Gods, bunnies and eggs

When you start to munch your way through a mountain of chocolate eggs on Easter Sunday will you stop to wonder what it's all about? Journalism under-graduate Tanya Coutts talked to fellow students and unearthed some fascinating facts.

Is Easter just another holiday; an excuse for time off work or college, perhaps? Fashion design student Deimante Jasiulevicuite, 19, said with a shrug:  "It used to mean something when I went to church, but now it's just a family time." Lee Jones, 18, who is studying engineering, looks forward to Easter because it's  "two weeks off college". He added:  "I don't believe in it, but I do know it's about the death of Christ. To me it's a time when there are great films on TV."

Easter, as we've been taught since we were young, is a Christian holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ three days after he was crucified at Golgotha. Each year we celebrate this with delicious chocolate eggs in varying flavours and sizes, fluffy little chicks and cute little bunnies, coloured eggs and hot cross buns. As well as putting on our best clothes and going to church to rejoice in Christ's return, which for some may even be the first time this year. This is true for Dennis Hatter, a pensioner from Thurrock, he said:  "We never usually go to church, but my wife wants to go this year. She says there's a special service for the children on Easter morning."

But not everything about this chocolate filled holiday is Christian. What do chocolate eggs and cute bunnies have to do with the resurrection of Christ? Well, they don't have anything to do with it. In fact they reflect the ways in which pagans used to welcome in the season of spring.

To start with, the name "Easter" comes from an Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, known as Eostre or Ostara, and it originally referred to the celebration of the spring sun. But just the name and a meaning doesn't show Easter's pagan roots. Philologists say that the word derives from "east" and refers to a metaphor for the resurrection  — the rising of the sun.

Those tasty eggs we eat also have their pagan origins. They are a symbol of fertility and rebirth and have been associated with the Spring Equinox since the earliest times. Ricky Payne, 41, a painter and decorator, was surprised to hear that even our beloved Easter bunny, who delivers all our eggs, has a pagan history. He said:  "It hasn't got anything to do with religion; it's more materialistic and is a fun thing introduced for the children." Well the Easter bunny actually came from the Anglo-Saxon goddess, from which the word Easter derives, who was worshipped through her earthly symbol  — a rabbit.

Gary Pizzey, an assistant at Tesco linked the Pagan and Christian ideas together when asked what Easter meant to him, he said:  "One tradition is that you crack open an egg and it means new life, symbolising when Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. But who knows if it's about religion. Who knows what is truth and what isn't. People do it for their own ends now, which usually means for money. There's a lot that we look at and it's just about fairytales and made up stories. Things get changed and evolve over the years."

How did this happen? How did clearly pagan ways of rejoicing spring become traditional Christian ways of celebrating a resurrection? The leaders of the church in fact did it intentionally. Instead of distracting people from their pagan beliefs and outlawing them, they wanted to attract them to Christianity. And what better way was there of doing this than cleverly coinciding the holidays? Hey presto, that way people could retain their pagan beliefs but celebrate in a more Christian way.

So on Easter Sunday, when you look at that mountain of eggs the bunny brought you, what will you be thinking? Will you be considering the Christian ways of celebrating the resurrection of Christ? Or will you be looking at a modern form of ancient pagan spring fertility rites? Whatever you choose these things are actually no more pagan today than the names of the days of the week or month. So munch away on the chocolate as much as you want and worry about only one thing  — your waistline.