The History And Traditions Of Easter

Copyright 2007 Wesley Berry, AAF

Easter, the Christian festival commemorating the resurrection of Christ, was the earliest feast day decided upon by the ancient Christian Church. Like its Jewish predecessor Passover, it is a movable feast, based on the lunar calendar rather than falling on the same Sunday every year. It is a joyous festival and a time of redemption. It brings to an end the long period of penance that constitutes Lent. The word is sometimes said to have been derived from Eostre, a Germanic goddess of spring, but other origins of the term more closely associated with Christian traditions have been proposed. In Western churches it falls on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25, depending on the date of the first full moon after the spring equinox. This year Easter Sunday is April 8th.

Like many other Christian feasts, the celebration of Easter contains a number of originally pagan or folk-religious elements tolerated by the Church. Among these are customs associated the Easter egg, Easter breads and other special holiday foods, and the European concept of the Easter hare, or, in America, of the Easter rabbit, which brings baskets of candies and colored eggs during the night.

The pagan roots of Easter involve the spring festivals of pre-Christian Europe and the Near East, which celebrate the rebirth of vegetation, welcoming the growing light as the sun becomes more powerful in its course toward summer. It is significant that in England and Germany the Church accepted the name of the pagan goddess "Easter" (Anglo-Saxon Eostra - her name has several spellings) for this new Christian holiday. In Mediterranean Europe (Italy, Spain, and France), Christianity adopted pascha, a word derivative of Passover, from which comes the adjective "paschal" for things pertaining to Easter, such as the Paschal lamb.

One of the most distinctive food elements of the Easter celebration is the Easter egg. In earlier times, Easter eggs were much more a part of the formal culture than they are in America today, where individual families determine the range of the custom. In the European village context, Easter eggs were once used as part of one's tithe to the landlord, or given as festive (and expected) gifts to the village pastor, the schoolmaster, the sexton and bell-ringer, the parish gravedigger, and even the village shepherd. Of course, they were hospitably presented to visitors, bestowed as favors upon servants, and, above all, given to children. Courting couples exchanged them as tokens of love, and godparents usually regaled their godchildren with gifts of decorated eggs.

The Easter rabbit (Easter hare in Europe) is not documented before the seventeenth century. While the Easter hare is the major egg supplier in European Easter celebration, there were other runners-up in the form of egg birds, Easter hens, cranes, storks, even foxes and other creatures. With its late origin, scholars are still debating the reasons for the association of the rabbit with Easter custom and lore. Among the theories of the origin of the Easter rabbit belief, the most plausible (although still not without difficulties) is that it may be connected in some way with the so-called March Hare of folktale. The Easter rabbit was believed to actually lay the eggs; hence, children went to elaborate lengths to build attractive "nests" for the elusive egg layer.

The elaborate decoration of Easter eggs became a major form of home-produced folk art both in America and Europe. Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, who produced an elaborate Easter culture, eggs are dyed with onion skins, producing a rich reddish-brown color, or with other natural dyes. These eggs are then scratch-carved with designs, dates, names, or even religious verses

In Eastern Europe, egg decoration is an ancient folk craft treasured in families and passed down from generation to generation. In Czarist Russia, this craft was elevated to such a degree that it was even imitated by such famous jewelers as Faberge. Whether created with gold leaf and sapphires or just homemade dyes, the designs involve a variety of standard motifs-geometrical, animal and floral. The geometrical motifs are probably the oldest, and range from simple horizontal and vertical lines to sectionalize the egg to sun symbols like the tripod, or to the "endless line" forms. Some of the most complex patterns incorporate stars and rosettes. Animal and bird designs are the rarest.

In the family and community of all the various Christian denominations, Easter Sunday has always been a day of joyous celebration. In the Middle Ages it was often chosen as the day to crown kings since Easter feasting was, and remains, quite elaborate. Since the day marked the official end to forty days of the Lenten fast, many special foods were prepared to mark the occasion. Easter breads have been researched widely and form a huge genre of ornamental foods made especially for this feast. In America, baked ham seems to be one of the most common features of the Easter dinner. In Europe and in parts of colonial America, Easter was often extended to a two day celebration, with feasting, gaming and other secular entertainments continued into Easter Monday.

The confectionery trade began to commercialize Easter during the 1870's, with the introduction of an entirely new line of sweets employing Easter themes. Chocolate makers in particular discovered that candies once only sold as luxury foods for Christmas could become just as lucrative when transformed into rabbits and similar gift items. Today, Easter is one of the most important seasons for selling confectionary, from chocolate bunnies, marshmallow chicks, and jelly beans, to music box coconut eggs, spun sugar tulips, and edible crucifixes filled with brandied fruit.

As you prepare for your family's Easter celebration, remember to order flowers for the table or your hostess. There are lots of wonderful gifts you can get at your favorite flower shop. Not only will they have the traditional Easter lilies, but there should be a great assortment of other beautiful blooming plants, like hyacinth, tulips, daffodils, mums, azaleas... the choices are endless! Arriving at an Easter celebration with a beautiful blooming plant or a bouquet of fresh cut flowers is a great way to thank your host or hostess.

There are many special Easter designs available this year, and there is sure to be one that is just your style and says just what you want to say. Don't forget those near and dear to your heart, but too far away to visit. Your florist can make sure friends and family get a burst of spring with a plant or bouquet selected just for them, by you. If you have a student who is away at school and can't get home for the holiday, order a Chocolate Lovers Basket or Junk Food Pail filled with Easter goodies. There are lots of possibilities, just remember to order early and give second and third choices for your selections. Happy Easter!

About The Author:

Wesley Berry is member of the American Academy of Floriculture (AAF) and President of Wesley Berry Flowers, a successful multi-million dollar floral business that was established in 1946. As a member of the Henry Ford Hospital Community Relation Board he has contributed to the community at large. He owns both a brick and mortar and an internet flower delivery business. Visit Wesley Berry Flowerson the web at

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