Easter Sunday is coming up, which means it’s almost time to bust out the egg dyeing kits, start preparing your dinner menu, and assembling your family’s Easter baskets. Even though there is so much to do before the Easter Bunny arrives, carve out some extra time to read up on the history of Easter. The Christian holiday, celebrated on Sunday, April 4 this year, has been observed since the 2nd century as a way to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Over the years, many Easter traditions have taken shape, everything from chocolate bunnies to Easter egg hunts.
As it turns out, there is so much that makes this holiday what it is today — religious or otherwise. Here, we’ve rounded up the need-to-know facts about the history of Easter, including the origins of some of your family’s most cherished traditions like visits with the Easter Bunny, delicious ham roasts, and so much more. You might even want to jot down a few notes, so you can have all the information on hand at this year’s Easter feast.
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From colored eggs to chocolate eggs to egg hunts, nothing says “Easter” like the incredible edible. Yet our modern take on collecting, dyeing, 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.
RELATED: The Best Egg Decorating Ideas
Easter Sunday Sunrise Service
There’s a reason why Easter Sunday is often celebrated with church service at the crack of dawn. As the story goes, it was at early at dawn on Easter morning that Mary opened Jesus’s tomb to find it empty — which is why so many churches now hold services at an early hour to honor the momentous occasion.
In fact, the tradition of sunrise Easter service dates back to 1732, when the first service was held in Germany by the Moravian Church. A group of young men gathered at the first light of dawn at the town’s graveyard to sing hymns of praise — and the next year, the entire congregation joined in. By 1773, the first sunrise service for Easter was held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
We can thank Lent for our big Easter feasts. Originally, Lent required people to fast for 40 days (excluding Sundays), but these days it’s more commonly observed by having people give up an indulgence, like caffeine, chocolate, television, or social media.
The exact end date for Lent can vary slightly depending on whether the church is following Western or Eastern practices, but it tends to end near Easter. So come Easter Sunday, people are definitely ready to dig into some of the sweet and savory dishes they’ve been missing.
Every child knows that no Easter egg hunt is complete without candy. Exchanging chocolates and other sweets during 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.
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.
The Word “Easter”
The celebration of Easter is an international event, but few cultures refer to the holiday by its famous name. Early Christians called Christ’s resurrection “Pesach,” the Hebrew word for Passover. Today, most languages use a variation of that name: “Pesach” in French, “Pascua” in Spanish, “Pasqua” in Italian, “Pashkë” in Albanian, and “Pask” in Swedish.
Our English word, Easter, comes from a stranger source: an Anglo-Saxon 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.
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 or suits.
City-goers went to New York’s Fifth Avenue to show off their new attire, eventually leading to the creation of the famous Easter Parade. The song Easter Parade, written by Irving Berlin in 1933 and popularized by Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn, captured the fanciful mood of this new tradition.
Serving Lamb vs. 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 represented 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 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.
The Easter Bunny
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.
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.
The White House Easter Egg Roll
The tradition of the White House Easter Egg roll dates back to 1878, when President Rutherford B. Hayes opened the White House lawn for the tradition after being approached by children on one of his daily walks. Previously, children had celebrated Easter by playing games on Capitol Hill, but Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill banning the practice.
The White House Easter Egg Roll is still a tradition today. Besides the Egg Roll, the celebration also features stations where children and their families can decorate cookies, dye eggs, and participate in an Easter Egg hunt.
Like the tradition of the Easter bunny, the tradition of the Easter basket likely began in Germany. Once children began to think the “Easter Hare” would leave goodies, they started creating small nests of leaves and branches in their gardens where the bunny could place them.
Another interpretation says that the Easter basket tradition began much earlier with farmers in Middle Eastern cultures. They would reportedly bring seedlings in a basket to be blessed, in hopes of having a bountiful harvest.
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 those who 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.
Those sugary-sweet marshmallow candies were created in the 1950s by Sam Born, who founded the Just Born candy company. He set up shop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, making these treats especially appropriate for Easter. It initially took 27 hours to create a single Peep, but luckily Born’s son created a way to make the process more efficient — it now takes only six minutes!
Peeps are available in a variety of seasonal shapes and flavors, but Easter chicks remain the most popular, according to the maker.
Hot Cross Buns
These Easter-famous breads trace back to ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece, where they served as symbols of honor toward their goddesses, according to the Oxford Companion to Food. Later, these sweet breads became popular at Easter, especially in England where bakers were forbidden to sell spice breads except on special holidays, like the Friday before Easter.
Many English believed hot 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, as well as a sweet, buttery addition to an elegant Easter meal.
Easter Egg Hunts
The first egg hunt can be traced back to Martin Luther, a central figure during the Protestant Reformation — men hid the eggs for women and children to find. The happy act of finding an Easter egg during the hunt is supposed to remind us of the joy that the women (believed to be Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome) felt when they came to Jesus’s cave and found it empty.
It’s hard to know exactly who created the first chocolate bunny, but it was probably someone of German descent, in either Germany or America. By 19th century Germany, pastry and sugar bunnies (some had hard boiled eggs inside of them!) were in production and bunny-shaped tins, used for chocolate molds, have been traced back to Munich in the 1850s.
Jury’s still out, though, because around the same time, Robert L. Strohecker, a business man in Pennsylvania, placed a 5-foot-tall chocolate rabbit in his drugstore’s window. By 1925, people in the U.S. could order chocolate bunnies, a special Easter treat, from a catalog. The rest is history.
Egg Tapping Game
Egg tapping, a common Easter game, goes by lots of different names — egg fighting, egg knocking, egg pacqueing, egg boxing, egg picking, or egg jarping, just to name a few — and involves two people knocking the pointed ends of the eggs together until one cracks. The winner is the person whose egg has cracked the most eggs.
Egg tapping has origins in Medieval times, where it was practiced during the Easter festival in Poland. To this day, egg-tapping competitions are held in many areas of the world, including England, and Louisiana takes the event very seriously — every year Marksville, Louisiana hosts an official egg tapping competition, complete with strict rules and regulations. Winners must prove their eggs are not fake by breaking and eating them at the end of the event.
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