What is the Story Behind the Most Popular Easter Traditions?
At its very essence Easter is a Christian holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion. It is also a popular secular holiday celebrated by the majority of North Americans. Colored eggs, Easter egg hunts, and baskets full of candy, all brought by a mysterious magical bunny, delight the culture-at-large, regardless of faith background. Many families also gather together on Easter Sunday to share feasts of ham, lamb, and deviled eggs. And for some an Easter sunrise or worship service may be an important annual experience. But where did these traditions come from? Do any of them have biblical or religious significance, or are they secular, or even pagan, in origin? Well, the answers may surprise you. Join me for a look at the stories behind some of our most popular Easter traditions.
Let me be clear from the outset that the Bible does not directly mention a holiday or festival set aside for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. However, the event that Easter celebrates, the resurrection, is chronicled in all four of the gospels and is referred to over one hundred times throughout the New Testament. The first known written reference to a holiday celebrating the resurrection, referred to then as Pashca (the Latin translation of the Greek word for Passover), was made in the mid-2nd century AD. The account reflects a developed mode of celebrating the resurrection by that time, signaling that Easter was likely celebrated by even the earliest of Christians.
Among ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures, eggs symbolized life and rebirth. Eggs held similar significance in pre-Christian cultures all across Europe. Their inclusion into the celebration of Easter as a symbol of the resurrection occurred fairly early in Church history. Early Mesopotamian Christians dyed Easter eggs red, as a symbol of Christ’s blood. This tradition of dying and decorating Easter eggs likely spread from the Eastern Church to the Western Church and by the Middle Ages the practice had become widespread throughout Europe.
In Medieval Europe, eggs were also one of the common foods from which Christians abstained during the 40 days of Lent. It should be no surprise then that Christians included them in the celebration of Easter, both by decorating them and eating them during the Easter feast. By the 17th century, the Roman Catholic Church had even included an Easter blessing for eggs in their official rites.
The decorating of Easter eggs hit its peak of extravagance in the 19th century, when Russian royalty exchanged jewel-covered eggs at Easter. Many of these were commissioned by the famous jewelry firm, House of Fabergé. Today, most families dye eggs all different colors for Easter. For many it is little more than a cultural tradition, but for some, the eggs still represent the new life that the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ offer to all who believe.
Easter Egg Hunts
The most famous tradition surrounding Easter eggs in North America is doubtless the Easter egg hunt. Although far less ancient as a practice, the origin of Easter egg hunts is a bit unclear. What we do know is that by the 17th century Easter egg hunts had become traditional throughout much of Northern Europe. Even the great Reformer, Martin Luther, is said to have held Easter egg hunts for women and children.
Some scholars trace the origins of Easter egg hunts to Scotland and the practice of children collecting eggs from the chicken coop or yard, that they would later eat during their Easter meal. However, other scholars connect egg hunts to another famous Easter icon, the Easter bunny.
The Easter Bunny
Much like the egg, hares and rabbits have long symbolized fertility and new life. In Medieval Christian art and architecture, particularly in Northern Europe, we sometimes find rabbits depicted in association with the Virgin and Christ child or with the Holy Trinity.
But the Easter bunny we know today probably finds its origin among 17th century German Lutherans who told stories about an egg laying hare, that delivered eggs to well-behaved children on Easter (much like Santa Claus). Children would make nests (precursors to today’s Easter baskets) and leave them out for the Easter bunny to lay eggs in them. In the morning, children would find their nests filled with eggs. In other European countries, animals like foxes, or even cuckoos, fill the role of the Easter bunny and are said to deliver eggs on Easter day.
Most scholars think the Easter bunny made its way to North America with German immigrants in the 18th century. Since that time, the tradition of the Easter hare has developed into an Easter bunny that brings not only eggs, but candy, and even presents on Easter morning.
Feasting has always been a part of celebrating the joyous nature of the Easter holiday. Today, Easter remains an occasion for families to gather together and share a meal. But, what’s the story behind the traditional foods that we eat?
We’ve already discussed eggs and their symbolic connection to the resurrection, so it should be no surprise that eggs have had a place on the Easter table since the days of the early Church. Another original staple of the Easter meal is lamb. Lamb and eggs were both part of the Jewish passover meal, a precursor to early Easter feasts. Lamb also strongly symbolizes Jesus Christ as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:23). To this day, many people still eat lamb on Easter Sunday.
However, the majority of North Americans today celebrate Easter by cooking and enjoying another Easter meat: ham. The tradition of Easter ham arose more out of practicality than symbolism. In Northern Europe, pork was always plentiful and spring was the time to enjoy hams cured over the long winter season. Similarly today, the supply of pork in North America dwarfs that of lamb, keeping this tradition of practicality going strong.
Today, many churches hold Easter “sunrise” services to commemorate the early morning hour of Christ’s resurrection. These services are reminiscent of the earliest Easter celebrations which included an Easter Vigil, held very late on Saturday night or early Sunday morning. The Vigil ended with the lighting of a candle, celebrating the light of Jesus Christ coming into the world through the resurrection.
So, next time you attend an Easter Sunday service, gather with family around the table for Easter dinner, or dye eggs with your kids or grandkids, remember that many of these traditions have long histories. If we take time to reflect on the histories and symbolic meanings of these traditions, whether we participate in them or not, it can help us decide how to celebrate a more Christ-centered and meaningful Easter!