Easter is my favorite time of year, although I confess that most of my affection for the holiday is strictly candy-related. Every year, I anxiously await the moment (usually in February or so) when stores roll out the Cadbury candy eggs, the marshmallow Peeps, and the ubiquitous chocolate bunnies. I gorge myself for a few weeks and then stockpile for the rest of the year. I don’t know who originally had the idea to celebrate Easter by eating rabbit-shaped candy, but if you ask me, they deserve their own holiday.
Easter isn’t just about candy, though. It’s the holiest holiday of the year for Christians in general and Catholics in particular. It is marked by solemn religious rituals as well as fun family-oriented traditions. As a kid, I always got an Easter basket full of goodies, but I never really stopped to think about the origins of the traditions we uphold. Why does Easter conjure up images of bunnies and lambs? Was there a part of the bible where Jesus blessed the little children by hiding jellybeans under their pillows? And what’s the deal with all the pastel-colored eggs?
1. Eggs-quisite Eggs
In the early days of Christianity, the Easter holiday was scheduled in order to coincide with the spring festival celebrating the pagan goddess Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn and vernal equinox. Eggs, as a symbol of fertility and rebirth, are an ancient symbol of renewal and new life. Some Christians also interpret eggs as a representation of the rock that sealed Jesus’ tomb.
In Medieval times, eggs were forbidden during Lent, the period of fasting that precedes Easter. Any eggs laid during this time were hard-boiled and preserved for later. Once the holiday arrived, people celebrated by decorating their eggs and giving them as gifts, especially to children. Today, egg-decorating traditions vary by geographic region. American children dip their eggs in springlike pastel colored dyes, while Slavic people decorate theirs with gold and silver leaf. Greeks dye their eggs a bright crimson red to symbolize the blood of Jesus.
2. Breeding Like Bunnies
One determined pair of rabbits can produce hundreds of offspring a year, so nothing represents fertility as well as bunnies. For pagans, rabbits were also a symbol of the moon and since Easter is a lunar holiday, that’s another way that rabbits complement Easter mythology.
The origins of the candy-bearing Easter Bunny probably date back to medieval Germany. Children were taught that if they behaved, they would receive a visit from the Oschter Haws (Easter Hare), who would lay a clutch of brightly-colored eggs. The children would awaken on Easter morning and search throughout the house for the hidden location of the nest. German immigrants brought the tradition, as well as the first bunny-shaped candy, to America. Eventually, the tradition of the hidden nest evolved into the tradition of the Easter basket. In other countries, children’s eggs and treats aren’t always delivered by a rabbit. In France, a bell flies in from Rome to deliver chocolate and children in Switzerland await a cuckoo who lays their Easter eggs.
3. Little Lambs
Bunnies, chicks, and baby animals are all symbols of spring’s renewal of life, since that’s when young are traditionally born. Lambs, however, have long been accepted as a Christian symbol of sacrifice. Pure and innocent, they are meant to represent Jesus himself, the “lamb of God,” so they figure prominently into Easter celebrations. Along with rabbit, they are part of traditional Easter feasts in many parts of the world.
4. Easter Lilies and Palms
Flowers are another symbolic representation of spring. Lilies, with their pure white blossoms, are the flower most traditionally associated with Easter as they represent Jesus’ own purity.
In ancient Rome, visiting royalty was greeted by the waving of palm fronds. As Jesus entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before Easter, he received this traditional welcome from his followers and the other residents of the city. Palm Sunday is still celebrated with palm plants, since they are a symbol of peace.
5. Bonnets, Frills, and Finery
The tradition of festive Easter outfits dates back to early Christianity, when new converts were baptized wearing white robes. The white color symbolizes purity and spiritual renewal; converts wore the new robes for a week after the holiday to symbolize their new life. In Medieval Europe, Easter services were followed by the entire congregation walking through the city in a procession led by a candle or crucifix. Especially after the frugal and austere season of Lent, people enjoyed the procession as a way to show off their new spring clothes, including intricately adorned hats. These traditions continue today in the form of Easter parades and bonnet competitions.
For many people, Easter celebrations mainly take the form of brunch and a candy coma, but there is very ancient and spiritual symbolism behind our Easter favorites and it’s important that the message doesn’t get lost amid the consumerism of the holiday. The next time you chomp down on a marshmallow Peep, remember that it’s an ancient invocation of fertility. I’ll be celebrating Easter in my own egg-stra special way … by leaving some carrots out for the Cadbury bunny.