The Fascinating History of Easter and How All of Our Favorite Holiday Traditions Came to Be

Learn the origin story of the Easter bunny, egg hunts and more.

BY ESTHER CHAPMAN AND AMANDA GARRITY

Mar 15, 2022

Easter Sunday is coming up faster than Peter Cottontail hopping down the bunny trail, which means it’s almost time to get out the egg dyeing kits, start figuring out your Easter dinner menu and assembling your family’s Easter baskets. Even though there is so much to do before the Easter Bunny arrives, carving out some extra time to read up on the history of the holiday can make it feel even more special. The Christian holiday, which will be celebrated on Sunday, April 17 this year, has been observed since the second century as a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Over the years, many Easter traditions have also arisen to mark the occasion, including everything from chocolate bunnies to Easter egg hunts. Some of them are regional, others depend on your family’s cultural origin and still others can vary even from household to household.

However you celebrate, there is so much that makes this holiday the special occasion that it is today — whether you mark it in a religious or secular way. 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, succulent baked ham dinners, those baskets we hide for the kiddos and so much more. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even discover a new fun fact to share around the Easter dinner table or a new tradition to add to your own festivities.

Easter Eggs

From dyed 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 the 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,” explains history travel blogger Castles and Turrets.

Easter Sunday Sunrise Service

There’s a reason why Easter Sunday is often celebrated with church service at the crack of dawn. As he 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 — and the next year, the entire congregation joined in. By 1773, the first sunrise service for Easter was held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.the story goes, Mary opened Jesus’s tomb early in the morning 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 — and the next year, the entire congregation joined in. By 1773, the first sunrise service for Easter was held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Lent

We can thank Lent for our celebratory Easter feasts. Originally, Lent required people to fast for 40 days (excluding Sundays). These days, most observers abstain from meat that isn’t fish on Fridays only, as well as 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 either at the beginning of Holy Week or on Easter itself. Either way, people are definitely ready to dig into some of the sweet and savory dishes they’ve been missing by the time the ham comes out of the oven.

Easter Candy

No Easter is complete without candy. Exchanging chocolates and other sweets during the holiday 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”

Because the celebration of Easter is an international event, it also has different names in non-English languages. Early Christians called Christ’s resurrection “Pesach,” the Hebrew word for Passover. Today, the holiday is called “Pesach” in French, “Pascua” in Spanish, “Pasqua” in Italian, “Pashkë” in Albanian and “Pask” in Swedish.

Our English word 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.

Easter Bonnets

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. In America, stores quickly caught on to the idea that putting out Easter outfits and sales during the season would help them sell fancy bonnets or suits.

City-goers often promenaded New York’s Fifth Avenue to show off their new attire after church, 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, the menu holdsgreat significance for some.

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,” so the animal evolved into a meaningful symbol for Christians. 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, can’t imagine Easter without a ham centerpiece. Symbolizing good luck for many cultures around the world, it makes a fitting meal for 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 traditions, the Easter Bunny evolved out of ancient fertility and spring celebrations. Rabbits give birth in the spring so, when the fields became overrun with baby bunnies, it seemed 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. A new tradition was born!

The White House Easter Egg Roll

The annual White House Easter Egg roll dates back to 1878, when President Rutherford B. Hayes opened the White House lawn 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.

It’s still a tradition today. Besides the egg roll, the event also features stations where children and their families can decorate cookies, dye eggs and participate in an Easter Egg hunt.

Easter Baskets

Like the Easter bunny, filling and exchanging Easter baskets likely originated in Germany. Once children began to think the “Easter Hare” left their goodies, they started creating small nests of leaves and branches in their gardens where the bunny could place them.

Another interpretation maintains that the Easter basket tradition began much earlier with farmers in Middle Eastern cultures. They reportedly brought 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 used drama and ritual to share the gospel with those who couldn’t read, write or speak the Latin used in church. 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 as they went. Eventually, Catholic Americans began replicating the pilgrimage in their local churches instead.

The Passion Play, a dramatic presentation of Christ’s trial, suffering and death, became popular in the Catholic Church in the 15th century. One of the most famous started in the early 1600s in Oberammergau, Germany, 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 performance in the town cemetery, and it’s been performed in Oberammergau to sold-out crowds ever since.

Easter Peeps

Those sugary-sweet marshmallow candies were created in the 1950s by Sam Born, founder of 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 festive rolls 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, the 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 people believed hot cross buns baked on Good Friday would never grow moldy so they were kept as good luck charms, accompanied sailors on voyages or were 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. Finding an Easter egg during the hunt is supposed to remind us of the discovery Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Salome made when they came to Jesus’s cave and found it empty.

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