Q. After hearing my kids getting so excited about their upcoming Easter egg hunt, I have to ask: What's the deal between Easter and eggs? -- Helen Purcell, of Maryville
A. The usual story is that early Christians incorporated many pagan customs so they could win over heathens and grow the fledgling church.
One of those customs involves the egg, which has been revered as a symbol of fertility and new life by cultures from Finland to Iran to Polynesia. It fits the Christian story perfectly: From the hard shell of the egg (tomb) will spring new life (resurrection).
So, it's little surprise that German mythologist Jacob Grimm -- yes, he of Brothers Grimm fame -- would give it a Teutonic twist. In 1835, he speculated that even the very name "Easter" had its origin in Eostre or Ostara, pagan goddess of dawn/spring/fertility.
"This Ostara, like the (Anglo-Saxon) Eastre, must in heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted that the Christian teachers tolerated the name and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries (Easter)."
Ever since, many have accepted the premise that, to lure new members, the early Christian church assimilated these pagan beliefs and all the customs surrounding them -- including Easter eggs -- to fit their teachings.
Trouble is, many experts say, this connection isn't eggs-actly all it's cracked up to be. As a religious historian, they say, Grimm weaves a darn good fairy tale. The Eostre-Easter link is tenuous at best; Easter probably comes from "alba," the Latin word for dawn. Instead, they point to a much harsher Lenten fast that worshipers once followed as the reason we revere the incredible, edible egg so much today.
If you think giving up pizza or chocolate for Lent is tough, you should have lived at the time of Italian priest Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s. He taught that during Lent followers of Christ should deny themselves all foods associated with animals -- and not just on Fridays, but every day during the season.
In his massive "Summa Theologica," Aquinas warns readers that eating any food from animals -- including milk, cheese and eggs -- can lead to sinfulness.
"From their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which, when abundant, becomes a great incentive to lust," he wrote. "Hence, the Church has bidden those who fast to abstain especially from these foods."
This is why, some historians speculate, we eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday: It was the last time people could use eggs and milk. By the time Easter rolled around, mouths undoubtedly were watering for animal products -- and the egg might have been the first and easiest fix on Easter morning.
"Because the use of eggs was forbidden during Lent, they were brought to the table on Easter Day, colored red to symbolize the Easter joy," according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Some continue to follow this strict fast, but most of us now can indulge in eggs at any time. Still, many think, this looking forward to the end of the fast egged on our continuing love for cackleberries at Easter.
Q. Many moons ago, I was told that when you place a mailbox in front of your home, it became the property of the U.S. Postal Service. Is this true? -- J.D., of Belleville
A. Depending on how you define "property," postal authorities might put a stamp of disapproval on your interpretation. Here's why:
The physical mailbox itself is your property. The Postal Service doesn't sell them and it certainly doesn't want yours. As long as they meet certain postal service guidelines, you could put up a different one for each day of the week and keep the rest stored in your basement.
But once you've installed it as your official mailbox, it can be used only by the Postal Service. Your paper carrier can't put the BND in it. Politicians shouldn't drop unmailed campaign literature in them. Dropping off a note or a rent check in a neighbor's mailbox is verboten as well.
"We're liable for mail from destination to destination, so as long as your mail is in our possession we're liable for and it doesn't leave our possession until we put it in the addressee's mailbox," a Belleville Post Office spokesman told me. "So it's basically part of our mail operation."
It's like the old "Outer Limits" show: You owned the TV but "they" controlled the content. You own the mailbox, but, for your security, the Postal Service controls its use.
Who wrote the line "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night, etc." which is so closely tied to the Postal Service?
Answer to Saturday's trivia: On Easter Sunday 1722, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen became the first known European to land on a strange island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. On it were hundreds of stone statues standing up to 33 feet high and weighing more than 80 tons that had been carved centuries before. To commemorate the occasion, he named it Paasch-Eyland -- Dutch for Easter Island, which is what we generally call it today.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or firstname.lastname@example.org or call 239-2465.