The Origins of 11 Easter Traditions

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Come Sunday, many people will find themselves scouring their yards for plastic eggs and gnawing the ears off of chocolate rabbits. What possesses us to do such strange things? Pagan rituals and old superstitions, mostly. Here are the reasons behind 11 of our favorite Easter traditions.

1. DYEING EASTER EGGS

The tradition of decorating eggs of all kinds—even ostrich eggs—may go all the way back to the ancient pagans. It’s easy to see why eggs represent rebirth and life, so associating them with spring and new growth isn’t much of a stretch. To celebrate the new season, it’s said that people colored eggs and gave them to friends and family as gifts.

When Christians came along, they likely incorporated the tradition into their celebrations. According to some legends, Mary or Mary Magdalene could be responsible for our annual trek to the store to buy vinegar and dye tablets. As the story goes, Mary brought eggs with her to Jesus’ crucifixion, and blood from his wounds fell on the eggs, coloring them red. Another tells us that Mary Magdalene brought a basket of cooked eggs to share with other women at Jesus’ tomb three days after his death. When they rolled back the stone and found the tomb empty, the eggs turned red.

2. THE EASTER BUNNY

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine what a giant rabbit has to do with any type of religious holiday. But according to Time, the tradition again dates back to the pagans. They celebrated a goddess of fertility named Eostre—and you may recall that fertility is exactly the trait rabbits are most famous for. It’s thought that German immigrants brought their tradition of an egg-laying hare called "Osterhase" to the U.S. in the 1700s.

3. HOLLOW CHOCOLATE BUNNIES

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Now that we know why Easter is associated with rabbits, little chocolate leporidae actually make sense. But why are so many of them hollow inside? As it turns out, it’s not just to get kids used to disappointment at a young age. According to the R.M. Palmer company, one of the oldest makers of chocolate bunnies in the U.S., the empty insides are really just in consideration of your teeth. "If you had a larger-size bunny and it was solid chocolate, it would be like a brick; you’d be breaking teeth," Mark Schlott, executive vice-president of operations, told Smithsonian.

Of course, there’s also the "wow" factor—confectioners can make a larger, more impressive-looking bunny for a reasonable price if there’s nothing inside of it.

4. EASTER BASKETS

If you squint at an Easter basket, especially one stuffed with faux shredded grass, you can totally see its origins as a nest. Remember the German Osterhase tradition? Well, there was more to it—to encourage this mythical bunny to stop by their houses, children would fashion nests for it to come and lay its colored eggs. Over time (and maybe to contain the mess), the nests evolved into baskets.

5. HOT CROSS BUNS

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Like the bunny and the eggs, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when people started making hot cross buns—sweet rolls studded with raisins or currants and marked with a cross on top—during the week leading up to Easter Sunday. It’s said the tradition started in the 12th century with a monk who was inspired to mark his rolls to celebrate Good Friday.

The first written record we have of them dates back to an issue of Poor Robin’s Almanac from the 1730s: "Good Friday comes this Month, the old woman runs, With one or two a Penny, hot cross Bunns [sic]."

6. EASTER FASHION PARADES

There’s an old superstition that wearing new clothes on Easter means good luck for the rest of the year. You could say it has something to do with rebirth and renewal, but mostly, it sounds like an excuse to go shopping. Either way, fancy new finery deserves to be seen for more than 60 minutes during Easter services, so in the mid-1800s, parishioners in New York arranged themselves into a little post-church fashion show as they left their Fifth Avenue churches. The tradition continues today, though the term "finery" seems to be a bit broader now.

7. SUNRISE SERVICES

As the story goes, Mary opened Jesus’s tomb at dawn on Easter morning to find it empty. In honor of the occasion, many churches hold services at sunrise so parishioners can experience the event similar to how it happened. The first one on record was held in 1732 in Saxony, Germany, by a group of young men. The next year, the entire congregation attended the early-morning ceremony, and soon, the sunrise service had caught on across the country. By 1773, sunrise services had spread to the U.S.—the first was held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

8. EASTER HAM

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Believe it or not, even that juicy ham on your dining room table dates back to pagan rituals honoring spring and the goddess Eostre. The tradition goes back to at least 6th-century Germany, according to Bruce Kraig, the founder of the Culinary Historians of Chicago. Hunters often slaughtered hogs in the forest in the fall, then left them to cure all winter. By spring, pork was one of the only meats ready to go for spring celebrations. As with other pagan rituals, Christianity adapted the tradition for their own needs as the religion spread.

9. GOOD FRIDAY KITES

If you happen to find yourself in Bermuda on Good Friday, you may be surprised to see legions of kites dotting the sky. According to local legend, a teacher once used a kite to give her students a visual of how Jesus ascended into heaven. The analogy quickly caught on, and today, flying a simple kite made of tissue paper and sticks is still a colorful pastime.

10. EGG KNOCKING

Also known as egg tapping or egg jarping, egg knocking is a sport where two competitors tap the pointed ends of their eggs against each other to see which one cracks and which one "survives." The game apparently goes back to medieval Europe, but when it comes to modern-day egg knocking, Marksville, Louisiana, is uncrackable. Since 1956, local families have gathered at the courthouse square on Easter Sunday to battle their eggs. Some families even prepare months in advance, giving their chickens special feed in hopes of producing stronger eggs.

11. OSTERBRUNNEN

Immanuel Giel, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The German tradition of Osterbrunnen—decorating public wells and fountains with elaborate greenery and Easter egg décor—only began about a century ago. It’s said that German villagers wanted to honor both Easter and the gift of water, which also represents life and renewal. Neighboring villages began to compete to see which of them could create the most fanciful fountains, and by 1980, approximately 200 villages were participating in the event. It’s even spread stateside—the town of Frankenmuth, a Bavarian-style village in Michigan, has adopted the Osterbrunnen tradition in the month surrounding Easter.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

8 Gripping Facts About Hands Across America

LoveMattersMost, Flickr // CC0 1.0
LoveMattersMost, Flickr // CC0 1.0

Viewers of the new Jordan Peele thriller Us may walk out curious about the daisy-chain of humanity depicted in the film and whether it had any basis in reality. It does: Hands Across America was a nationwide effort to raise awareness (and money) for the plight of the hungry and homeless in America. The event took place on May 25, 1986 and involved nearly 5 million people across 16 states and Washington, D.C. joining hands for 15 minutes in a sign of solidarity. While promotional expenses ate into some of the profits, the stunt helped raise an estimated $15 million for charitable causes.

For more on this audacious '80s moment that featured Oprah Winfrey, Mickey Mouse, and Michael J. Fox, check out our round-up of facts and trivia. (Just don’t expect it to be as creepy as Peele’s interpretation.)

  1. Hands Across America wasn’t the first time someone had tried to get people to join hands across the country.

Hands Across America was the brainchild of advertising executive Geoffrey Nightingale, who had worked with USA for Africa founder and music promoter Ken Kragen on “We Are the World,” the star-studded 1985 single that raised money for the starving citizens of Ethiopia. During a New York City Ballet rendition of “We Are the World,” Nightingale told Kragen it might be a good idea to try and get people to join hands across state lines as a way to raise awareness for domestic hunger issues.

Kragen ran with the idea, but it wasn’t the first time it had been attempted. Back in 1976, a man named Marvin J. Rosenblum tried a similar event with the same name, but a lack of corporate sponsorship led to a weak turnout. (There was just one 10-mile line that formed outside of Chicago.) Rosenblum’s trademark on Hands Across America lapsed in 1977. Kragen maintained he hadn’t heard of the prior project until he had already started working on his own.

  1. There were protests against Hands Across America.

You wouldn’t imagine people having a problem with a charitable effort, but Hands Across America faced controversy early on for mapping out a route that began in New York City's Battery Park and ended up in Long Beach, California. States and cities that weren’t included in the route snaking through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky, and Arizona, among others, objected to being left out. Senator Ted Kennedy voiced his disapproval that the link wouldn’t be running through New England.

  1. Prince sponsored a line.

Grammy and Oscar-winning recording artist Prince performs the song 'Purple Rain' at the 46th Annual Grammy Awards held at the Staples Center on February 8, 2004 in Los Angeles, California
Frank Micelotta, Getty Images

In order to successfully mount Hands Across America, Kragen looked to corporate America for underwriting. His first—and biggest—sponsor was Coca-Cola. The second was Citibank. Together, the two companies contributed an estimated $8 million to the effort. It was even advertised on McDonald’s placemats. But other sponsors could chip in for the registration fees that cost between $10 and $35 per person. Musician Prince bought a mile for $13,200. Together, sponsors and corporations accounted for roughly 2000 miles of the 4125-mile chain.

  1. There were a lot of gaps that had to be filled.

When Hands Across America launched at 3 p.m. eastern time on Sunday, May 25, 1986, the Associated Press estimated that approximately 4,924,000 people would be participating based on counts gathered from local community organizers. While concentrations were heavy in some states like New York and New Jersey, others found themselves short. Indiana needed 400,000 people, but just 250,000 showed up. In Sanders, Arizona, 109 people stood in a section that needed 1320 to appear complete. When there was a gap in the line, organizers filled it with ribbons, ropes, banners, or even cattle. When a bus driver in New Jersey saw a break in the line, he pulled over and asked his passengers to complete the connection.

  1. Prisoners participated in Hands Across America.

With a presence in 550 cities, Hands Across America made for some strange bedfellows. Major League Baseball players gathered for a game in Cincinnati, Ohio and held hands with Little Leaguers; nuns and Hell’s Angels members stood side-by-side in Pittsburgh. At Rahway State Prison in Rahway, New Jersey, inmates formed a line.

  1. There were weddings during Hands Across America.

Although Hands Across America was expected to last just 15 minutes, a number of people took the opportunity to use the gatherings as a springboard for other activities. A total of five marriages were reported to have been completed during the event, as well as baptisms and at least one bar mitzvah.

  1. Ronald Reagan was criticized for getting involved in Hands Across America.

President Ronald Reagan joined Hands Across America on the front lawn of the White House alongside his wife Nancy, the Reverend Billy Graham, and Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton. But Reagan was the subject of protests in Detroit’s Lafayette Park and was criticized for even being involved, as his critics believed he had done little to combat the hunger epidemic in America. The previous week, Reagan had cited a "lack of knowledge" among the poor about charitable resources as a reason they did not have access to food. The comment raised eyebrows. Reagan, however, denied his participation had anything to do with the backlash.

  1. Some people stiffed the event out of money.

Kragen had voiced hope that Hands Across America might be able to raise $50 or even $100 million in charitable donations. An estimate released a year after the event put the total number of donations at $24.5 million, with $9.5 million going to costs and $15 million to charities. In order to fill out the expected gaps in lines, USA for Africa had invited people to come join the group without registering or paying the $10 to $35 donation. Additionally, thousands of people showed up for the event who had pledged to donate but never did. An August 1986 story in The New York Times estimated the lost earnings to be between $7 and $8 million.

America’s 10 Most Popular Dog Breeds

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iStock.com/Bigandt_Photography

The American Kennel Club recognizes 193 dog breeds, and while they're all very good boys and girls, some get more love than others. After analyzing its registry, the AKC has released its list of the top 10 most popular dog breeds of 2018.

The Labrador retriever ranked first in 2017, and tops the list once again in 2018. "The Labrador retriever shows no signs of giving up the top spot anytime soon," AKC executive secretary Gina DiNardo said in a statement.

The classic breed is joined by other perennial favorites, such as the German shepherd, golden retriever, and French bulldog. The only change in the list from 2017 to 2018 is the German shorthaired pointer climbing one spot from 10th place to ninth. According to DiNardo, "This jack-of-all-trades in the pointer world has slowly but steadily risen in popularity over the years. People continue to fall in love with its versatility, extreme intelligence and willingness to please.”

Saturday March 23 is National Puppy Day, which is a great opportunity to welcome a new dog into your family—whether it's one of the breeds below, or the shelter dog you've fallen in love with.

You can check out the AKC's full ranking (and adorable pictures of each pooch) below.

1. Labrador retriever

Labrador retriever.
American Kennel Club

2. German shepherd dog

German shepherd.
American Kennel Club

3. Golden retriever

Golden retriever.
American Kennel Club

4. French bulldog

French bulldog.
American Kennel Club

5. Bulldog

Bulldog.
American Kennel Club

6. Beagle

A beagle puppy
American Kennel Club

7. Poodle

Poodle.
American Kennel Club

8. Rottweiler

Rottweiler.
American Kennel Club

9. German shorthaired pointer

German shorthaired pointer.
American Kennel Club

10. Yorkshire terrier

Yorkshire terrier.
American Kennel Club

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