As holidays go, Easter is a strange one. We’re here today to look at Easter’s origins, and how it’s celebrated around the world. Just make sure to keep some chocolate on standby in case of cravings.
10. The Name
By far the most prolific explanation comes from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility known as Eostre. The goddess had 10 variants of her name, including Ostara, Eostur and Austron — which made adding her as a contact on your phone a nightmare — but it’s agreed that the root of her name comes from “eastre,” meaning “spring.” This was adopted and used as a Christian celebration. Despite the fact that this is one of the top explanations, there’s a lot of debate over whether Eostre was even an actual goddess worshipped by people. You know, just to confuse you further.
9. The Rabbit
Out of all the animals to be designated as the one who delivers chocolate eggs, why a rabbit? The tradition definitely has a back story, but which story you get depends on who you ask. There have been several claims for the origin of the iconic rabbit, and they span different religions and traditions.
One theory states that the Easter Bunny originated from our friend Eostre. The story goes that, once upon a time, Eostre stumbled upon a bird dying from the cold in the snow. She turned the bird into a hare, so that its fluffy coat kept it warm and safe. Because it was once a bird, it still laid eggs, so the rabbit decorated them and left them as gifts to Eostre for saving its life. This is also an explanation for the Easter egg hunt — looking for the eggs that the bird-rabbit hid. Although stealing gifts from a goddess is probably not the best idea.
Another story states that the Easter Bunny came about because, once upon a time, people believed that rabbits were hermaphrodites, making them able to give birth without losing their virginity. This has strong ties to the virgin birth of Jesus from Mary, so people began to relate rabbits to them. Some churches even sport a three hare motif, consisting of three hares connected by their ears running in a circle, a potential symbol of the Holy Trinity. However, these have been found all over the world, and their true meaning is unknown.
A third story points a finger to the first record of the Easter Rabbit in De ovis paschalibus, a German book that translates to About the Easter Egg. It states that the tradition had existed in the Christian-dominated Alsace, carried over to America with German immigrants in the 1700s, and sparked the annual chocolate gluttony ever since. There’s been no historic record yet that says people waited a day later to get eggs much cheaper, though.
8. Semana Santa
Now that we’ve tackled the myths and legends behind Easter, we can look at the events that take place around the world leading up to, and on, the holy day. One is Semana Santa, held within cities across Spain.
Semana Santa means Holy Week, the period leading up to Easter Sunday. In it, all shops and stores except restaurants close, and the entire city is transformed. 55 different churches take part in the festival, parading large floats that resemble Jesus in some way. The floats make their way from their church of origin to the cathedral, and then back again. While a sombre celebration, it’s one that draws tourists from all over the world to see its magnificence.
7. The Epitáphios Threnos
The Epitáphios Threnos is a tradition in Greek Orthodox religions that’s held on Good Friday. It means Lamentation at the Tomb, and is in essence a funeral service to respect the death of Jesus by re-enacting the way he was buried after his crucifixion. The Epitáphios Threnos takes place in churches, where an epitaphios is placed atop something representing the tomb of Christ. The epitaphios is a highly-adorned piece of cloth that represents the shroud Jesus was wrapped in. The tomb is decorated with flower petals and rosewater before hymns are spoken. Interactions with this tomb vary depending on tradition — some will hold it over the church entrance so that believers pass under it, a symbol of entering the grave alongside Christ.
6. Easter Ham
A prolific theory behind the Easter ham resides in Christianity. The story states that a wicked queen named Ishtar gave birth to a son called Tammuz. This son would become a hunter, but his career was cut short when he was killed by a wild pig. Presumably out of spite, and maybe with a love for bacon mixed in, Ishtar designated a Sunday on which people consumed pig.
Another theory states that, while lamb was usually the go-to dish for its symbolism with Passover, ham would be used because pigs were considered a symbol of good luck. Killing and eating symbols of good luck seems to be a bad idea, but at least it got ham on the table.
Another source gives a more practical approach. Before the invention of refrigeration, pigs were slaughtered in the fall and preserved during winter. Should some of the meat not be consumed during the winter months, it would be cured so it could be eaten during springtime. When did the curing finish? Around Easter, making it an ideal dish for the season. It’s a less exciting origin, but it makes good sense.
5. Maundy Money
In the United Kingdom, a select few people are given money the day before Good Friday. These coins, known as Maundy Money, have a long history. It began when Jesus gave the command “that ye love one another” after he washed the feet of his disciples, who probably felt they could get used to that sort of treatment. This became a fourth century tradition where the poor have their feet washed and are given clothes. This stopped around the eighteenth century, and was replaced by an allowance to give the poor the chance to buy food and clothing. Thus was born the Maundy Money.
Today, a selection of elders receive a red and white purse. The red one contains legal currency, while the white one contains special symbolic Maundy coins. These people are selected by the amount of Christian service they have performed, so if you see some senior citizens suddenly taking a great interest in the church and goodwill approaching Easter, now you know why.
4. Pysanka Eggs
Painting eggs on Easter is always fun. But it doesn’t have to be child’s play — the Ukrainian Easter tradition of Pysanka eggs are a craft all by themselves. These highly-decorated eggs have been made during Holy Week for generations. Even when Easter is nowhere near, people can’t resist making them. While people once made eggs to ensure fertility and avoid fires and nasty spirits, today they take to the art form for the aesthetic allure.
How do Pysanka eggs differ from regular ones? The preparation, mostly. After designing a pattern on an uncooked or empty egg, it’s then dipped in a colored dye. Between the dyeing stages, the craftsman draws patterns on the egg with wax, so as to seal the color currently on the egg and create the intricate patterns you see on the final product. In short, if the rabbits you paint on Easter eggs end up looking like the one out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, perhaps consider purchasing Pysanka eggs instead.
3. Haux Omelets
After a busy Easter, it’s easy to imagine that people are sick to death of anything based around eggs. It would be a good idea for them to stay away from Haux in France, whose Easter traditions are just dying to have egg-based puns written about them. Every year on Easter Monday, the residents create a large omelet. This isn’t the kind of large omelet you get when you drop a box of eggs on the floor — it’s not unheard of for the final result to come in at three yards wide to feed 1,000 people. One year’s omelet saw 5,211 eggs, 21 quarts of oil, and 110 pounds of bacon, onion and garlic, which sure beats what you get at Denny’s. You could even call it eggstreme, if you wanted us to come over there and smack you.
2. Passion Plays
One of the longest running traditions of Easter is the Passion Play. Because a lot of people in medieval times couldn’t read, plays were a great way to educate the masses about the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. There are passion plays held all over the world, but one of the most famous is the Oberammergau Passion Play. Its roots began during the black plague, when the residents of Oberammergau were on high alert to keep the disease out. A farmer coming home from a nearby village brought the plague back with him, which killed one-fifth of the town. With the disease ravaging the town, the elders declared that the church would hold a passion play every 10 years in exchange for God’s blessing and protection (you’d think they’d try every 10 days considering the circumstances, but whatever). The play has been performed every 10 years since 1633, with only a ban in 1770, World War I, and World War II stopping three shows. Thankfully, no outbreaks of plague happened on those years.
1. The Britannia Coco-Nut Dancers
If you’re discussing what you do on Easter with a friend, and they reveal that what they love most about it is the part where people with blackened faces perform a folk dance down the streets, you may have just met someone from Bacup, England. Every Easter, The Britannia Coco-Nut Dancers, or Nutters, perform a folk dance from one town boundary to the other. What makes these dancers unique is their blackened faces, but no one is sure of their origins. It might be from medieval times to hide the faces of those who participated to stop evil spirits from getting their revenge, or it may have ties to the mining industry. Either way, the custom has come under fire for its potential racist nature, with the Nutters swearing that the blackened faces have no racial aspect whatsoever. Like every dispute around Easter, we hope this one can be solved with chocolate.
S.E. Batt is a humor writer. He writes freelance non-fiction for various websites, and moonlights as a fiction writer when he finds the space to do so. He enjoys cats, keyboards, and tea, but not all at the same time. Check out his website here.