-nigh ill. In a more refined form we find the idea in tho blessing of the eggs in the Roman missal. In Germany the plough is driven over a loaf, and an egg buried in the field, in order to secure a fruitful harvest; and the ploughman will eat two new-laid eggs on the newly-ploughed field. Thus the virtue passes not only from the egg to the eater, but from the eater to his possessions. Or, again, a loaf and an Easter egg are put into the first sheaf to ensure an abundant crop in the new year. Another custom was once common to England, Scotland, and Germany, where the boys neither eat the eggs nor bury them, but simply roll them over the fields to enrich the seed corn beneath.
To this day it is the custom in Jerusalem for the priests to pretend that miraculous fire descends at the Holy Sepulchre at Easter, and their votaries assemble to obtain light from the holy fire. Similar customs are almost world-wide. The ancient Germans used to go to the priest on Holy Saturday, that he may strike new fire from a flint, whereat they lit their own. Bishop Boniface wrote to Rome to ask if they knew the custom there. Pope Zachary replied that they knew it not. But the Church, ever quick to see how pagan ceremonies might be transformed, took up the new fire, and embodied it in the Office for Holy Saturday. A similar ritual existed among the ancient Mexicans.
Brady, in his Claris Calendaria, says of the old custom of "lifting" at Easter: "The Resurrection on the third day was originally designed to be typified by this indecent usage; and we have much to lament that so abominable a violation of Christian purity and simplicity should have triumphed over such a considerable lapse of time." I rather suspect that this was a charm or an imitation of sacrifice. At any rate, it typified not the raising up of Jesus Christ, but the elevation of vegetative life from the underworld.
It is certain that this resurrection was in olden time enacted, typified in a mummery that probably was intended to bring it about. In my Footsteps of the Past I have sought to show that the custom of electing an Easter king, and that of watching the sepulchre, are remnants of this. Many of the analogies are brought out in that most suggestive book, The Golden, Bough, of Mr. J. G. Frazer. The subject is too vast to be considered within the limits of the present article; but I must allude to the notable fact that such an enacted resurrection takes place to this day in Jerusalem. A figure of a dead person is placed in a sepulchre on Good Friday, and brought out arrayed in gorgeous garments on Sunday. Such customs were once as wide as Christendom. In Belgium, says the Rev. T. E. Bridgett (Blunders and Forgeries, p. 168), there is still to be seen a crucifix used formerly in the ceremonial of Holy Week. On Good Friday the arms could be depressed, so that it could be laid, together with the blessed Sacrament, in the sepulchre until the sacred host was placed inside the breast of the figure behind a crystal. At the Resurrection the figure was gorgeously dressed and placed seated above a high altar, with one arm raised in benediction.
Wriothesley records in his Chronicle that on November 29, 1547, being the first Sunday of Advent, Dr. Barlow, Bishop of St. David's, preached at St. Paul's Cross against idolatry, where "he showed a painted figure of the resurrection of our Lord made with vices [devices, movable joints], which put out his legs of sepulchre, and blessed with his hand and turned his head." Small wonder if the ignorant took such "vices" for miracles, like the weeping and winking virgins still extant on the continent, as is supposed to have been the case with the Rood at Bexley, Kent. Naogeorgus refers to the custom in his Popish Kingdoms:—
An other image doe they get, like one but newly deade,
With legges stretcht out at length, and handes upon his body spreade:
And him with pomp and sacred song they beare unto his grave,
His bodie all being wrapt in lawne, and silks and sarcenet brave;
And lest in grave he shoulde remaine without some companie.
The singing bread is layde with him, for more idolatrie.
On Easter eve the fire all is quencht in every place,
And fresh again from out the flint is fetcht with solemn grace.
The priest doth halow this against great dangers many one,
A brande whereof doth every man with greedie minde take home.
The image and the breade from out the grave (a worthie sight)
They take, and Angels two they place in vesture white.
Another image of a conqueror they forth doe bring.
And on the altar place, and then, they lustily doe sing,
That gates of hell asunder burst and Satan overthrowne,
Christ from his grave is risen up and now alive is known.
Mr. Ernest Gardner, director of the British School of Archeaology at Athens, gives the following account of the Easter ceremonies at Thebes, in Boetia: "On Good Friday the sacred picture of the dead Christ was laid on a sort of bier or structure resembling a four-post bed. The picture itself, the four posts, and the overhanging canopy were covered with flowers and green leaves. Every person came up to the bier, kissed the sacred picture, and carried away a flower or leaf from it, with the intention of keeping it until the Easter of the following year." Here the meaning of the festival is as clear as daylight. The dead Christ represents the life of the world departed in winter, but raised again at the crossing of the sun over the vernal equinox.
Easter, born in archaic times, the outcome of simple delight at the return of vegetation and brighter days, has grown with humanity and gathered to itself memorials of many religions. The Queen of Feasts is long antecedent to Christianity, and may long survive it. We keep the old Pagan festivals with new meanings, but they are still links which join us in old-world communion with nature and with our kind.
What custom wills, in all things should we do it;
The dust on antique time would lie unswept,
And mountainous error be too highly heap'd
For truth to overpeer.
Yet much is to be said for the maintenance of old festivals that bind us at once to the fathers who have gone before and to the children who will follow after us.