What’s the story behind some of our favourite Easter traditions? And, why do we have the Easter bunny, bonnets and hot cross buns?
Although most of us make far more fuss about celebrating Christmas, Easter weekend is actually the most important festival in the Christian calendar, commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus.
But many of the traditions associated with Easter go back even further in time and are linked to nature’s own cycle of new life, and new hope. We explain some common traditions.
Why do we share Easter eggs?
Eggs are the ultimate symbol of fertility and new life, as a fluffy chick emerges cheeping from the cracked shell. For centuries people have celebrated nature coming to life again after the bitter cold of winter, and spring is a time of birth and renewal. The egg is also thought to represent the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, breaking out of the tomb three days after He was buried.
In the middle ages people began painting eggs to celebrate the Easter feast, and eating them as a treat after attending mass on Easter Sunday. Remember, most people fasted throughout Lent – the 40 days preceding Easter – and weren’t allowed to eat eggs, flour, milk or meat, so a tasty meal was even more welcome.
Today children still enjoy painting eggs, but their idea of a treat is much more likely to be a large chocolate egg full of sweets than the hard-boiled variety. It’s well over 100 years since Cadbury’s made the first chocolate Easter eggs, and we haven’t looked back since…
What does ‘Easter’ mean?
Easter takes its name from Eostre – the goddess of spring and renewal who was worshipped in Saxon times. She was described in the eighth century by Bede, a Northumbrian monk, who commented that her name had also been used by the Saxons when naming the month we now call April, as Eosurmonath.
Why do we have Easter bonnets?
Wearing your best clothes to church has always been a sign of respect, as well as offering a good opportunity to dress up! But even ‘Sunday Best’ isn’t good enough for Easter Sunday itself, and women took the opportunity to wear their very best bonnets for the occasion.
The American Easter Parade became popular in the aftermath of the Civil War, and still takes place in New York and other cities – the perfect chance to show off your finest headgear.
But wearing wreaths of leaves and flowers around the head is also rooted in pagan traditions, once again associated with spring, renewal and rebirth.
Why do we have the Easter Bunny?
Rabbits are well known for breeding frequently and giving birth to large litters of ‘kittens’, so they too have become symbols of spring renewal and fertility. But how did rabbits become inextricably linked with the idea of Easter?
In German mythology, the story goes that Eostre, goddess of spring, found a wounded bird in the woods, and brought it back to health by transforming it into a hare. But because it was still partly a bird, it laid eggs to show its gratitude to the goddess, which came to symbolise the coming of spring.
There are many tales of Easter egg hunts, stretching back to Germany in the 1600s when men would hide eggs for women and children to find. But it was German settlers who brought their idea of ‘Oschter Haws’, an egg-laying hare, to America in the 1700s, and children made little nests for the hare’s eggs.
Today rabbits are still symbols of Easter, with chocolate bunnies a popular gift, and the Easter Bunny continues to hide decorated eggs for children to hunt.
Why do we have hot cross buns?
We all love a hot cross bun in the lead-up to Easter, although they’re traditionally eaten on Good Friday. The spiced sweet bun is made with currants or raisins and marked with a cross on top.
Hot cross buns mark the end of Lent as they’re made from mainly dairy products, which are traditionally forbidden during the 40-day period that commemorates Jesus’ journey through the desert. Each part of the bun has a different meaning relating to the belief that Jesus rose from the dead, with the cross on the top representing the cruxifixction and the spices inside the bun relating to the spices used to embalm his body.