History of Easter Traditions Explained

Easter Bunny and lamb with Easter eggs | Image by Oldiefan/Pixabay

Millions of Americans will celebrate Easter on March 31 with popular traditions such as Easter egg hunts and candy-filled baskets.

Easter traditions vary, and numerous cultures celebrate the holiday differently. The earliest examples of Easter date to the recognition of the resurrection of Christ and first appear in the second century.

Historically, the resurrection was celebrated alongside the Jewish holiday of Passover. The Book of Exodus describes the Jewish rites of Passover, a celebration of the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian bondage. Passover is also the origin of the Easter lamb. According to the Bible, Jews were commanded by God to sacrifice a lamb and roast it over a fire for Passover.

In most of the world outside of Germanic and English countries, the holiday Americans call Easter is called Pascha, or a similar dialectical derivative based on the Hebrew word for Passover, Pesach.

The painting The Last Supper by Leonardo di Vinci is based on the accounts of the Apostles as recorded in the New Testament and is an image of the Passover meal the evening before Jesus was executed. According to the Bible, Jesus was resurrected three days after his crucifixion. Theologians believe Jesus was most likely crucified on April 3, 33 C.E., based on calculations of various calendars and dates recorded by the Apostles.

In 325 C.E., Emperor Constantine I and scholars met at the Council of Nicaea and determined that the resurrection would be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox, which is why Easter does not fall on the same day of the year each year.

The word “Easter” almost certainly did not develop from pagan beliefs, though many people hold this view. The most likely root of the word is a Latin phrasein albis, which is a plural form of the word “Dawn.” In Old High Germanic — the root language responsible for both English and modern German — the phrase translates to eostarum. From this, the name Easter likely developed.

In 731 C.E., the Christian monk Bede the Venerable, who is called the Father of British History, recorded a story of pagan celebrations on the spring equinox. Bede wrote that the pagan ceremonies had become assimilated into Christian traditions. He said that the month of April, then known as Eosturmonath, was when pagans would celebrate the goddess Eostre, who has parallels in numerous European cultures as the “Goddess of the Dawn” and is often associated with hares or rabbits.

This story led to the creation of the Easter Bunny, which Dutch immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania likely brought to the United States. The hare or rabbit has a long historical association with spring and fertility. When and how the story of the hare started is unclear, but the hare has been linked to fertility since antiquity. A folklore story tells that Eostre, or Ostara, turned a bird — who either was in peril or had failed her — into a hare and that once a year, during the spring equinox, the hare would remember its life as a bird and lay beautiful eggs.

Decorated eggs at Easter may have a religious origin as well. During Lent, Christians were forbidden from eating eggs. It is possible that the idea of decorating eggs stemmed from their being proscribed during Lent. Painted, carved, and decorated eggs have a much longer history.

The Easter basket is similarly tied to religious traditions. Many Christians would line a basket with white lace or linen and carry food to church on Easter, where it would be blessed. Most often, the baskets would be filled with things that observers of Lent had abstained from, including eggs, meat, and sweet treats.

When families gather this Easter around an Easter lamb, participate in an Easter egg hunt, or decorate a basket with images of the Easter Bunny, they are participating in traditions that often date to antiquity and that have been shaped by dozens of cultures throughout history, representing the diversity of cultures that have shaped the United States through generations of immigration.

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