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“In your easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it, You will be the grandest lady in the Easter parade, I’ll be all in clover and when they look you over, I’ll be the proudest fellow in the Easter parade. On the avenue, Fifth Avenue, the photographers will snap us, And you will find that you are in the rotogravure. Oh, I could write a sonnet about your Easter bonnet, And of the girl I am taking to the Easter parade.”

The above lines are from the famous song “Easter Parade’” from the famous 1948 movie starring Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. Much as I would love to dwell longer on sonnets about Easter bonnets and the grandest lady in the Easter parade, I have to move on. This piece is neither about the movie, nor about the cultural event of the Easter Parade in the United States, especially in New York. After all, this event – even though it attracted a million people in its popular years – started only in the 1870s.

Our story goes back a long, long way, perhaps to the pagan times. We are talking about the ‘parade’ of events and symbols associated with the most important Christian Festival – Easter.

Easter symbols include lamb, ham, eggs, special breads like hot cross buns, Easter biscuits, Simnel Cake, eggs, pretzels, Easter candy, new clothes, bunny rabbits and other small animals, butterflies, spring and Easter flowers like Easter Lilies, palm branches and candles.

Easter has to be the original ‘Moveable Feast’ as every year, the dates differ because these are related to the moon. Easter Sunday is the first one which follows the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

Easter is the most important Christian festival because it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, the foundation of the Christian faith. As per the gospels, after his crucifixion, Jesus was bodily raised from the dead on the third day. The Easter Season begins on the Ash Wednesday, when the 40-day Lent period starts. Lent is the period of fasting, repentance, and spiritual discipline. Easter Sunday marks the end of the Lent and the Easter Season.

Even though Easter is the most important Christian festival, where did it really come from?

“Spring is in the air! Flowers and bunnies decorate the home. Father helps the children paint beautiful designs on eggs dyed in various colours. These eggs, which will later be hidden and searched for, are placed in lovely, seasonal baskets. The wonderful aroma of hot cross buns mother is baking in the oven wafts through the house. Forty days of abstaining from special foods will finally end the next day. The whole family picks out their Sunday best to wear to the next morning’s sunrise worship to celebrate the saviour’s resurrection and the renewal of life. It will be a thrilling day. After all it is the most important religious festival of the year.”

Easter described in true detail?

No! This is a description of a Babylonian family – 2000 years BEFORE  Christ - honouring the resurrection of their god, Tammuz, who was brought back from the underworld by his mother/wife Ishtar, after whom the festival was named. Since Ishtar was mostly pronounced as “Easter,” could it be said that the event portrayed was the Easter Festival?

So, even given its importance accrued by its association with the greatest happening in the Christian faith, historians agree that its origins could be in pagan rites. Most of the Easter symbols too can also be associated more with pagan or non-religious reasons.

Let us take the matter of the lamb being a traditional favourite for the Easter Feast. The eating of lamb has both Christian as well as older reasons. The Christian reason is perhaps the fact that Jesus is also known as ‘the lamb of god.” The older reason goes back to the time when the people of Egypt suffered a series of terrible plagues, including the death of all first-born sons.  Jews painted their doorposts with sacrificed lamb’s blood so that God would “pass over” their homes while carrying out the punishment. Accustomed to eating roast lamb on Passover, Jews who converted to Christianity continued the tradition at Easter. The lamb symbolizes ‘sacrifice’.

The other traditionally favourite meat for the Easter Feast is ham, which symbolizes ‘luck’. The practical reasons for ham being favoured can be both practical as well as historical. The simple practical reason can be that the hogs were slaughtered in the fall and then left to be cured in the winter months to be tastefully ready for Easter. The other reason could be the size of the ham. One is enough for a family.

For the historical reason we have to go back again to Ishtar, and Noah – he of the ‘Ark’ fame. His   grandson Cush and his wife Semiramis had a son named Nimrod. After Cush died, Nimrod married his own mother and went on to become a mighty king. Eventually Nimrod was also killed. His mother/wife then started the process of deifying her son/husband. She claimed that Nimrod had become a “Sun-god “ (the origin of the Easter Sunrise services) and that he was to be called Baal. She also proclaimed that the people of Babylon should worship Baal who was said to be still with them in the form a flame. She was creating a new religion and also announced that she was a goddess named “Ishtar.”  She became pregnant and bore a son named Tammuz who she said was fathered by a sunray which had caused her to conceive. Tammuz grew up to be a hunter and he was later killed by a wild pig. Ishtar designated a forty day period to mark the anniversary of Tammuz’s death. During this period, no meat was to be eaten. Every year, on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, a celebration was to be held. Since a pig had killed Tammuz, a pig had to be eaten for this celebration. Sounds familiar?

Being symbolic of ‘life’, Bread too has Easter-importance. The tradition of eating special breads for Easter dates back to olden countries. Many European countries have their very own Easter breads. These breads have both social as well as well as religious associations. There also many kinds of Easter Biscuits. There is also the favoured-since-ancient-times Simnel Cake, a fruit cake with two layers of marzipan, one on top and one in the middle. Eleven or twelve marzipan balls are used to decorate the cake.

One can hardly think of Easter without hot cross buns – spiced, sweet buns, made with currants or raisins and marked with a cross on top. Even though it is accepted that they are much older, the first mention in print of the hot cross bun has to be that in the Poor Robin’s Almanack, published in London in 1733: “Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs, With one or two a penny hot cross buns.” The Old Woman and her wares were later immortalized in the nursery rhyme, “Hot Cross Buns”: “Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns! one a penny, two a penny. Hot cross buns. If you have no daughters, Give them to your sons, One a penny, two a penny, Hot cross buns.”  Over the years, many myths and legends grew around the hot cross nuns. These include: These buns, if baked on Good Friday, will not spoil and keep for a year. They are a good luck charm and ward off evil if hung in the house and should be taken on sea voyages to ensure good luck. That they have medicinal properties. A couple from Colchester in England are said to possess a hot cross bun which – having been baked in 1807 – is said to be over 200 years old! Personally, I think what goes very much in their favour is that they are very tasty. The supermarkets in Britain appear to agree with me as many kinds of hot cross buns are available throughout the year.

Easter icons are all religious or social symbols. Candles symbolize Jesus – “the light of the world.” Bonfires were used to frighten the evil spirits into releasing the sun. The Easter Bunny symbolizes the spring and new life. The Easter Eggs and chicks too symbolize new life. The Easter Lilies are symbols not only of new life and the resurrection of Jesus but also the purity of Jesus. The palm branches are a reminder of the people waving them to welcome Jesus when he arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The butterfly – through its life-cycle -  is an important symbol of the life of Jesus.

So, you can see that Easter is not only an important Christian festival, but also one of the most interesting of all festivals. So, I hope you enjoy next Easter with a breakfast of Ham, Eggs and Hot Cross Buns, followed by a feast featuring Roast Lamb and Simnel Cake. You may also like spend a little on some special Easter Candy – Peeps? Chocolate Bunny? Chocolate Egg? In 1016, the Americans spent an estimated 2.4 billion dollars on Easter Candy!