The history of Easter traditions
The name and timing of 'Easter'
The celebration of Easter takes place around the world, but few cultures refer to the holiday by that name. Early Christians called the celebration of Christ’s resurrection “Pesach,” the Hebrew word for Passover; today, most languages use a variation of that name: “Pesach” in French, “Pâques” in Spanish, “Pasqua” in Italian, “Pashkë” in Albanian and “Pask” in Swedish.
Our English word, Easter, comes from a stranger source: a pagan fertility goddess named Eostre (also known as Astarte or Oster). The festival of Eostre always took place around the spring equinox; so early Christian missionaries in Europe gradually melded the festival’s name, timing, and some of its symbols, into the Christian celebration.
“The missionaries adapted a tremendous amount of the cultures from where they were doing their work into the faith, in large part to make people feel comfortable,” says Ace Collins, author of Stories Behind the Traditions and Songs of Easter. “Eventually, the Christian celebration took the place of the pagan festival.”
From colored eggs to chocolate eggs to egg hunts, nothing says “Easter” like the incredible edible. Yet our modern take on collecting, dying, and decorating eggs comes from a tradition dating back thousands of years, long before the time of Jesus Christ.
Many ancient cultures, including the Greeks and Egyptians, saw eggs as a sign of fertility and new life; they used eggs in religious rituals and hung them in pagan temples for mystical purposes, says Martha Zimmerman in her book Celebrating the Christian Year.
Later, as Christian missionaries observed community members hunting for eggs in spring, they began using the food as a tool to describe Christ’s new birth in resurrection. “They would dye the eggs based on what colors meant to the church: yellow for resurrection, blue for love, red for the blood of Christ. Or, they would paint various scenes from the Bible on eggs and hide them; the child who found the egg would come back and tell the story painted on that egg,” says Collins.
More games with eggs soon followed — egg rolls and egg relays — mostly as a way to draw children into an otherwise serious religious celebration. Closer to home, the tradition continues: The White House Egg Roll will celebrate its 135th anniversary this year.
Like many Easter traditions, the Easter bunny evolved out of ancient fertility and spring celebrations. Rabbits breed like, well, rabbits, and give birth in the spring. So, in places where the fields became overrun with baby bunnies, it was natural to incorporate the rabbit as a symbol for spring and, eventually, Easter.
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According to an old German story retold by Pamela Kennedy in her book An Easter Celebration: Traditions and Customs from Around the World, a poor woman who loved children would hide brightly colored eggs in her garden as Easter treats. One year, while the children searched for them, they noticed a hare hopping past and believed that the animal had left the eggs. Thus launched the association between rabbits and Easter eggs. German children would make nests of leaves and branches in their gardens or homes hoping the “Easter Hare” would leave some goodies. Germans later adopted this custom, which evolved into today’s tradition of the Easter basket.
Every child knows that no Easter egg hunt is complete without the real prize: candy. Exchanging chocolates and other sweets at Easter gained popularity in Europe during the mid-19th century, as companies developed methods for mass producing sweets and unveiled confections in fancy holiday shapes and packages, like Cadbury eggs, which made their debut in 1875.
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Jelly beans likely evolved from early fruit jellies such as Turkish Delight, a Middle Eastern delicacy. They entered the U.S. market sometime in the late-19th century, but didn’t gain their Easter association until the 1930s, according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.
“We find no print reason for hawking jelly beans at Easter. It might be the shape [they look like eggs, which are connected with Easter] and color [bright or pastel],” says Lynne Olver, a food historian and editor of foodtimeline.org.
As for the most important Easter candy question, “How do you eat a chocolate Easter bunny?,” three out of four Americans start with the ears first, according to a survey by the Chocolate Manufacturers Association and National Confectioners Association.
Easter bonnets and parades
Purchasing a new holiday outfit may seem like a 20th century commercial invention, but even early Christians followed the practice of wearing new clothes for Easter. “It was the one time of year when, if you had new clothes, you wore them. You dressed in your finest to go to church as a manner of honoring the resurrected savior,” says Collins.
In America, stores soon latched onto the idea that creating Easter outfits and sales during the season would help them sell fancy bonnets for little girls and women or suits for boys and men. City-goers took to promenading down the street to show off their new attire, which on New York’s Fifth Avenue eventually drew thousands of people and came to be known as the Easter Parade. The song Easter Parade, written by Irving Berlin in 1933 and popularized by Bing Crosby in the movie Holiday Inn (1942) captured the fanciful mood of this new tradition.
Stations of the cross and passion plays
As early as the 14th century, the Catholic Church discovered drama and ritual as effective methods for teaching the gospel to a populace that couldn’t read, write, or speak the traditional Latin used in church. The church developed practices, such as the Stations of the Cross and the Passion Play, to tell the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection in accessible and compelling ways.
According to the Catholic News Service, the Stations of the Cross originally described a physical pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where participants would travel to 14 sacred sites related to Jesus’ death and crucifixion, reciting prayers and singing songs. Eventually, Catholic Americans developed a spiritual practice of replicating the pilgrimage in their local churches, reciting the same prayers and songs.
The Passion Play, a dramatic presentation of Christ’s trial, sufferings and death, became popular in the Catholic Church in the 15th century. One of the most famous in Oberammergau, Germany, started in the early 1600s, when the town vowed to perform a Passion Play every decade if God would spare the town from the plague. The death rate dropped dramatically after the play was held in the town cemetery, and the play has been performed in Oberammergau to sold-out crowds ever since.
In the U.S., modern Passion Plays often take the form of blockbuster movies, such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ released in 2004.
Lamb versus ham
Although the choice of what to serve for Easter dinner might come down to taste preference, for others the menu holds great significance.
In early Jewish history, lambs were sacrificed as offerings to God and served regularly as part of the Passover feast. Then, when Jesus died during Passover, he became representative of the ultimate sacrifice for sin, the “lamb of God,” and the animal evolved into a potent symbol for Christians, especially at Easter. Many Orthodox Christians still follow the Jewish Orthodox customs of not eating any pork, so lamb takes center stage at their Easter meal.
Others, however, wouldn’t imagine Easter without ham. Symbolizing “good luck” for many cultures around the world, it made a fitting meal at all sorts of feasts and celebrations, according to the Encyclopedia of Religion. Some historians believe Easter’s spring timing also factored into the choice: Farmers typically slaughtered pigs in the fall and then took several months to smoke the pork, making a ham ready just in time for Easter dinner.
Hot cross buns
These round breads embellished with crosses have been traced back to ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece, where such foods served as symbols of honor toward their goddesses, according to the Oxford Companion to Food. Later, these sweet breads filled with currants and spices became popular Easter traditions, especially in England where bakers were forbidden to sell spice breads except on special holidays like the Friday before Easter.
Many English believed cross buns baked on Good Friday would never grow moldy; they were kept as good luck charms hanging in windows, accompanied sailors on a voyage, or buried in piles of grain to ward off rodents. Today, they’re mostly representations of the Christian symbol of the cross, and a sweet, buttery addition to an elegant Easter meal.
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