Easter Traditions

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By Danielle O’Dwyer

Easter, like Christmas, has accumulated a great many traditions, some of which have little to do with the Christian celebration of the resurrection but instead derive from cultural customs and beliefs.

Pagans associated eggs with spring fertility rites, along with the hare or rabbit. The first painted and decorated Easter eggs were created in the 13th century. The Catholic Church prohibited the eating of eggs during ‘Holy Week’, but chickens continued to lay during this period and the notion came about to specially identify these eggs as ‘Holy Week eggs’. This inspired the idea to decorating the eggs as a symbol of their importance (they also became a symbol of the resurrection). As Jesus rose from the tomb; the egg symbolizes the tomb and the chick breaking out represents new life. In the Orthodox tradition eggs are painted red to symbolize the blood Jesus shed on the cross. Ukrainians have intricately patterned Easter eggs called ‘pysanky’ which have become popular in many other countries. Germans decorate eggs and place them in trees and bushes as Easter trees and in Egypt it’s a tradition to decorate boiled eggs during Sham el-Nessim (Spring Day) holiday, which occurs each year after Eastern Christian Easter.

Easter traditions also involve games like egg hunts, which are popular among children, and in 1878 Lucy Hayes, the wife of President Rutherford Hayes, held the first annual Easter egg roll on the White House lawn. Another game which involves eggs in Europe, that has many names, is ‘egg tapping’ or ‘egg jarping’: Eggs are distributed between two players, one player taps their egg against the others egg and the one with the least amount of broken eggs is the winner. The egg dance is a traditional Easter game in which eggs are laid on the ground (or floor) and the goal is to dance among them without damaging any, this egg game first originated in Germany.

 

The custom of associating a rabbit with Easter arose in Protestant areas in Europe in the 17th century, but didn’t become common until the 19th century. The rabbit was said to lay eggs as well as decorate and hide them. In a way this was a manifestation of the Protestant rejection of Catholic Easter customs. In some European countries however, other animals brought Easter eggs, in Switzerland it’s the cuckoo, in Westphalia Germany it’s the fox.

Another event that occurs during the lead up to Easter is the festival of Mardi Gras which occurs before the Catholic season of Lent. Mardi Gras goes back to an ancient Roman custom of merrymaking before a period of fast. Mardi Gras is known in England as Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day and in Germany it’s called Fastnacht. The name Mardi Gras is French for ‘Fat Tuesday’, it derives from the fact that the festival takes place on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. It also refers to the old custom of consuming all the fats in the home before Lent. The term may have also arisen in part from the custom of parading a fat ox through French communities on Shrove Tuesday. During Lent, which lasts for forty days prior to Easter, Catholics often deny themselves certain foods as away to remember the sacrifices that Christ made. Family’s used up their eggs and butter by making pancakes. Today people still observe Shrove Tuesday by eating pancakes and communities hold pancake races where people flip pancakes in a pan as they run. Mardi Gras celebrations can last for days; in some countries this period is called carnival. The word carnival comes from the Latin word carnelevarium, which means removal of meat. One of the most well known carnival celebrations takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the festival lasts for four days. In America, the Catholic French who settled in Louisiana brought the traditions of Mardi Gras from France, the festivity begins approximately two weeks before Fat Tuesday.

We may see Easter as a day to eat chocolate eggs and rabbits, but like Christmas and other days that we acknowledge, these days all have a base in cultural beliefs and customs, not just commercialism.

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