Have you ever wondered why we do what we do at Easter? Why do many of us eat ham and dye eggs? How are these traditions related to Christ's resurrection?
For Christians all over the world, Easter is a time of great joy and great pageantry. Some aspects of our Easter celebrations stem directly from the biblical account of Christ's death and resurrection, while others do not. Like all holidays, Easter's traditions have a rich history.
Eggs to dye for
Eggs are often identified with Easter. Long a symbol of fertility and immortality, the egg reminds Christians of the rock tomb from which Christ arose.
In medieval times, eggs were traditionally given to all servants at Easter. It is said that King Edward I of England (1307) distributed 450 boiled Easter eggs, dyed or covered with gold leaf, to members of the royal household.
Today, in most countries the eggs are stained with plain vegetable-dye colors. The Syrian and Greek faithful present each other with crimson eggs in honor of the blood of Christ. Ukrainians create intricate designs with checkerboard and rhombi patterns, dots, wavy lines, and intersecting ribbons. Blessed by the priest at Easter, the artistically-rendered eggs become symbolic heirlooms.
In Austria, artists design striking patterns by fastening ferns and tiny plants around the eggs, leaving a white pattern after the eggs are boiled. Common symbols in the designs include the sun (good fortune), rooster or hen (fulfillment of wishes), stag or deer (good health), and flowers (love and charity).
Egg-specking is a sport all over Europe. Eggs are rolled against each other on the lawn or down a hill. The egg that remains uncracked is the winner. In Washington, D.C., there is an annual celebration of egg rolling on the White House lawn on Easter Monday.
Gift-giving rabbits, foxes, and cuckoos
Although rabbits have long been a symbol of spring, chocolate bunnies are a relatively new phenomenon. Easter bunnies made of pastry and sugar first became popular in southern Germany at the beginning of the 1800s.
The Whole Earth Holiday Book connects the rabbit and colored eggs with the story of a poor woman who could afford no sweets for her children on Easter. She colored some eggs and hid them in a nest for her children to find. During the hunt, the children spotted a large hare in the bushes. They told their friends the bunny had left the eggs, and so the Easter bunny story began.
The Easter bunny shows up in many European Easter traditions. However, it is not the only animal believed to bring colored eggs. Swiss children believe a cuckoo brings the eggs; Czech children wait for a lark. German children have a lot of options--hoping that a rooster, a stork, a bunny, or a fox will bring their treats.
Ham and hot cross buns
Food plays a prominent role in any holiday, and Easter is no exception. For many Americans, Easter dinner includes a hearty helping of ham. But few know the first recorded public blessing of Easter ham occurred in the tenth century.
The pig has always been a symbol of good luck and prosperity among Indo-Europeans (hence the practice of saving money in a piggy bank). In Hungary, the highest card (ace) in card games is called "pig."
The age-old custom of eating pig or boar meat was probably brought to America by the English, Scandinavians, Germans, and Slavs, who still eat pork at Easter. In Transylvania, ham is wrapped in bread dough before being baked, and in Hungary, a meatloaf made of chopped pork, ham, eggs, bread, and spices crowns the Easter feast.
In addition to ham, pastries and bread also figure prominently in Easter fare all over the world. In Russia, paska is made of flour, cottage cheese, sugar, raisins, eggs and milk, and then molded and baked with a cross on each side.
In Germany and Austria, an Easter bread with raisins (stollen) is baked in twisted or braided strands. Poland's mazurki are sweet cakes made with honey and filled with nuts and fruit.
According to Sue Ellen Thompson's Holiday Symbols 1998, hot cross buns have a long springtime history. First-century pagans worshiped the goddess Eostre, after whom Easter was named, and served her small cakes, often decorated with a cross, at their yearly spring celebration. Today, hot cross buns--small buns decorated with a sweet icing in the shape of a cross--are associated with Good Friday.
Symbolism plays an important role in Easter celebrations. Here are some of the best-known:
Lamb: This symbol representing Christ is depicted carrying the flag of victory in many central and eastern European homes. John the Baptist described Jesus as the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). The Passover lamb (Exodus 12) foreshadowed Jesus' sacrifice.
Lamb is a traditional Easter entree. Pastries, confections, or even butter molds in the shape of lambs often are part of the traditional feast.
Lion: In ancient times, people believed the legend that lion cubs were born dead. After they were three days old, it was thought that the lioness breathed on them and brought them to life--a parallel to Jesus' three days in the tomb before his resurrection.
In Revelation 5:5, Jesus is described as the Lion of the tribe of Judah. C. S. Lewis allegorically portrayed Christ in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as the mighty lion Aslan, who was killed and rose again.
Whale: Many people relate the story of Jonah to the Easter story. Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish, before being spit up on a beach. Christ spent three days in the grave and rose on the third day.
Rooster: The rooster, or cock, is the bird of the morning and symbolizes vigilance and resurrection. According to Holiday Symbols, this vocal bird first appeared on weathervanes, cathedral towers, and domes during the Middle Ages.
The rooster also reminds Christians of Peter's denial of Christ on the morning of his crucifixion. Three times Peter denied knowing Jesus that day, just as Jesus predicted at the Last Supper (John 13:31-38). Jesus reaffirmed Peter's place among the disciples was reaffirmed after his resurrection (John 21:15-19).
Robin: A traditional tale says that the robin got his red breast during Jesus' walk to his crucifixion. The bird saw that a hawthorn had pierced the forehead of Christ, causing it to bleed. The bird flew down and plucked out the thorn. But as he did, a drop of Christ's blood fell on the little bird's breast, staining it red forever.
Natural and supernatural
In addition to animals, other symbols have Easter significance.
Easter lily: This flowering plant was brought to the United States in the 1880s from Bermuda. At first, these plants were not associated with Easter, but since they bloom near Easter time and the Bible mentions lilies as symbols of beauty (Luke 12:27), a connection seemed natural.
Sand dollar: The markings on this sea creature, also known as the Holy Ghost shell, represent aspects of Christ's birth and death. The five-point outline on the front of the sand dollar represents the star of Bethlehem. The five holes in the sand dollar represent the pierced hands, feet, and side of Christ. Finally, when the sand dollar is opened, it yields five small objects that look remarkably like doves in flight, thus representing the Holy Spirit.
Palms: They represent the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem (John 12:12-15). Many churches refer to the Sunday before Easter as "Palm Sunday." In Catholic and some Protestant churches, palms are burned and their ashes saved until the following year's Ash Wednesday--the day marking the first day of Lent.
Anemone and Dogwood: The blood-red spots on the white blossoms of each are said to represent Christ's blood drops. Dogwood blossoms have four bracts (resembling petals) that represent the cross, and the center of the dogwood flower resembles a crown of thorns. Legend says the dogwood was used for Christ's cross and was later cursed by God so that it would never be used as a cross again, which is why today's dogwoods are small and spindly.
Cross: The cross, of course, represents the instrument upon which Christ was crucified. In the Dictionary of Symbolism, Hans Biedermann states that early Christians hesitated to use the cross as a symbol since it represented such a hideous form of execution. Only after the Roman emperor Constantine banned crucifixion in the fourth century did the cross become a popular Christian symbol representing victory over death.
In The Jesus I Never Knew, writer Philip Yancey cites C.S. Lewis's keen observation that the crucifixion did not become common in art until all who had seen a real one died off.
Jesus was probably crucified on a tau--T-shaped--cross (also called "St. Anthony's cross"). It was commonly seen during Roman times for crucifixion purposes. In the Latin Vulgate, this same symbol is mentioned in Ezekiel 9:4, a mark made on the forehead of God's people.
Tomb: The empty tomb is the focal point of Easter. It is usually depicted with the stone rolled to one side of the opening and an angel guarding the entrance. The empty tomb announces to the world, "He is not here, He has risen!" He has risen indeed.
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