With Easter around the corner, I wanted to dive into some fiction… not fan fiction or one of my novels, but the origins of the fictional characters related to holidays.
I grew up, and still believe, Easter should be celebrated as the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, but many don’t and as a curious person I wanted to know where the other origins came from.
Easter Sunday – Easter Bunny
The Easter Bunny seems to have been started in Germany, during the 17th century in reference to the Germanic goddess named Ēostre. Before Christianity, the time of Easter was a celebration of Spring. The goddess was associated with new growth, fertility, and dawn. There were feasts in celebration of her until Christians started using this time to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ.
In 1835, Jakob Grimm (yes, one of the Grimm Brothers authors famous for fairy tales), wrote a tale about sacred animal of Ostara or Ēostre. A hare was the goddess’ companion of choice who carried eggs to children. Why eggs? Eggs, of course, being a symbol of new beginning and fertility as well.
So, why do we paint or dye hard boiled eggs and hide them? One origin comes from the Orthodox churches giving up eggs for Lent. In order to keep them from being wasted, they were boiled or roasted and hiding them away until it was time to finally eat them. They were painted or dyed red to symbolize the blood of Christ.
St. Patrick’s Day – Leprechauns
What is St. Patrick’s Day without the image of a little man with a fluffy red beard, dressed in green? Leprechaun’s typically didn’t have anything to do with St. Patrick or his rid of snakes from Ireland which evoked St. Patrick’s Day in the first place, but because those little impish fairies are from Celtic lore and ancient Ireland, the line between St. Patrick’s Day and Leprechaun’s faded.
The word leprechaun comes from the 8th century Celtic word Lú Chorpain or luchorpán meaning little body. It was further corrupted to the word lubrican in 1604, where it was first written into an English play entitled The Honest Whore by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker. The line from the play states: “as for your Irish lubrican, that spirit who by preposterous charms thy lust hath raised in a wrong circle.”
Leprechauns are thought to have been one of the many types of inhabitants in the fairy forts or fairy rings in ancient Ireland. The merry tricksters may have been a modern incarnation of the Euro-Celtic god Lugh (pronounced as Luck), the god of patron arts and crafts.
Valentine’s Day – Cupid
Cupid – the winged baby who carries a golden bow and arrow and shoots unsuspecting people in need of love – is from Roman mythology. Cupid is the son of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. He is known as the god of affection and those arrows of his are magical, golden tipped arrows that have the ability to pierce the hearts of individuals who he deems ready to fall in love. In the original lore, Cupid actually has two types of arrows, the sharp ones to “inject” love, and a blunt tipped one to make two people fall out of love.
But how did Cupid become associated with the lovey-dovey holiday? Well, Saint Valentine was a Roman priest who performed weddings for soldiers forbidden to marry thanks to a Roman edict decreeing married soldiers did not make good warriors. Priest Valentine wore a ring with a Cupid on it as a symbol of love so soldiers recognize him. And, in a precursor to greeting cards, he handed out paper hearts to remind Christians of their love for God.
Christmas – Santa Claus and his reindeer
Bring on the big guy. Of course, many of us know Santa Claus stems to a monk named St. Nicholas all the way back to 280 A.D. St. Nick was originally from modern-day Turkey and known for his kindness, as he had given away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. One of his best known stories of giving was how he saved three destitute sisters from being sold into slavery/prostitution by their father by giving the girls enough of a dowry so they could be married instead. As his popularity spread there were feasts giving in his honor on the anniversary of his death, December 6th.
How did St. Nick’s name turn into Santa Claus though? Well, fast forward to the 18th century in New York. A newspaper reported there were a group of Dutch families who gathered to celebrated the December 6th anniversary of St. Nicholas’ death, but they, of course, used the name Sinter Klaas which is Dutch for Saint Nicholas. In 1804 a man from the New York Historical Society named, John Pintard, distributed woodcuts of Sinter Klaas or Santa Claus (now Americanized) wearing a blue three-corned hat, red waistcoat, and yellow stockings, and included Santa filling stockings with toys and fruit hanging over a fireplace. It wasn’t until 1822 with the publication of The Night Before Christmas, by Clement Clarke Moore (though written by Henry Livingston – a huge story for another day), where Santa is known as the jolly old elf, both rosy and rotund, became the image of the Santa Claus we know today.
And how does Santa Claus get around? By reindeer, of course! In 1812, American author, Washington Irving referred to Santa Claus as “riding over the tops of trees in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children,” but he never mentioned what propelled that wagon. It wasn’t until 1821, with the publication of a sixteen-page booklet entitled, A New Year’s Present to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III” The Children’s Friend (phew, long title!) by an anonymous author, printed by William Gilley, did it mention reindeer: Old Santeclaus with much delight, His reindeer drives this frosty night, O’er chimney tops, and tracks of snow, To bring his yearly gifts to you.
In 1822, Mr. Gilley was questioned by New York’s Troy Sentinel about why reindeer, and his response was: “Dear Sir, the idea of Santeclaus was not mine, nor was the idea of a reindeer. The author of the tale but submitted the piece with little added information. However, it should be noted that he did mention the reindeer in subsequent correspondence. He stated that far in the north near the Arctic lands, a series of animals exist. These Hoover and antlered animals resemble the reindeer and are both feared and honored by those around.”
An Honorable Mention – Not Associated with a Holiday
The Tooth Fairy
Like most of the mascots mentioned, the origins of the tooth fairy come from some ancient folklore. The tooth fairy is no different. Early Norse and European traditions practiced that when a child lost a baby tooth, it was buried to spare the child from hardships in the next life. The idea of using these teeth for payment stemmed from Vikings using a tand-fe or a tooth fee before leaving for battle. Baby teeth and other items from their children were said to bring them good luck.
The more general tradition of a good fairy coming for children’s teeth was created out of fairy tales and popular literature as the centuries went on. The most popular version of a ‘tooth deity’ is the image of a mouse, who would enter children’s rooms and remove baby teeth. These traditions are more often seen in Russia, Spain and many Asian countries like China. More recently, when the 6th tooth fell out, the child was rewarded with a gift in many northern European countries. The reason for the mouse being synonymous with so many culture’s tooth fairy tradition is the fact that rodents continue to grow their teeth their entire lives. Anthropologists consider a type of ‘sympathetic magic’ a way for believers to transfer good luck or traits to the child who lost the tooth.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I learned a thing or two researching this article today. I hope it was as interesting to me as it was to you. I hope you have a lovely Easter weekend whether it be celebrating the resurrection of Christ, the joy of the vernal equinox, or just a beautiful Sunday with your family.