To children, Easter means oversized bunnies bearing Easter Baskets full of goodies. To adults, it may be an excuse to wear their best Spring outfits and have a nice sit-down dinner with family and relations, or it may be a solemn religious celebration. In fact, the holiday known as Easter seems to have had religious significance for thousands of years across cultures from ancient Babylon to early modern England - but exactly what that significance was depended on the religion you happened to be following.
Most cultures in the northern hemisphere have had some type of celebration of the return of spring. In fact, the Persian New Year is celebrated on the date of the spring equinox, as was that of the ancient Romans. One theory is that the word "Easter" refers to the fertility goddess of the Babylonians, who was known as "Ishtar." However, there is no solid linguistic link to prove a connection, particularly since Ishtar was eventually identified with the Greek Aphrodite, goddess of female sexuality.
A more likely explanation associates Easter with the ancient Anglo-Saxon month of Eostremonat, corresponding roughly to modern late March and early April. While some link the festival to a Germanic goddess named Eostre, there is little historical evidence that a goddess by this name was ever worshipped. It is more likely that Eostre refers to the east and sunrise and was simply a celebration of spring and the beginning of the agricultural year. Rabbits - the most fecund of creatures - and eggs have long been symbols of fertility and a good harvest, so it is not surprising that these are associated with the holiday, and are still presented as Easter gifts.
The Christian holiday of Easter that celebrates the resurrection of Yeshua ben-Yosef, generally acknowledged as the founder of Christianty, is closely tied to the Jewish holiday of Passover, or "Pesach." In fact, the Last Supper was actually a seder - a special meal celebrating the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. As Christianity was spread by missionaries throughout pagan Europe in the early years of the Common Era, it absorbed many pagan traditions as it gained converts. Today, some Christian sects reject Easter because of its pagan overtones.
In the Roman Catholic church, Easter not only marks the resurrection, but also the end of a forty-day period of fasting and self-denial known as Lent, which begins the day after Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday." This celebration, also known in Latin America as "Carnival," is meant as a last chance to party and over-indulge before the observance of Lent. As a secular holiday however, Easter remains as popular as ever - especially with children receiving Easter gift baskets enjoying Easter egg hunts - an appropriate welcome of Spring.