The Easter weekend is the principal religious feast of the Christian year, yet most of its traditions have no basis in Christianity at all. In fact, the Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach which is closely linked to Easter by dates and symbolism was celebrated long before the birth of Jesus. And long before the name ‘Easter’ was used, early Christians celebrated ‘Pascha,’ a word derived from Pesach.
The word ‘Easter’ actually comes from an Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess called Eostre, who was associated with spring and new beginnings. Both Easter and Passover centre around re-birth, and bond neatly with the Anglo-Saxon festival of ‘Eostre-monath’ – Eostre’s month.
Hot cross buns, traditionally eaten on Good Friday, are linked to Passover. Originally they were unleavened bread, an important Passover food. Nowadays, they are leavened (which makes them light and delicious) and marked with a cross to serve as a reminder of the crucifixion.
The tradition of eating chocolate eggs derives from the fact that during Eostre, eggs were given as gifts to celebrate the end of winter and as a symbol of new life. Once again this ties in with Passover, where a traditional meal is Beitzah, a hardboiled egg. Eventually Christians began decorating the shells with colourful patterns, and later thanks to enterprising chocolatiers in France and Germany delicious chocolate Easter eggs began to appear.
But what about the Easter Bunny? Surely an Easter hen would be more logical. At least a hen lays eggs! But if we look back at the Goddess Eostre, her scared animal was the hare, and it’s not a huge jump (see what I did there?) from a hare to a rabbit.
The Easter Bunny and egg hunts seem to originate in Germany in the 16th century. Children made nests in the garden and, if they were good, the Easter Bunny would leave them coloured hard-boiled eggs to find the next morning. This tradition travelled to America with early German settlers and, like many old traditions, has now returned to Britain substituting chocolate eggs for a sweeter egg hunt.
Egg rolling on Easter Monday is one of the strangest traditions. Some sources say that it represents the rolling away of the stone blocking Jesus’ tomb. It’s also known as Pace-Egging, which derives once again from the word Pesach. It’s centuries old but no-one is entirely sure of the origins, though it might have originated as a way of getting everyone out of the house for some much-needed exercise after a long weekend of feasting!
On Palm Sunday it is said that Jesus was welcomed to Jerusalem by an adoring throng. This and the procession which followed Jesus carrying the cross are often seen as the earliest predecessors of the modern Easter parade.
During the Dark Ages, Christians in Eastern Europe would gather in a designated spot before Easter church services, then walk solemnly to the church. Afterwards they would retrace their steps while singing songs of praise. Participants usually wore their finest attire to show respect for the occasion.
Eventually the Easter parade transformed into a large American cultural event consisting of a festive strolling procession on Easter Sunday. Participants dress up and there is a particular emphasis on ladies' hats...the Easter bonnets made famous by the song from the 1948 film Easter Parade.
And speaking of traditions…it’s our family tradition to watch that musical while we tuck into our Easter Eggs.
By Tracey Anderson