Most people who celebrate Easter are blissfully ignorant of the ancient pagan origins of the holiday, the symbols associated with it, or the central theme of death and rebirth.
Allow me to educate you via the following information from the fine folks over at ReligiousTolerance.org.
I have rearranged some of the information for clarity and continuity and to allow for the inclusion of graphics of my own choosing. But the information itself can be viewed in it's original form, annotated with footnotes and references at their site.
SPRING CELEBRATIONS BY VARIOUS FAITHS - ANCIENT AND MODERN
ANCIENT GREEKS: The god-man Dionysos was a major deity among the ancient Greeks. As a god of the spring rites, of the flowering plants and fruitful vines, Dionysos was said to be in terrible pain during winter, when most living things sicken and die, or hibernate. Persephone, a daughter of Demeter, descended into the Otherworld and returned near the time of the spring equinox. This story has close parallels to various Goddess legends, stories of the life of King Arthur, and of Jesus Christ.
ANCIENT PERSIA; ZOROASTRIANISM: Various ancient civilizations (Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Babylonia, Elam) circa 3000 to 2000 BCE celebrated new years at the time of the spring equinox. "No Ruz," the new day or New Year has been celebrated in the area of modern-day Iran since the Achaemenian (Hakhamaneshi) period over 2500 years ago. It survived because of Zoroastrianism which was the religion of Ancient Persia before the advent of Islam 1400 years ago. Many religious historians trace the Judeo-Christian concepts of Hell, Heaven, Resurrection, the arrival of the Messiah, and the last judgment to Zoroastrianism. In that faith, the Lord of Wisdom created all that was good and became God. The Hostile Spirit, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), residing in the eternal darkness created all that was bad and became the Hostile Spirit. This dualistic God/Satan concept is surprisingly close to the views of conservative Christianity today.
ANCIENT ROMANS: In about 200 B.C., mystery cults began to appear in Rome just as they had earlier in Greece. Most notable was the Cybele cult centered on Vatican hill ...Associated with the Cybele cult was that of her lover, Attis (the older Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, or Orpheus under a new name)...The festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday and culminated after three days in a day of rejoicing over the resurrection. Attis was born of a human woman, a virgin named Nana. He grew up to become a sacrificial victim and Savior, slain to bring salvation to mankind. His body was eaten by his worshipers in the form of bread...[He was] crucified on a pine tree, whence his holy blood poured down to redeem the earth. The celebration was held on MAR-25, 9 months before his birth on DEC-25. In Rome, the rituals took place where St. Peter's now stands in Vatican City. The similarities between the stories of Attis and Jesus are obvious.
ANCIENT SAXONS: Eostre was the Saxon version of the Germanic lunar goddess Ostara (whose name is probably yet another variant of Ishtar, Astare and Aset."). She gave her name to the Christian Easter and to the female hormone estrogen. Her feast day was held on the full moon following the vernal equinox -- almost the identical calculation as for the Christian Easter in the west. One delightful legend associated with Eostre was that she found an injured bird on the ground one winter. To save its life, she transformed it into a hare. But "the transformation was not a complete one. The bird took the appearance of a hare but retained the ability to lay eggs. ..the hare would decorate these eggs and leave them as gifts to Eostre."
ANCIENT BRITAIN: Both the solstices and equinoxes "were the highly sophisticated preoccupation of the mysterious Megalithic peoples who pre-dated Celt, Roman and Saxon on Europe's Atlantic fringe by thousands of years." The equinoxes were not otherwise celebrated in ancient Britain, until recent years.
ANCIENT IRELAND: The spring and fall equinox were celebrated in ancient times. A cluster of megalithic cairns are scattered through the hills at Loughcrew, about 55 miles North West of Dublin in Ireland. Longhcrew Carin T is a passage tomb which is designed so that the light from the rising sun on the spring and summer equinoxes penetrates a long corridor and illuminates a backstone, which is decorated with astronomical symbols.
ANCIENT GERMANS: Ostara, the Germanic fertility Goddess was associated with human and crop fertility. On the spring equinox, she mated with the solar god and conceived a child that would be born 9 months later on DEC-21: Yule, the winter solstice.
Hot Cross Buns: At the feast of Eostre, the Saxon fertility Goddess, an ox was sacrificed. The ox's horns became a symbol for the feast. They were carved into the ritual bread. Thus originated "hot cross buns". The word "buns" is derived from the Saxon word "boun" which means "sacred ox." Later, the symbol of a symmetrical cross was used to decorate the buns; the cross represented the moon, the heavenly body associated with the Goddess, and its four quarters.
Easter Rabbit and Eggs: The symbols of the Norse Goddess Ostara were the hare and the egg. Both represented fertility. From these, we have inherited the customs and symbols of the Easter egg and Easter rabbit.
Dyed eggs also formed part of the rituals of the ancient, pre-Christian Babylonian mystery religions. The egg as a symbol of fertility and of renewed life goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, who had also the custom of coloring and eating eggs during their spring festival.
Like the Easter egg, the Easter hare came to Christianity from antiquity. The hare is associated with the moon in the legends of ancient Egypt and other peoples....Through the fact that the Egyptian word for hare, UM, means also "open" and "period," that hare came to be associated with the idea of periodicity, both lunar and human, and with the beginning of new life in both the young man and young woman, and so a symbol of fertility and of the renewal of life. As such, the hare became linked with Easter...eggs.
Christian tradition states that when Mary Magdalene visited Emperor Tiberias (14 - 37 CE), she gave him a red egg as a symbol of the Resurrection -- a symbol of new life. Some believe that the Christian tradition of giving eggs to each other at Easter time came from this event.
Easter Lilies: The so-called 'Easter lily' has long been revered by pagans of various lands as a holy symbol associated with the reproductive organs. It was considered a phallic symbol!
Easter Sunrise Service: This custom can be traced back to the ancient Pagan custom of welcoming the sun God at the vernal equinox - when daytime is about to exceed the length of the nighttime. It was a time to celebrate the return of life and reproduction to animal and plant life as well.
Easter Candles: These are sometimes lit in churches on the eve of Easter Sunday. Some commentators believe that these can be directly linked to the Pagan customs of lighting bonfires at this time of year to welcome the rebirth/resurrection of the sun God.
THE CENTRAL IDEA
There were many mythological figures (Hercules, Osiris, Bacchus, Mithra, Hermes, Prometheus, Perseus and Horus) who share a number of factors. All were believed to have:
lived in pre-Christian times.
had a god for a father.
human virgin for a mother.
had their birth announced by a heavenly display.
had their birth announced by celestial music.
been born about DEC-25.
had an attempt on their life by a tyrant while they were still an infant
met with a violent death.
rose again from the dead.
Almost all were believed to have:
been visited by "wise men" during infancy.
fasted for 40 days as an adult.
As Christianity was spreading and attracting new followers, the easiest way to get people to convert was to show them how much Christianity had in common with their previously held beliefs. People don't like letting go of traditions. "You have a god who was killed and resurrected? Hey, us too! You have big feasts at the Spring Equinox and Winter Solstice? So do we!"