The most widely reverenced of all the gods among the German tribes was the goddess Ostara or Easter, the goddess of Spring. Neither her name nor any lay respecting her occurs in the Edda, which does not contain all the sagas of the gods, and where we see, from the fragments quoted in it, that hundreds of lays of gods and heroes are lost forever.
The country where the Edda was collected is a reason why no lay of the Spring-goddess has come down. In Iceland, a lonely island in the far north, two hundred leagues from Norway and fifty from Greenland, there is no spring. This island, surrounded by stormy, ice-covered seas, with its bare snow-mountains and immense glaciers, its volcanoes and fields of lava, with its almost total absence of vegetation, was no country for the worship of the Spring-goddess Easter, and for her yearly festival Easter-day.
This Easter festival was so widely kept among the Germans living to the south of Denmark, that the Christian church found it for her interests not to abolish this feast but to unite it with the highest Christian feast, the Paschal festival. The Christian Passover was transferred to the heathen Easter-feast, the second of the three great feasts of the old Germanic religion, and the Church among the newly-converted Germans called the Paschal feast the feast of Easter. Even in the calendar the name of April became Easter-month, because in this the Passover fell as well as the great feast of the Spring-goddess Easter.
This old heathen Easter festival proves how the religion of our ancestors, at the introduction of Christianity into Germany, not only received from, but gave to the Christian church; and how prudently the Church left uninjured the old heathen customs to which the heart of the whole people clung, and changed gradually the import of usages sacred to the people.
Easter Eggs, which still in both Catholic and Protestant countries are gifts interchanged by young and old at Easter, came from the heathen symbolism of our fathers. The custom of Easter eggs has come from the heathens to the Christians; and the deeper symbolism of the old religion exhibits itself clearly in a practice which now delights every childish heart.
The egg is the emblem of the germ, and our forefathers saw in it “a sign of the growth, of the gradual development and succession of things.” The feast of the goddess Easter fell at the time of the vernal equinox, when the sun reaches the equator and the vegetable kingdom awakes to new life.
Easter was the representative of the quickening spring-sun and the nourishing powers of nature. Her emblem, therefore, was first the egg, secondly the hare, the most prolific of the animal kingdom. Hence comes the “Easter-hare which lays the Easter eggs.” Hence is the Easter fire which is kindled on Easter-day on the heights as a symbol of the Bun.
The summer solstice was also kept as a feast, with great fires kindled by night; these fires—called by the Church St. John’s fires, after the conversion to Christianity—were emblems of the sun, the eye of Odin; and this heathen sacrifice of thanksgiving by bonfires continued through the whole middle age of Christendom. Even still in Upper Swabia and Bavaria, u St. John’s fires” are lighted, and it is a custom for the lads to leap over the dying embers.
Ostara or Easter was especially worshipped in Saxony, and names of places— Osterholz, Osterfeld, Osterode in North Germany, Ostergard, Osterholm in Scandinavia, Osterhaus in Brabant, Osterhof in Bavaria, Osternhohe in Franconia—point to the universality of her worship.
But as usual, the deeper meaning hidden in the poetic fictions, the spiritual import of the myth, did not descend to later generations, and was not transferred to the new religion, but only the external shell, the outward form, not the truth contained in the form of tradition. Especially is this the case with the inferior powers of nature when personified by heathen fancy . . . . .
Source: A popular history of Germany: from the earliest period to the present day, Johnson, 1878