The Origins of 11 Easter Traditions
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
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
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
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.
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.