Easter is a Christian holiday, but some of the most common traditions surrounding Easter seemingly have nothing to do with religion.
Many of these traditions have been around for centuries, while a few, like Easter candy, came about in relatively modern times. Ever wonder how these traditions came about? You won’t find anything about them in the Bible, but here’s the scoop on some of the most cherished Easter Traditions.
According to popular lore, it is the Easter Bunny who provides goodies (usually chocolate candy or ornate eggs) to children who leave their baskets out the night before. Many candy companies have taken advantage of the popular tradition and offer Easter Bunny-themed candy for that part of the year. However, where did this tradition of a bunny that gave out eggs come from?
In the ancient world, the rabbit has long been a symbol of fertility. The rabbit is known for its reproductive prowess, in fact even today we talk of couples who have many children as “multiplying like rabbits.” Because it is known to reproduce often, it was seen has having special powers in assisting humans to reproduce. In fact our own lucky rabbit’s foot goes back to this ancient tradition.
In Europe prior to the introduction of Christianity the ancient pagans already had their own springtime festivals, as did almost all other ancient peoples. Because spring is the time, after the harshness of winter that the world begins to bloom once more, it is seen as a time of replenishing and renewal, birth and rebirth, fertility.
As Christianity expanded north from the Mediterranean world where it was born and first grew, it was common for Christians to attempt to incorporate pre-Christian ideas and rituals and place them within the context of Christian ideas and rituals, creating a mix of both Christian and Pagan.
These traditions co-existed for some time. When exactly the rabbit first became a major part of the Christian celebration is unknown. The first written mentions of the Easter Bunny came from Germany in the 15th Century, although we do not know for how long the Germans had used the symbol. It was also in Germany that the tradition of making chocolate bunnies to celebrate Easter began, sometime during the 1800’s.
According to some sources, the Easter bunny first arrived in America in the 1700s with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and transported their tradition of an egg-laying hare called ‘Osterhase’ or ‘Oschter Haws’. Their children made nests in which this creature could lay its colored eggs. Eventually, the custom spread across the U.S. and the fabled rabbit’s Easter morning deliveries expanded to include chocolate and other types of candy and gifts, while decorated baskets replaced nests. Additionally, children often left out carrots for the bunny in case he got hungry from all his hopping.
The precise origin of the ancient custom of decorating eggs is not known, although evidently the blooming of many flowers in spring coincides with the use of the fertility symbol of eggs—and eggs boiled with some flowers change their color, bringing the spring into the homes.
From a Christian perspective, Easter eggs are said to represent Jesus’ emergence from the tomb and resurrection. Decorating eggs for Easter is a tradition that dates back to at least the 13th century, according to some sources. One explanation for this custom is that eggs were formerly a forbidden food during the Lenten season, so people would paint and decorate them to mark the end of the period of penance and fasting, and then eat them on Easter as a celebration.
Easter egg hunts and egg rolling are two popular egg-related traditions. An egg hunt involves hiding eggs outside for children to run around and find on Easter morning. Eggs are rolled as a symbolic re-enactment of the rolling away of the stone from Christ’s tomb. In the United States, the Easter Egg Roll is an annual event that is held on the White House lawn each Monday after Easter.
Easter is the second best-selling candy holiday in America, after Halloween. Among the most popular sweet treats associated with this day are chocolate eggs, which date back to early 19th century Europe. Eggs have long been associated with Easter as a symbol of new life and Jesus’ resurrection. Another egg-shaped candy, the jelly bean, became associated with Easter in the 1930s (although the jelly bean’s origins reportedly date all the way back to a Biblical-era concoction called a Turkish Delight). For the past decade, the top-selling non-chocolate Easter candy has been the marshmallow Peep, a sugary, pastel-colored confection. Making their debut in the 1950’s, the original Peeps were handmade, marshmallow-flavored yellow chicks, but other shapes and flavors have since been introduced.
The use of Easter baskets developed from the modern symbolism of Christianity. Christians celebrate Easter because it signifies Christ’s resurrection. During Lent, which lasts for 40 days before Easter, many Christians sacrifice the consumption of food and other items until Easter. The tradition of feasting on a large Easter meal symbolizes the end of Lenten fasting. In earlier times, this Easter feast was brought in large baskets to church to be blessed by priests. Thereby, the link between a religious holiday and Easter treats was formed. The blessing of the contemporary Easter basket in Catholic churches today is similar to the ancient Jews who brought in their first seedlings for a temple blessing.
The tradition of padding Easter baskets with Easter grass has its roots in Dutch tradition. Dutch children were said to be awaiting the delivery of eggs on Easter Sunday. The children would lay these eggs in birds’ nests similar to the various colored nests of green, yellow, purple and other grass nests used in modern Easter baskets. In America, the Pennsylvania Dutch wait on Easter for the Easter Bunny to bring eggs, which are deposited on what’s described as a “rabbit’s nest” or Easter grass that lines Easter baskets.
Easter processions or parades have been part of Christian culture since its earliest beginnings. The Bible records two processions in the first Holy Week, and are seen as the earliest predecessors of the modern Easter parade.
During the Dark Ages, Christians in Eastern Europe would gather in a designated spot before Easter church services, then walk solemnly to the church. Sometimes the congregation would form another parade after the services, retracing their steps and singing songs of praise. These processions had two purposes—to demonstrate to churchgoers the unity of spirit found in their faith, and to reach out to nonbelievers in a highly visible manner. Even in those times, participants wore their finest attire to show respect for the occasion.
The Easter parade is now an American cultural event consisting of a festive strolling procession on Easter Sunday. Persons participating in an Easter parade traditionally dress in new and fashionable clothing, particularly ladies’ hats. The Easter parade is most closely associated with Fifth Avenue in New York City, but Easter parades are also held in many other cities.