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5 common Easter questions answered

By J. Scott Wilson, Contributing writer
Published On: Apr 02 2012 12:21:21 AM CDT
Updated On: Apr 04 2012 01:00:00 AM CDT
Easter bunny, eggs, basket

iStock / kzenon

Easter, one of the biggest holidays on the Christian calendar, is almost upon us. While most of us know the rituals of coloring and hiding eggs, filling baskets with treats and watching otherwise reasonable adults strap on bunny ears and act strangely, there are fascinating facts behind the holiday that you might not know.

Why do we have a rabbit delivering chicken eggs? Why is the holiday on a different day every year? Inquiring minds want to know!

Sit down to Easter dinner this year with the family and prepare to silence Uncle Morty's 40th retelling of his story about the year he accidentally dyed a live grenade and blew up the kids' chocolate supply with your knowledge of these five little-known facts about the holiday.

We'll start off with that shifting date ...

Calendar pages

No. 5: When exactly is Easter?

A common misconception is that Easter falls each year on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox (the beginning of spring for you non-meteorological types).

This is almost true. It actually follows the Paschal full moon, which is determined by historical tables dating back centuries and may or may not bear any relation to what the moon we see at night is doing.

The Jewish feast of Passover also plays a role in determining the date.

There are all manner of theories about this being an attempt to steal the thunder from pagan fertility rites and such, but we're going to make the editorial decision not to set off a neverending argument by opening that discussion. We've been on the Internet long enough to know what fun that can be.

Now, about those eggs ...

Eggs

No. 4: Why eggs?

Easter is a hybridized holiday, combining strong elements of Christian tradition with the sort of pagan fertility rites that would make Sister Mary Katherine blush and quickly change the subject.

There's really no more elemental symbol of fertility than the egg. It is the beginning of life in a convenient, portable package.

Also, eggs were one of the foods that observant Christians avoided during Lent, the 40-day period prior to Easter when fasting and denying oneself earthly pleasures is expected. Thus, sharing and eating eggs on Easter was part of the festival.

We're still not sure what early societies did with the eggs laid during Lent, what with having no refrigerators and all ...

Easter eggs, dyed eggs, colored easter eggs

No. 3: But why paint them?

One of the most popular explanations for why we paint Easter eggs ties into the pagan celebration of Ostara, the first day of spring, which predates Easter by quite some time. However, like most explanations of traditions, there are many versions of it as well as dozens of others citing both Christian and non-Christian sources.

What it boils down to (pun intended) is that this is a celebration, and decorating things, be they houses, trees or eggs, is a human response to a celebratory atmosphere. We like putting bright colors on things and making them shiny, so we do it.

We may have high technology, but deep inside we're still the monkeys looking for the shiniest pebbles in the stream.

And now, a hare-brained issue ...

Easter bunny, eggs, candy

No. 2: Why a bunny?

Quick! What's the thing bunnies are known for more than anything else?

If you said, "Making more bunnies," give yourself an extra chocolate egg. Rabbits have been symbols of fertility for millennia, and so having them included in a spring festival, when the earth is coming back to life and things are starting to grow makes perfect sense.

Having the Easter bunny hop through and deliver the eggs just stacked symbol on top of symbol, which if you'll look at Christmas you'll see is something that happens with a fair amount of frequency.

From a marketing standpoint, it's also a lot easier to sell cute Easter items emblazoned with a cuddly bunny rather than a homely chicken, but that's a far more modern reason for the lop's longevity.

And, finally, ever wonder why we eat what we eat at Easter dinner?

ham

No. 1: How did ham become traditional Easter meal?

We can safely say the Easter ham doesn't have a Passover connection, for obvious reasons.

It's more likely that this comes from Europe, where the hams laid in to smoke and cure from the fall were just reaching their perfection and everyone was looking for a good excuse to crack open the smokehouses and have at them.

Like so many of our traditions, things like Easter ham come down to far more practical than mystical considerations. Like pumpkins at Halloween, we're making symbols out of what was readily available.

Lamb is another popular Easter choice, and is in fact far more likely to have been eaten at the Last Supper based on historical evidence.

Just to be safe, we'll probably cook both this year.