By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
Students who attend elementary and secondary schools at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) will be away from school for the four-day long Easter weekend of Friday April 17 (Good Friday) to Monday April 21 (Easter Monday). It is expected that for the entire weekend the temperature will be above freezing. The weekend will be a welcome break and a time for families and friends to spend time together socializing while recovering from the cold winter and celebrating the milder spring weather.
In the Guyana of my youth we enjoyed two weeks of Easter Holidays instead of March or Spring Break. Guyana does not have four seasons and the weather hardly changes between the two (rainy and dry) seasons. I recently checked and yes schools in Guyana will be enjoying two weeks of Easter Holidays so at least that tradition continues. Unlike Easter in Canada, there was no Easter Bunny nor were there any eggs, chocolate or otherwise, in the Guyanese Easter celebration. Although Easter is supposed to be a Christian holiday, the Easter bunny has no connection to Christianity. The word Easter is also pagan, supposedly from the pagan fertility goddess Ishtar (Babylonian) or Eastre (Anglo-Saxon).
There are actually several goddesses from various nations who are credited with lending their names to the Easter celebration as we know it in North America. Until I immigrated to Canada Easter was a time for people to attend church and Good Friday was the holiest day of the year when everything was closed. Imagine my surprise to find that in Canada Easter is a holiday that often involves a church service at sunrise, a feast which includes an “Easter Ham”, decorated eggs and stories about rabbits. I often wondered how Easter as I knew it transformed from commemorating the period when Jesus was crucified and arose from the dead to decorated eggs, chocolate eggs, rabbits and ham. My research led me to the goddesses Ishtar, Eastre, Eoestre, Oestre and Ostara. Or they might be the same goddess with different names.
Ishtar was the goddess of romance, procreation and war in ancient Babylon while a similar Saxon goddess was known as Oestre or Eastre and in Germany there was Ostara. Since these were fertility goddesses naturally there would be some eggs involved. Eoestre is also considered the origin of the word estrogen, the female hormone. Her symbol is a rabbit which has a connection to the modern-day Easter bunny. The pagans worshipped the goddess Eostre by serving tiny cakes, often decorated with a cross at their annual spring festival; maybe a forerunner of cross buns.
So, the history of Easter as we know it today seems to be a mix of the Christian faith and some related practices of the early pagan religions.
Easter, the most important of the Christian holidays, celebrates Christ’s resurrection from the dead following his death on Good Friday and a rebirth that is commemorated around the vernal equinox, historically a time of pagan celebration that coincides with the arrival of spring and symbolizes the arrival of light and the awakening of life around us.
The Easter of bunny rabbits and eggs is named for the Babylonian goddess Ishtar and/or the Saxon goddess also known by the names of Oestre or Eastre and in Germany by the name of Ostara. She was also a goddess of the dawn and the spring and words for dawn, the shining light arising from the east, are also derivatives of her name.
It is not surprising that Ostara was also a goddess of fertility. Signalling the end of winter after the vernal equinox with the days growing longer and brighter Ostara’s presence was credited for the flowering of plants and the birth of babies, both animal and human. The rabbit was supposedly the sacred animal of Ostara. Given their ability to produce up to 42 offspring each spring, it is not surprising that rabbits are a symbol of fertility.
Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny featured in the spring festivals of Ostara were also held during the feasts of the goddess Ishtar. In appreciation of Ostara’s gift of rejuvenated life, brightly coloured eggs, chicks and bunnies were all used during the spring festivals.
The history of Easter Eggs as a symbol of new life should come as no surprise. In ancient times in Northern Europe, eggs were a potent symbol of fertility and often used in rituals to guarantee a woman’s ability to bear children. Dyed eggs are given as gifts in many cultures. Decorated eggs were used as a wish for prosperity and abundance during the coming year.
“In anticipation that the arrival of spring with its emerging plants and wildlife would provide them with fresh food in abundance, it was customary for many pagans to begin fasting at the time of the vernal equinox, clearing the “poisons” (and excess weight) produced by the heavier winter meals that had been stored in their bodies over the winter.”
This practice of fasting is probably a forerunner of “giving up” foods during the Lenten season.
Christianity is Guyana’s dominant religion because of the country’s colonial history. The colonial European administrators made Christianity a prerequisite for social acceptance and in many cases education and employment. Enslaved Africans, stripped of their languages, names, cultures and religious practices, were forced to embrace the foreign beliefs of their enslavers. After several generations, this was all that many of them knew. The arrival of indentured labourers after the abolition of slavery, East Indians/South Asians from the Indian sub-continent (May 5, 1838) and Chinese (January 12, 1853) with their language, religion and culture intact did not lessen the British/Christian stranglehold on Guyanese culture.
The first group of Portuguese indentured labourers arrived in Guyana (May 3, 1835) with a Catholic celebration of Easter. For generations, embracing Christianity was the means of achieving an education in schools founded and run by missionaries so it is not surprising that Easter, a supposedly Christian celebration, has been embraced by Guyanese of every religious belief and race.
After the solemnity of Good Friday, the day on which the faithful believe Jesus was crucified and Easter Sunday, when those who could afford attended church in their best, new outfits, everyone looked forward to Easter Monday and kite flying.
Kite flying even though not a British activity was part of the Guyanese Easter ritual for people living on Guyana’s coastland. The seawall at Kitty, Georgetown and # 63 Beach on the Courentyne coast were two of the most famous places for kite flying in Guyana. Extended families with several generations (children, parents, grandparents, even great grandparents) would pack baskets of food and spend the day socializing with family, friends, neighbours and sometimes strangers as they flew their kites.
Happy Easter to all those celebrating/commemorating this holiday however you choose to do so!!