Festival of the Risen One ~
Traditionally the celebration of Easter falls on the Sunday following the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox.* This was derived by Christianity from pagan tradition when the festival of Oestara, or Eostre's Day, heralded the onset of springtime. Ostara, or Esther, the Goddess of Spring, was honored by the old tribespeople of Europe. She has been depicted as holding an egg in her hand while watching a rabbit jump playfully around her feet, and from this association we now have the Easter Bunny.
The springtime holiday now known as Easter was christianized and occurs during this time, as does the Jewish celebration of Passover. Indeed for thousands of years before the modern era, the vernal equinox has signaled the beginning of the season of rebirth, the resurrection of nature and of many an ancient pagan god. In the northern hemisphere we celebrate the end of winter and the return of spring ... a death and resurrection, so to speak.
One of the oldest resurrection myths is of Isis and Osiris in Egypt. They were goddess and god who ruled an ancient land in peace, until Set, brother of Osiris, murdered him out of jealousy. Set cut up Osiris's body and scattered it throughout the world. In her grief Isis collected all the pieces and, with the help of Anubis, lord of the underworld, Osiris was brought back to life. Isis and Osiris then begat Horus, the Sun god.
In the Pagan Wheel of the Year, the vernal equinox is the time when the great Mother Goddess, each cycle having again become a virgin at Candlemas, welcomes the young sun god unto her and conceives a child of this divine union. The child will be born nine months later, at Yule, the Winter Solstice.
Another story, Greek in origin, is the story of Aphrodite, known as Venus in Roman mythology. She fell in love with the beautiful youth Adonis, and hid him in a box so that no one else could see him. She gave the box to Persephone (Ceres to the Romans), the queen of the underworld, to hide. Persephone opened the box and fell in love with Adonis, and refused to return him to Aphrodite.
Aphrodite was devastated, and as she was the goddess of love and fertility, while she was in this state of mourning, all the land became barren. Zeus declared that Adonis would spend a third of the year with each goddess and a third of the year alone. For four months beginning at the spring equinox he is with Aphrodite, and the rest of the year with Persephone in the Underworld.
For Persephone was abducted by Hades and taken to the Underworld, and since she ate of the Pomegranate there she was not allowed to return, and grew to love Hades. Her mother Demeter was consumed with rage and sorrow. She demonstrated her anger by punishing the earths inhabitants with bitter cold and blustering winds. Unless Persephone was returned of to her mothers side, the earth would perish.
Hercules came to the rescue. He entered the Underworld and negotiated a compromise between the usually cold and selfish Hades and the usually loving and caring Demeter. All agreed that Persephone would to spend part of the year with her husband, Hades, and part of the year with her mother, Demeter.
When Persephone is with Hades the earth is wracked by the sorrow of her mother. But each year when Persephone returns from the Underworld to walk the earth again, Demeter pours forth the blessings of spring to welcome her beloved daughter home.
The vernal equinox is the day (or period of days) in spring when the days and nights are once again of approximately equal length. Throughout history this has been held as a time of celebrating new life, the resurrection of nature from the dead, and has typically featured fertility rites and merrymaking. In ancient times there was the sacrificing of virgins and the worship of fertility gods and goddesses including Pan, Isis, Demeter, and Ceres. The goat god Pan, representing the force of life, is god of the forest and of shepherds, was said to grant new life on earth every spring.
*Because the church calendar specifies March 21 as the date of the spring equinox, rather than the actual date the sun enters the sign Aries (which can range between March 19 and March 22), Easter's earliest occurrence is on March 22.