Holidays are not all that simple. Many have religious roots that have been converted to secular events and secular events converted to religious ones. Springtide, or Easter seems to be one of the oldest rites celebrating the rebirth of the earth – or resurrection.
Ancient gods and goddesses were ritually honored during festivals at the spring equinox. It is commonly accepted that the word Easter probably comes from the name Ostara the goddess of a spring festival. There are many spellings depending on the culture involved, but the sound and the meaning are all similar. As the seasonal sun began to warm the land people knew it was time to beseech the gods for a successful planting of the crops. It was also an occasion to express gratitude for survival through the harsh winter months.
There are a multitude of symbols signifying Easter that predate Christ, and that have been grafted onto the tree of history from Hindu, Pagan, Hebrew and Christian beliefs. The current holiday is an amalgamation of these and many other religions, even though it is now recognized as a purely Christian event with the core symbol of a cross, representing life after death.
Festivals were not encouraged in early America because of the Puritans’ strict views on acceptable activities. However, after the Civil War ended Easter gained acceptance as a major church holiday in the United States. People were weary of war, death and gloom. The idea of celebrating a new beginning at Eastertide was beguiling, as was wearing dresses in spring colors augmented with decorated bonnets. During this era Easter was known as the “Sunday of Joy.”
At the first Easter parade – probably in New York in the 1870s – folks strutted in the streets to exhibit happiness and habiliments. In earlier times recently baptized people paraded in white robes for a full week to signify their reborn lives. Those previously baptized would parade with them at Easter wearing new clothes indicating that they were living their new lives.
White flowers, often lilies, were used to decorate altars and for gifts. The lily, a bulb originally from Japan, is probably the most recognized Easter flower. It symbolizes renewal, purity, peace, joy and spirituality and is said to look like the angel Gabriel’s horn. Purple is an official Easter color denoting pain, mourning and renewal, so pansies can be found on many Easter greetings including early postcards. In the lore of flowers a pansy conveys thoughts of love.
Other flowers in the spring Easter bouquet are often golden daffodils as a sign of the spring sun; daises, whose white petals indicate gentle innocence and purity; lily-of-the-valley with delicate white bell-shaped blooms ringing with sweet, simple images of the changing seasons; and lavender violets as tokens of faith.
Many decades after the Puritans, German immigrants brought their Easter traditions to American shores. Although pressured by some religious factions who deemed the rabbit a pagan image, they refused to give up the bunny as part of their holiday mystique.
A hare was originally a familiar to the goddess Eostre and in ancient religions was revered for his prolific tendencies. A rabbit foot in particular was supposed to be a source of sexual magic, thus carrying one for luck became popular. People watched and waited for the hare to pop out of his den, a metaphor for resurrection. Eventually the powerful hare evolved into the gentle white bunny making deliveries of eggs and chocolate to children all over the world.
The eggs the rabbit gives out are significant in all cultures as reminders of birth, continuity, immortality and fertility. During the Middle Ages, eggs could not be eaten during Lent. To preserve the valuable food source eggs were boiled. Elaborate egg art developed over the years. Eggs were colored and often decorated with intricate patterns. This art has been passed down particularly through Polish and Ukrainian communities.
As part of many celebrations, bells are rung, sometimes accompanied by fireworks. These denoted the beginning of the new season, a call to worship, and a force to scare off evil.
Along with bunnies and eggs, children and baby animals signify the basic Springtide traditions of new life and innocence. The lamb is designated the “lamb of God,” or as a fitting offering, and is supposed to be a totally innocent creature. Single images or combinations of them can be found on numerous vintage postcards.
Another custom for Eastertide is the baking of hot cross buns. The cross drizzled on each bun is might have been a symbol derived from the ox horns inscribed on cakes to honor the goddess Eastre. Today, the cross is a prevailing religious icon.
Postcards have been manufactured covering every aspect of Spring/Easter time and contain an amalgamation of new and old themes. The common aspects on each card are an attitude of hope, cheerful colors and optimism. There are multiple meanings for each symbol so everyone can pick the interpretation within their own comfort zone, thus spreading happiness to all. As one postcard verse reads: “The darkness will cease and Easter Day shall bring thee peace.”