The History, Traditions and Symbols of Easter
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The Symbols of Easter

Easter Eggs

According to the book "Festivals and Celebrations," eggs were dyed in ancient times by the Egyptians and Persians, who then exchanged them with friends. "It was in Mesopotamia that Christians first gave eggs to their friends at Easter to remind them of the resurrection of Jesus," author Rowland Purton writes.

If Lent is observed as it was intended to be, eggs are a forbidden food (this is why eggs were used on Shrove Tuesday). Centuries ago, when Lent ended on Easter Sunday, it became tradition for people to give decorated eggs as presents to their friends and servants. Over time, the tradition of painting or decorating eggs has continued, particularly with the Ukrainians and other eastern Europeans known for their beautiful and intricate designs.

The bejeweled "Easter Egg" created by the artist Peter Carl Faberge in the late 1880s in St. Petersburg, Russia, is the extreme of egg decorating. The lapis lazuli egg is a gold, enamel, pearl, diamond and ruby creation that features a hinged, enameled "yolk" that conceals a royal crown. This crown is also hinged and opens to reveal a ruby egg. Though this Easter egg is not documented among the Russian Imperial Eggs, experts say it was probably created for a member of Russian royalty.

Of all the symbols associated with Easter the egg, the symbol of fertility and new life, is the most identifiable. The customs and traditions of using eggs have been associated with Easter for centuries.

Originally Easter eggs were painted with bright colors to represent the sunlight of spring and were used in Easter-egg rolling contests or given as gifts. After they were colored and etched with various designs the eggs were exchanged by lovers and romantic admirers, much the same as valentines. In medieval time eggs were traditionally given at Easter to the servants. In Germany eggs were given to children along with other Easter gifts.

Different cultures have developed their own ways of decorating Easter eggs. Crimson eggs, to honor the blood of Christ, are exchanged in Greece. In parts of Germany and Austria green eggs are used on Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday). Slavic peoples decorate their eggs in special patterns of gold and silver.

Austrian artists design patterns by fastening ferns and tiny plants around the eggs, which are then boiled. The plants are then removed revealing a striking white pattern. The Poles and Ukrainians decorate eggs with simple designs and colors. A number of eggs are made in the distinctive manner called pysanki (to design, to write).

Pysanki eggs are a masterpiece of skill and workmanship. Melted beeswax is applied to the fresh white egg. It is then dipped in successive baths of dye. After each dip wax is painted over the area where the preceding color is to remain. Eventually a complex pattern of lines and colors emerges into a work of art.

In Germany and other countries eggs used for cooking where not broken, but the contents were removed by piercing the end of each egg with a needle and blowing the contents into a bowl. The hollow eggs were died and hung from shrubs and trees during the Easter Week. The Armenians would decorate hollow eggs with pictures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other religious designs.

Eggs play an important part in Easter sports. The Romans celebrated the Easter season by running races on an oval track and giving eggs as prizes. Two traditional Easter egg games are the Easter Egg Hunt and the Easter Egg Roll.

On Easter morning the children of the house join in a search to locate the eggs that the Easter Bunny had hidden while they where asleep. The searching might continue though out the house with the older children helping the youngest. Sometimes prizes of candy are awaiting the child finding the most eggs.

Easter egg hunts can are also part of a community's celebration of holiday. The eggs are hidden in public places and the children of the community are invited to find the eggs.

The rules of an Easter Egg Roll are to see who can roll an egg the greatest distance or can make the roll without breaking it, usually down a grassy hillside or slope.

Maybe the most famous egg rolling takes place on the White House Lawn. Hundreds of children come with baskets filled with brightly decorated eggs and roll them down the famous lawn, hoping the President of the United States is watching the fun.

Of all the symbols associated with Easter the egg, the symbol of fertility and new life, is the most identifiable. The customs and traditions of using eggs have been associated with Easter for centuries.

For thousands of years, people thought of eggs as the symbols of new life. People also thought that the Earth itself hatched from a huge egg. So that is why the egg was chosen as the symbol of the resurrection.

A Polish folktale tells of the Virgin Mary giving eggs to soldiers at the cross as she pleaded with them to be merciful. As her tears dropped they spattered droplets on the eggs mottling them with a myriad of colors.

Long before Jesus, people used to give each other eggs as presents. These eggs were dyed or painted in
fancy colors and designs. Some of the most elaborate and beautifully designed eggs came from countries such as the Ukraine. The tool used by the Ukrainians was called a Kistka. It's a brass cone mounted on a stick. The artist filled this with wax and heats it so that the wax melts, the artist then draws patterns on the melted wax. All the designs used have a religious meaning.

Every country has its own customs. In the Northern counties of England the children go around begging for eggs and other presents and acting out the Pace egg Play, this was known as "Pace egging".

"Pace eggs" comes from the Hebrew word Pesach (Passover). In Scotland the word also appears as Peace or Paiss.

Since ancient times many cultures have associated eggs with the universe. They've been dyed, decorated, and painted by the Romans, Gaul's, Persians, and the Chinese. They were used in spring festivals to represent the rebirth of life. As Christianity took hold the egg began to symbolize the rebirth of man rather than nature. 

During the 4th century consuming eggs during Lent became taboo. However, spring is the peak egg-laying time for hens, so people began to cook eggs in their shells to preserve them. Eventually people began decorating and hiding them for children to find during Easter, which gave birth to the Easter Egg Hunt. Other egg-related games also evolved like egg tossing and egg rolling.



The Easter Bunny

The Easter Bunny, a cute little rabbit that hides eggs for us to find on Easter. In the rites of spring the rabbit symbolized fertility. In a German book dated 1682, a tale is told of a bunny laying eggs and hiding them in the garden.

Rabbits are a powerful symbol of fertility and new life, and therefore, of Easter. The Easter Bunny, like Santa Claus, has become a popular children's character. But it may be that the Easter Bunny is something of a historical mistake.

Hares were sacred to the pagan festival of Eostre. At some point, the hare was replaced by the rabbit (some say that this is because it is difficult to tell hares and rabbits, both long-eared mammals, apart).

The Easter bunny has its origin in pre-Christian fertility lore. The Hare and the Rabbit were the most fertile animals known and they served as symbols of the new life during the Spring season.

The bunny as an Easter symbol seems to have its origins in Germany, where it was first mentioned in German writings in the 1500s. The first edible Easter bunnies were made in Germany during the early 1800s. These were made of pastry and sugar.

The Easter bunny was introduced to American folklore by the German settlers who arrived in the Pennsylvania Dutch country during the 1700s. The arrival of the "Oschter Haws" was considered "childhood's greatest pleasure" next to a visit from Christ-Kindel on Christmas Eve. The children believed that if they were good the "Oschter Haws" would lay a nest of colored eggs.

The children would build their nest in a secluded place in the home, the barn or the garden. Boys would use their caps and girls their bonnets to make the nests . The use of elaborate Easter baskets would come later as the tradition of the Easter bunny spread through out the country.

Easter Bells

Easter Bells are rung in France and Italy throughout the year but they are not rung on the Thursday before Good Friday. They are silent as way to remember the death of Jesus. They are then rung on Easter Sunday as way of telling people Jesus is alive again.

The Cross

The Cross is the symbol for the Christian religion as Jesus was nailed to a cross but then came back to life.  

The Cross is the symbol of the Crucifixion, as opposed to the Resurrection. However, at the Council of Nicaea, in A.D. 325, Constantine decreed that the Cross was the official symbol of Christianity. The Cross is not only a symbol of Easter, but it is more widely used, especially by the Catholic Church, as a year-round symbol of their faith.

The Easter Lily - The lily was a reminder to the Christians of how Jesus came back to life.

Easter Flowers- Such as daffodil, narcissus and the tulip. Area symbol as they bloom in the spring.

Pussy Willows- These are especially picked at Easter in England and Russia. People would tap each other on the shoulders with a branch of the pussy willow for good luck.

Lambs - The lamb is a symbol as people thought of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who would watch over them as they were lambs.

Rabbits - Rabbits are reminder of spring and new life. They were the favorite animal of the spring goddess Easter.

The Egg - These are a symbol of spring as well as Easter. They are a sign of new life.

Chicks  - The chicks are born from eggs and are a reminder of spring and Easter.


Hot Cross Buns

According to the book Dates and Meanings of Religious & Other Festivals," hot cross buns "... used to be kept specially for Good Friday with the symbolism of the cross, although it is thought that they originated in pagan times with the bun representing the moon and its four quarters."

The custom of eating hot cross buns goes back to pre-Christian times, when pagans offered their god, Zeus, a cake baked in the form of a bull, with a cross upon it to represent its horns. Throughout the centuries, hot cross buns were made and eaten every Good Friday, and it was thought that they had miraculous curative powers. People hung buns from their kitchen ceilings to protect their households from evil for the year to come. Good Friday bread and buns were said never to go moldy. This was probably because the buns were baked so hard that there was no moisture left in the mixture for the mold to live on. Hot cross buns and bread baked on Good Friday were used in powdered form to treat all sorts of illnesses.


The Easter Basket
The Easter Basket shows roots in a Catholic custom. Baskets filled with breads, cheeses, hams, and other foods for Easter dinner were taken to mass Easter morning to be blessed. This evolved into baskets filled with chocolate eggs, jellybeans, toys, and stuffed bunnies for children left behind by the Easter Bunny.


The Easter Bonnet

The Easter bonnet and new clothes on Easter symbolizes the end of the dreary winter and the beginning of the fresh, new spring. At the turn of the century, it was popular for families to stroll to church and home again to show off their "Sunday best".




Worldwide Easter Celebrations

Here are a few ways in which Easter is celebrated by Christians around the world:


Palm Sunday
Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter Day. It is to commemorate Jesus's last journey to Jerusalem, when people cut palm branches to spread on his path as he rode to the city. Many other traditions are associated with Palm Sunday. In some parts of England it used to be called Fig Sunday because people ate fig pies or puddings on that day. In Wales it is called Sul y Blodau, Flowering Sunday.

In Greece people like to eat fish on Palm Sunday. In some German towns people decorate poles with streamers and branches of pussy willow. Christians in Lebanon like to wear new clothes on Palm Sunday. In Italy it is regarded as a day or making up quarrels.

Holy Thursday
Holy Thursday also referred to as Maundy Thursday. In Europe the Christian monarchs used to wash the feet of poor people on the Thursday before Easter in memory of Jesus's Act.

Also on this day Jesus ate and drank with his followers. This meal became known as the Last Supper, because Jesus died soon after.

Good Friday
Good Friday is the commemoration of the Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus. In some countries the bells are tolled while in other countries they are silenced until Sunday. A custom also is the eating of Hot Cross Buns. Many superstitions go with hot cross buns such as they are a charm against evil and to keep indefinitely.

An Old Rhyme says:
Good Friday comes this month: the old woman runs
With one a penny, two a penny hot cross buns;
Whose virtue is, if you'll believe what's said,
They'll not grow mouldy like the common bread.

Holy Saturday
Holy Saturday is part of the period mourning which begins on Good Friday. For Christians in countries such as Bulgaria, Greece and Poland, Hoy Saturday is a day of cooking, ready for the feasting the following day to celebrate the Resurrection.

Easter Day
Easter day is the Commemoration of the Resurrection of Jesus, with its promise of eternal life. A symbol of the Resurrection is the egg out of which a bird hatches.

Easter Monday
Easter Monday is day of sports and games of various kinds. In Britain Football is the game played. Also the game of egg shackling in which you hold a hard-boiled egg firmly in your hand and hit against another opponents. Another is Ducking Monday.

Ascension is the fortieth day from Easter Day. It was on this day that Jesus ascended into Heaven. Ascension Day falls on a Thursday. The Paschal candle which was lit on Easter Day to mark the resurrection is put out to mark Jesus's departure from Earth.

The Lenten Season
Lent is the forty-six day period just prior to Easter Sunday. It begins on Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday") is a celebration, sometimes called "Carnival," practiced around the world, on the Tuesday prior to Ash Wednesday. It was designed as a way to "get it all out" before the sacrifices of Lent began. New Orleans is the focal point of Mardi Gras celebrations in the U.S. Read about the religious meanings of the Lenten Season.

Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday and Lent
If you live outside the UK, you probably haven't heard of Shrove Tuesday. But you probably know it by its other name, Mardi Gras. Pancakes were originally eaten on Shrove Tuesday -- the Tuesday before Lent -- to use up eggs and fat before the fast of Lent. Today, these pancakes are generally made of eggs, milk and flour. The word "shrove" comes from "shrive," meaning "the confessions of sins" -- something done in preparation for Lent.

Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting that gets its name from the practice of sprinkling ashes over those engaging in the fast of Lent. Has anyone ever apologized to you by saying, "Let me put on my ashes and sackcloth..."? This is where that saying originated. Those wishing to receive the sacrament of penance were known as "penitents." They wore sackcloth and were required to remain apart from the Christian community until Maundy Thursday. This practice fell into disuse during the eighth, ninth and 10th centuries, when the beginning of Lent was symbolized by placing ashes on the heads of the entire congregation.

Today, Christians have a cross put on their forehead in ashes. The ashes are usually made from the previous year's blessed palm fronds from Palm Sunday, and are usually wet with holy water before being used.

The name Lent comes from the Middle English "lenten," meaning "spring." Lent signifies 40 days of fasting in order to imitate the fast of Jesus Christ after his baptism (the Epiphany). Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, 46 days before Easter Sunday, when it ends.

Other Easter Days
Eastertide goes on until Whit Sunday, fifty days after Easter day. The day is also known as Pentecost. Several other days during Eastertide are; the first Sunday after Easter is known as Low Sunday. In England the Monday and Tuesday following Low Sunday are called Hocktide. Hocktide Monday is were the women bind and gag them until they pay a ransom, then on Tuesday it's the men's turn to do the same in kind to the women. This tradition is at least a thousand years old.

The Date of Easter

Unlike festivals such as Christmas, Easter has been celebrated without interruption since New Testament times. The dates of all movable feasts are also calculated around the date of Easter. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,

"...western Christians celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the full moon (the paschal moon) that occurs on or next after the vernal equinox on March 21. If the paschal moon, which is calculated from a system of golden numbers and epacts and does not necessarily coincide with the astronomical full moon, occurs on a Sunday, Easter is the following Sunday."

The U.S. Naval Observatory's Astronomical Applications Department says that Easter is determined by the "ecclesiastical moon" as defined by church-constructed tables to be used permanently for calculating the phase of the moon. This full moon doesn't necessarily coincide with the astronomical full moon, which means, Navy researchers say, that Easter is not necessarily the very next Sunday after a full moon. It could be the next Sunday after the ecclesiastical moon. This happened in 1876.

These calculations say that Easter can fall between March 22 and April 25. This was decreed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 as part of the Gregorian calendar.

During New Testament times, the Christian church celebrated Easter at the same time as the Jews observed Passover (the first of Passover's eight days is Nissan 15 on the Jewish calendar. Passover observes the flight and freedom of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt). By the middle of the second century, Easter was celebrated on the Sunday after Passover. The Council of Nicaea decided in 325 A.D. that all churches should celebrate it together on a Sunday.

The Eastern Orthodox church may celebrate Easter up to a month later, as its calculation of the date is based on the Julian calendar, which is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar. In 1865 and 1963, Easter observance in both eastern and western churches coincided.

In some countries, Good Friday and the Monday after Easter are national holidays. In the United States, these two days are not federal holidays and observance varies from state to state.


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