Easter is a holiday that defines springtime for people across the globe. Most of us identify Easter not by how we celebrate it as adults, but how we celebrated it with our parents and grandparents as children. We recognize it by pastel clothes and decorations, dyed eggs, the Easter Bunny, and for many, church and other religious services. In this special-edition blog post, we will discuss the history of Easter and the roots of the many modern-day traditions of the holiday.
While Easter is celebrated in some households by setting up a basket filled with treats brought by a giant anthropomorphic rabbit for young children, other houses celebrate the more religious aspect of Easter. In Christianity, Easter represents the resurrection of Jesus Christ three days after he died on the cross. The specific day of this celebration varies year to year; it was officially decreed by Pope Gregory XIII, creator of the Gregorian calendar used in the United States and by the Western Orthodox church, that Easter falls on the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. If the full moon lands on a Sunday, Easter is celebrated the Sunday after. Even if the day of the holiday itself varies, the traditions that surround it do not.
Many Easter traditions find their basis in the past. For instance, many of us can remember dunking hard boiled eggs in brightly-colored, vinegar based dyes and never eating them because hard boiled eggs are gross. The act of decorating eggs can be dated all the way back to ancient pagan religions. Originally, they represented rebirth and growth, and thus painted eggs were exchanged as presents to celebrate the start of spring. Then Christianity began to spread, and Christians incorporated this tradition into their Easter celebrations. They explained it with the story that Mary, the mother of Jesus, carried eggs with her when she witnessed the crucifixion of Christ. The blood from his wounds fell into the eggs, and they were dyed a bright red. Thus, dyed Easter eggs were born.
Of course, to many of us Jesus Christ is not the only icon of Easter. Our parents read us stories and showed us films about and dragged us to the mall to get a picture with the one and only Easter Bunny. The myth of the egg-basket delivering rabbit also comes from pagan beliefs. These religions worshipped a goddess called Eostre, who represented fertility, a trait most commonly given to rabbits. The rabbit also represented new life, like that of Jesus as he came back from the dead. Christians heard the name Eostre, which sounds a lot like Easter, and her association with rabbits, and the legend was created. However, it didn’t leave Europe until German immigrants came to the United States in the 1700’s with tales of “Osterhase”, literally meaning “Easter Bunny”. The Osterhase story wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that German children created little nests for the bunny to come lay its eggs in on Easter morning. Eventually, this nest evolved into a basket, and the modern Easter basket was created.
Many of us remember the Easter dinners creating lovingly by our families and eaten surrounded by the ones we love. For many, this dinner wouldn’t be complete without a thick, honey-roasted ham which, surprisingly, has its base in pagan religious ceremonies. During the fall harvest, hogs and cattle were slaughtered and their meat was left to cure during the winter. By the time spring rolled around and celebrations were in order, pork was the only meat ready for consumption. And when the Christians saw this tradition, they of course took it for their own and our Easter hams were created.
Parades have also become more of an Easter tradition as of late. They do, of course, find their inspiration in history. I’m sure many of us raised in a religious household can remember being dragged to department store after department store and forced to try on outfit after outfit, just to wear said outfit for a few hours on Easter Sunday until we’re allowed to rip it off and go hunt for eggs with our siblings and cousins. The tradition of buying new clothes for Easter comes from a simple belief that wearing a new outfit on Easter Sunday can bring good luck for the rest of the year. This superstition later lead to the Easter fashion parade that takes place on Fifth Avenue in New York. Since their new clothes would only be seen for a short time on Easter Sunday, some parishioners grouped together to show off their clothes while leaving churches on Fifth Avenue. And thus, a more modern tradition was created. However, two of the most significant parades of sort are the Palm Sunday and Good Friday processions, carried out by followers of Christianity. The Palm Sunday procession symbolizes Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem and takes place a week before Easter Sunday. In biblical times, Jesus’ supporters carried and waved palm fronds to mark his arrival in the city. Nowadays, processions take place during which Christians carry palm fronds and walk together to honor their Lord. Meanwhile, the Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion of Christ, and many processions feature an actor portraying Jesus Christ bearing his cross to be crucified. These processions are meant to be somber, but not a day of mourning, as many Christians recognize the death of Christ on the cross to be the strongest holder of their faith. On a lighter note, many other festive parades take place around the world, the most notable being in Seville, Spain and Florence, Italy. These parades give insight to how Easter is celebrated around the world.
The parade in Florence, Italy is called Scoppio del Carro, or Explosion of the Cart, and for very good reason. It begins with an intricately decorated cart being drawn by two oxen through the city. When the cart and oxen reach the Florence Cathedral, the Archbishop emerges. He carries a dove-shaped rocket, and proceeds to light it and send it into the cart, which explodes and launches a massive fireworks display. This display is then followed by a parade of performers in medieval dress. In Seville, Spain, a massive event is coordinated by a total of 52 religious brotherhoods to flood the streets with a parade displaying a recreation of the crucifixion of Christ, marching bands, and floats displaying statues that tell the biblical story of Easter. Other countries take on more theatrical traditions, such as Brazil. In Brazil, people craft dolls that represent Judas, the apostle responsible for betraying Jesus, and beat them up. In more recent years, unpopular politicians have taken the place of Judas. Other countries just like to have fun, like in Mexico, where eggs are carefully drained and filled with confetti for children to playfully crack over each others’ heads. This tradition is also carried out by Mexican families in the United States, and I for one remember these “egg wars” fondly.
Easter is a holiday that is celebrated in many different ways. Some prefer a more religious take, participating in church services and processions, while others participate in commercialized and fun celebrations. Either way, Easter is a holiday that has been taken in many different directions and hold something that everyone can participate in. Of course, it is always interesting to see the evolution of our traditions and the role that we play in taking part in them.