So there’s this bunny. It’s a big bunny, quite large, and he hops around with a big basket of…eggs. They’re chicken eggs, but they’re really the bunny’s eggs. Y’know? This particular bunny lays eggs somehow. And he also likes chocolate, and pastels, and sharing.
Is this making any sense?
Nope, not really. But that’s Easter in America! It’s like when you have an amazing dream but as soon as you wake up and try to explain it to someone else, it all starts to sound utterly, utterly mad.
Like many Western holidays, Easter has roots in both Christianity and pre-Christian paganism, and that shared history has led to a confusing tangle of traditions and symbolism. Throw in a bit of influence from the candy industry and good old-fashioned commercialization, and we’re in for a wild ride!
In honor of the holiday this Sunday, we’re hopping back in time to learn more about Easter’s many quirks and how they may have gotten that way:
Easter bunny: The legend of the egg-laying bunny may trace back to the pagan spring festival of Eostre — which might also be Easter’s namesake! Eostre was a Germanic goddess of fertility, and according to one folk story, she came across a bird stranded in the cold and transformed it into a rabbit so its fur could keep it warm. But the rabbit maintained its egg-laying abilities and became a symbol of Eostre. Well, okay then! That might be as close to a logical explanation as we’ll ever get.
Easter baskets: The earliest written record of an egg-toting Easter Bunny goes back to 16th century Germany, in which a Santa-esque character visited all the well-behaved children in the night to leave them gifts, and kids left out handmade nests filled with colored eggs for the Oschter Haws (aka Easter Hare!). No one knows quite how that kooky tradition came to be, but it arrived in the U.S. some two centuries later with the wave of German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania.
Candy: The Lenten season leading up to Easter is historically a period of sacrifice, with many Christians abstaining from earthly indulgences like meat, dairy, eggs, and sweets. That makes Easter, the day after Lent ends, the perfect time to celebrate with hearty hams, a surplus of eggs, and all the sweets you can stomach.
Traditionally, those goodies were probably simple homemade creations, but with the advancement of candy technology in the early 20th century, Easter candy has been elevated to an art form. In one all-American success story in the early 1900s, a Pennsylvania confectioner named Roscoe Rodda was struggling to compete against local heavyweight Hershey. He saw a business opportunity in the large Pennsylvania community of German immigrants and their annual Easter basket tradition, and he began producing Easter-themed candies, including bunnies, crosses, “jelly eggs” and hand-shaped marshmallow chicks that took a jaw-dropping 27 hours to produce. Rodda is credited with paving the way for jelly beans and Peeps to become the Easter icons they are today. These days, Easter is the second-biggest candy-buying event of the year, right behind the epic sugar high of Halloween.
Eggs: Eggs symbolize rebirth, an important theme in both pagan spring festivities and the Christian celebration of the resurrection. They may have also been quite plentiful on Easter, since many Christians stopped eating eggs for Lent but the chickens never stopped laying them! Egg hunting, egg rolling, and egg dyeing are all popular Easter pastimes in Christian communities around the world. Egg decorating is a particularly rich tradition in Slavic populations of Eastern Europe, as seen with pysanky, the ornately decorated Ukrainian Easter eggs, and Fabergé eggs, the opulent objets d’art from Russia.
Hot cross buns: This sweet, spiced bun is marked with a symbolic cross made with icing, pastry dough, or knife cuts, so it has long been associated with the Christian celebration of Easter and the end of Lent. Some historians credit a 14th-century English monk for the original recipe, while others trace it much farther back to the ancient Greeks. But during one odd period in Elizabethan England, officials made it illegal to sell hot cross buns outside of Good Friday, Christmas, and funerals! Makes us wonder what the hot cross bun black market was like back then. Luckily, these days you can make those delightful buns whenever you darn well please.
What’s your favorite Easter food tradition? Chocolate bunnies devoured head first? Peep s’mores in the microwave? Share with us in the comments!