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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
Easter has its origins as a pagan festival where ancient Saxons worshipped Eostre, or Eastre, their goddess of spring. Christian missionaries in the second century converted the pagans and took over the festival, combining it with celebrations of Jesus’ resurrection, which also occurred in spring. Easter used to fall on various days, but the Council of Nicaea determined in 325 CE that it should be held on the Sunday following the full moon after the March 22 equinox. It has been celebrated on this day ever since.
The Easter Vigil on Saturday night is the traditional start to the observance of Easter in Catholic and sometimes other churches. After the service begins in darkness, the Paschal candle is lit representing Jesus’ resurrection. This is followed by various Old Testament stories and of Jesus’ rising, before the lights are turned on. A sermon might be followed by baptisms and Holy Communion. There are variations between churches and some hold the vigil on Sunday at sunrise. Normal services are traditionally held on the Sunday, perhaps with additional festive emphasis such as trumpets and Easter flowers.
Bunnies and eggs
Many of the customs of Easter go back to ancient times, such as the Easter bunny and Easter egg. The earthly image of the Saxon goddess Eostre was a rabbit. References to the Easter bunny appear in German literature from the 1600s. German migrants in the 18th century took the Easter bunny concept to the United States and it is now a common part of Easter celebrations. In fact, the bunny now plays a role in Easter celebrations in a number of countries.
The Easter egg also goes back to pagan times. An egg signifies new life, and it was a pagan tradition to exchange eggs in spring. Sometimes the eggs were colored by putting them in boiling water and adding leaves or flowers. The custom of giving eggs at Easter has carried on to the present day. Real eggs have been replaced with those of plastic, candy or chocolate. Eggs are often put in an Easter basket and hidden by parents who tell their children it has been brought by the Easter bunny and they have to try and find it. Many community, government, tourist and railway organizations, as well as churches and schools, hold an Easter egg hunt where Easter eggs are hidden in a designated area and children have to retrieve them. Egg decorating or painting is undertaken in many countries.
Apart from Easter eggs, various other foods are traditionally associated with this time of year. A Sunday roast is popular in many nations. Another favorite is hot cross buns, with the cross relating to the crucifixion, or the moon’s four quarters. Their origin goes back to Saxon times. The cards people exchange at Easter time often portray an Easter story or include birds and eggs or rabbits or lambs.
Customs in English speaking countries
Around the world, Easter is a time of special church services and family days. Many US cities hold parades where people often wear new clothing. A traditional game is the Easter egg roll where eggs are rolled down a hill. The winner is the person whose egg rolls farthest. The White House hosts a game on its lawn, with children rolling colored eggs with all their might. Egg roll originated in northern United Kingdom and is still played there too. The game probably represents the rock being rolled off of Jesus’ tomb. Egg knocking has been a serious Easter custom in Louisiana since 1956, with people going out of their way to produce eggs with very hard shells and less chance of breaking easily.
Each Shrove Tuesday for more than 500 years, English town Olney has held a pancake race. Participants toss pancakes in frying pans as they race each other along the main street to the church. Another traditional activity is called lifting and heaving. Here, decorated chairs are carried by young men who get a girl to sit on one before they lift it high three times to bring her luck. People also pat one another with a pussy willow branch for good fortune. Morris dancing is another popular custom at Easter time in England.
In Australia, Easter is in autumn. The Royal Easter Show attracts thousands in Sydney to see farm produce and animals, as well as parades, sideshows, rides, fireworks and, this year , Prince William and Kate. The native bilby has replaced the rabbit as the traditional symbol of Easter, as rabbits were introduced into the country and have caused much damage to local flora and fauna. Egg knocking or tapping is also a popular Easter game in Australia.
Customs in Europe
A tradition in Belgium, Netherlands and France is for no church bells to ring for several days over Easter. This represents a message of mourning for Jesus. On the Sunday, when the bells return from the Vatican, children look into the sky for them as parents hide Easter eggs in the garden. Across northern Germany, bonfires are lit on Saturday to symbolize the end of winter. In Scandinavia, children don witches garb and door-knock for sweets. A fascinating tradition in Norway is to read or watch murder mysteries ever since the book “Raid on the Bergen Express” was released at Easter in 1923.
An intriguing Easter custom in central Europe is the practice of men “whipping” or tapping women with a whip made of willow pieces and colored ribbon. This is supposed to keep women healthy and attractive. Women who miss out on this ritual are regarded as lacking in appeal. A woman who has been “whipped” gives a decorated egg or money to the man as thanks. Sometimes the woman throws cold water on the man.
In Italy, the story of Madonna and Jesus after the resurrection is told at the Piazza Garibaldi in Suloma. Thousands of people come to watch each year. The resurrection is announced by St Peter and St John by knocking on the church door. Madonna comes out in a black shawl, sees Jesus, discards the garment and runs to him in a green dress symbolizing hope. She lets go of 12 white doves and her handkerchief is replaced by a red rose as she feels no more anguish.
There are many more Easter traditions around the world. Most of them have some sort of connection to the resurrection, even if that link is not always immediately obvious to someone unfamiliar with a particular custom.