Easter Celebrations, Eggs and Bunnies

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Ukrainian Easter eggs

Easter is held on the First Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal (spring) equinox. It celebrates the resurrection of Christ after his crucifixion, signifying his triumph over death and the promise of eternal life. For both Catholics and Orthodox Christians, Easter is the most important religious holiday of the year. It grew out the Jewish holiday of Passover and the pagan spring festivals.

Why are eggs and bunnies linked with Easter? Some say it is because eggs and bunnies are associated with rebirth and resurrection. According to legend, Simon of Cyrne, who helped Christ carry the cross, was an egg merchant. Many historians also link rabbits and eggs to pagan symbols of new life. Lilies are also associated with Easter. They too are linked with the resurrection.

There is nothing in the scriptures about Easter eggs nor a bunny that delivers them. Brent Landau wrote: The fortunes of Easter and Christmas changed in the 19th century, when they became occasions to be spent with one’s family. This was done partly out of a desire to make the celebration of these holidays less rowdy. [Source: Brent Landau, Lecturer in Religious Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, The Conversation, April 10, 2023]

But Easter and Christmas also became reshaped as domestic holidays because understandings of children were changing. Prior to the 17th century, children were rarely the center of attention. The historian Stephen Nissenbaum noted: “children were lumped together with other members of the lower orders in general, especially servants and apprentices — who, not coincidentally, were generally young people themselves.” From the 17th century onward, there was an increasing recognition of childhood as as time of life that should be joyous, not simply as preparatory for adulthood. This “discovery of childhood” and the doting upon children had profound effects on how Easter was celebrated. It is at this point in the holiday’s development that Easter eggs and the Easter bunny become especially important.

Easter- Holy Week Season

Easter Eggs

Decorated eggs had been part of the Easter festival at least since medieval times, and have traditionally been see as a symbol of new life. There is a great deal of folklore attached to Easter eggs. In a number of Eastern European countries, a great deal of time an effort goes into elaborately decorating them. There are several Eastern European legends that connect the color red — a favorite color for Easter eggs — with the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. [Source: Brent Landau, Lecturer in Religious Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, The Conversation, April 10, 2023]

James Martin wrote in the Washington Post: “Easter eggs are an ancient means of representing religious beliefs. Depending on the source, either the custom originated in Mesopotamia with early Christians — who stained eggs red to commemorate the shedding of Christ’s blood — or it began as a symbol of rebirth. Others link the practice to parallels between a hatching bird leaving behind an empty shell and a risen Christ leaving behind the empty tomb. The consumption of eggs on Easter Sunday may also be linked to the conclusion of Lent, a time when, in addition to meat, some Christian cultures avoided eggs and dairy. Despite the candy industry’s attempt to bury Easter under boatloads of chocolate and caramel, many Christians, most notably those from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, still decorate their eggs with religious symbols. Filled with chocolate or not, eggs are heavy with meaning on Easter.” [Source: James Martin, Washington Post, April 18, 2014. Martin is a Jesuit priest and author of “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” |~|]

Alexandra Sifferlin wrote in Time: “It’s believed that decorating eggs for Easter dates back to the 13th century. Hundreds of years ago, churches had their congregations abstain from eggs during Lent, allowing them to be consumed again on Easter. According to History.com, in the 19th century Russian high society started exchanging ornately decorated eggs—even jewel encrusted—on Easter...Bunnies aren’t the animal traditionally associated with Easter in every country. Some identify the holiday with other types of animals like foxes or cuckoo birds. [Source: Alexandra Sifferlin, Time, April 1, 2015]

Ukrainians have developed Easter egg decorating into a high form of folk art. The custom is believed to date back to pagan times when the Slave worshiped a sun god and dedicated eggs as a symbol of rebirth in the spring. The eggs are called “pysanky” (meaning "to write") in Ukrainian. When blessed by a priest there are regarded as having talismaic powers. People keep them at homes as protection from fire and lightning. Many Ukrainians believe should the custom ever stop, a giant monster will rise up and destroy the earth. Giving Easter eggs as a gifts is an Eastertime tradition. Girls have traditionally given their finest works to boys they liked. The Fabrege eggs were created for the tsars as gifts for family members. [Source: Robert Paul Jordan, National Geographic, April 1972]

Ukrainian Easter eggs are covered with symbols that have a religious significance. A triangle represents the Holy Trinity. A fish signifies Christ and a cross symbolizes for suffering, death and resurrection. Wheat betokens a bountiful harvest; dots symbolize stars; waves suggest eternity and animals such as deer represent prosperity. An eight-pointed star is the symbol of the ancient Ukrainian sun god. Eggs with roosters or hens on them are sometimes given to childless women in hopes of giving them fertility.

Easter Bunny

Easter Bunny poastcard from 1900

Brent Landau wrote: It was only in the 17th century that a German tradition of an “Easter hare” bringing eggs to good children came to be known. Hares and rabbits had a long association with spring seasonal rituals because of their amazing powers of fertility. When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought this tradition with them. The wild hare also became supplanted by the more docile and domestic rabbit, in another indication of how the focus moved toward children. [Source: Lecturer in Religious Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, The Conversation, April 10, 2023]

Alexandra Sifferlin wrote in Time: “The exact origins of the Easter bunny are clouded in mystery. One theory is that the symbol of the rabbit stems from pagan tradition, specifically the festival of Eostre—a goddess of fertility whose animal symbol was a bunny. Rabbits, known for their energetic breeding, have traditionally symbolized fertility. [Source: Alexandra Sifferlin, Time, April 1, 2015]

Katie Edwards wrote: The earliest reference to an egg-toting Easter Bunny can be found in a late 16th-century German text (1572). “Do not worry if the Easter Bunny escapes you; should we miss his eggs, we will cook the nest,” the text reads. A century later, a German text once again mentions the Easter Bunny, describing it as an “old fable”, and suggesting that the story had been around for a while before the book was written. [Source: Katie Edwards, Director, SIIBS , University of Sheffield The Conversation, March 24, 2016]

According to History.com: “According to some sources, the Easter bunny first arrived in America in the 1700s with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and transported their tradition of an egg-laying hare called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws.” Their children made nests in which this creature could lay its colored eggs. Eventually, the custom spread across the U.S. and the fabled rabbit’s Easter morning deliveries expanded to include chocolate and other types of candy and gifts, while decorated baskets replaced nests. Additionally, children often left out carrots for the bunny in case he got hungry from all his hopping.”

Bunny Symbolism in Christianity

In Christian art, rabbits are often associated with rebirth and resurrection. Katie Edwards wrote: In fact, the symbol of a circle of three hares joined by their ears has been found in a number of churches in Devon. Like much of our cultural "bunny” symbolism, the meaning of this image remains mysterious — and The Three Hares Project has been set up to research and document occurrences of the ancient symbol, examples of which have been found as far away as China. [Source: Katie Edwards, Director, SIIBS , University of Sheffield The Conversation, March 24, 2016]

Rabbits and hares have also been associated with Mary, mother of Jesus, for centuries. Their association with virgin birth comes from the fact that hares — often conflated mistakenly with rabbits — are able to produce a second litter of offspring while still pregnant with the first. Titian’s painting The Madonna of the Rabbit depicts this relationship. Mary holds the rabbit in the foreground, signifying both her virginity and fertility. The rabbit is white to convey her purity and innocence. Linking rabbits with purity and virginity is odd, however, since they’re also associated with prolific sexual activity, a reputation Hugh Hefner appropriated for his now infamous Playboy logo.

Some folklorists have suggested that the Easter Bunny derives from an ancient Anglo-Saxon myth, concerning the fertility goddess Ostara (Eostre). The Encyclopedia Mythica explains that: Ostara is the personification of the rising sun. In that capacity she is associated with the spring and is considered a fertility goddess. She is the friend of all children and to amuse them she changed her pet bird into a rabbit. This rabbit brought forth brightly coloured eggs, which the Greek goddess gave to children as gifts. From her name and rites the festival of Easter is derived. Indeed, in his 1835 book Deutsche Mythologie, Jacob Grimm states that “the Easter Hare is unintelligible to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara … Ostara, Eástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the Christian’s God.”

The myth of Ostara, then, has become a popular theory for the derivation of the Easter Bunny — although it is a contested one. Either way, it seems that the association between the Easter Bunny and Ostara began with the 8th-century scholar the Venerable Bede in his work The Reckoning of Time. Bede said that our word “Easter” stems from “Eostre” (another version of the name “Ostara”). There is, however, no other historical evidence to support his statement.

Easter in Jerusalem

Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: “Throngs of pilgrims from many nations converge on Jerusalem at Easter—a potentially volatile mix and a tempting target for terrorists. To ensure safety and keep the peace, Israeli security forces deploy throughout the city, including along the famous Via Dolorosa. “Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims celebrate Easter atop the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In a long dispute with Egyptian Copts, Ethiopian monks have occupied a rooftop monastery for more than 200 years to press their claim to a portion of the church. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]

At 4:00pm on Good Friday, during Holy Week, thousands of Christians from all over the world rent robes and crosses and parade through the streets of Jerusalem , following the route of Jesus, singing, chanting, reading passages from the bible and stopping at the 14 stations on Via Dolorosa. Sometimes individuals carrying smaller crosses, follow the entire route on their knees. "My faith became gigantic," one pilgrim told National Geographic. "We felt Him walking among us."

Dan Belt wrote in National Geographic, “Christians form all over the world pour in like a conquering horde surging down the Via Dolorosa's narrow streets and ancient alleyways, seeking communion in the cold stones or some glimmer, perhaps, of the agonies Jesus endured in his final hours. Every face on earth seems to float through the streets... every possible combination of eye and hair and skin color, every costume and style of dress, from blue-back African Christians in eye-popping daskikis to pale Finnish Christians dressed as Jesus with a bloody crown of thorns to American Christians in sneakers.

Easter Sunday Mass

The Proper for the Mass on Easter Sunday from the medieval English Sarum Missal: “Officium (Ps. 138 [139]. 5,6). I have risen and I am with you, alleluia; you have placed your hand over me, alleluia; your wisdom has become a thing of wonder, alleluia, alleluia. Psalm (Ps. 138 [139]. 1,2). Lord, you have tested me and you have known me; you knew when I sat down and when I got up again. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. [Source: translated from the Latin text printed in the edition of Francis H. Dickinson, London, 1861-83, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]

Easter Cross procession in Corfu, Greece

“Prayer. God, who on this day, having conquered death through your only-begotten Son, reopened the path to eternal life for us: may you, through your prevenient grace, inspire our prayers, and aid us in their fulfillment. Through the same Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, for ever and ever. Amen. A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians ( I Cor. 5.7-8). Brothers, throw away the old yeast, so that you might be fresh dough, as you are unleavened bread. For Christ our paschal offering is sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, not with the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Gradual (Ps.117 [118]. 24, 1). This is the day the Lord has made: let us rejoice and be happy in it. V. Give thanks to the Lord because he is good: because his mercy endures forever. Alleluia. V (I Cor. 5.7). Christ our paschal offering is sacrificed.

“Sequence. A very bright light shines out . . . .From the Gospel according to Mark (Mark 16.1-7). At that time, Mary Magdalene and Mary the wife of James and Salome bought spices so that, coming (to the tomb) they might anoint Jesus. And very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb, soon after sunrise. And they were saying to one another, "Who will roll back the stone from the opening of the tomb for us?" And looking up, they saw the stone rolled back. It was a huge stone. And going into the tomb, they saw a young man sitting to the right, dressed in white robes, and they were stupefied. And he said to them, "Don't be frightened; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He is risen, he is not here. Look at the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, that he goes ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, as he told you."

Offertory (Ps. 75 [76].9-10). The earth trembled and lay still when God rose up in judgment, alleluia. Secret. Accept, we beg you, the prayers of your people, and their offerings of sacrifice, so that what has begun in these Easter mysteries may bring us, through your power, to eternal salvation. Through our Lord . . . . Communion (I Cor. 5.8,9). Christ our paschal offering is sacrificed, alleluia. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Postcommunion. Pour out on us, O Lord, the spirit of your charity, so that you may, through your mercy, make of one mind those whom you have filled with your Easter sacraments. Through the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Easter Vigil in the 4th Century

Egeria wrote in the A.D. 380s: “XXXVIII Now, on the next day, the Sabbath, everything that is customary is done at the third hour and also at the sixth; the service at the ninth hour, however, is not held on the Sabbath, but the Paschal vigils are prepared in the great church, the martyrium. The Paschal vigils are kept as with us, with this one addition, that the children when they have been baptised and clothed, and when they issue from the font, are led with the bishop first to the Anastasis. [Source: “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme's Christian Worship (London, 1923), published online by Michael Fraser, Department of Theology, University of Durham. June 1994, users.ox.ac.uk ]

“2. The bishop enters the rails of the Anastasis, and one hymn is said, then the bishop says a prayer for them, and then he goes with them to the greater church, where, according to custom, all the people are keeping watch. Everything is done there that is customary with us also, and after the oblation has been made, the dismissal takes place. After the dismissal of the vigils has been made in the greater church, they go at once with hymns to the Anastasis, where the passage from the Gospel about the Resurrection is read. Prayer is made, and the bishop again makes the oblation. But everything is done quickly on account of the people, that they should not be delayed any longer, and so the people are dismissed. The dismissal of the vigils takes place on that day at the same hour as with us.

“Now, on the Lord's Day at Easter, after the dismissal of lucernare, that is, at the Anastasis, all the people escort the bishop with hymns to Sion. 5. And, on arriving, hymns suitable to the day and place are said, prayer is made, and the passage from the Gospel is read where the Lord, on the same day, and in the same place where the church now stands in Sion, came in to His disciples when the doors were shut. That is, when one of His disciples, Thomas, was absent, and when he returned and the other Apostles told him that they had seen the Lord, he said: " Except I shall see, I will not believe." When this has been read, prayer is again made, the catechumens and the faithful are blessed, and every one returns to his house late, about the second hour of the night.

Christ leaving the tomb at the Oberammergau passion play in 1900

Services in the Easter Octave in the 4th Century

Egeria wrote in the A.D. 380s: “XXXIX Moreover, the Paschal days are kept up to a late hour as with us, and the dismissals take place in their order throughout the eight Paschal days, as is the custom everywhere at Easter throughout the Octave. But the adornment (of the churches) and order (of the services) here are the same throughout the Octave of Easter as they are during Epiphany, in the greater church, in the Anastasis, at the Cross, in Eleona, in Bethlehem, as well as in the Lazarium, in fact, everywhere, because these are the Paschal days. [Source: “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme's Christian Worship (London, 1923), published online by Michael Fraser, Department of Theology, University of Durham. June 1994, users.ox.ac.uk ]

“2. On the first Lord's Day they proceed to the great church, that is, the martyrium, as well as on the second and third weekdays, but always so that after the dismissal has been made at the martyrium, they go to the Anastasis with hymns. On the fourth weekday they proceed to Eleona, on the fifth to the Anastasis, on the sixth to Sion, on the Sabbath before the Cross, but on the Lord's Day, that is, on the Octave, (they proceed) to the great church again, that is, to the martyrium.

“3. Moreover, on the eight Paschal days the bishop goes every day after breakfast up to Eleona with all the clergy, and with all the children who have been baptised, and with a]l who are apotactitae, both men and women, and likewise with all the people who are willing. Hymns are said and prayers are made, both in the church which is on Eleona, wherein is the cave where Jesus was wont to teach His disciples, and also in the Imbomon, that is, in the place whence the Lord ascended into heaven.

“4. And when the psalms have been said and prayer has been made, they come down thence with hymns to the Anastasis at the hour of lucernare. This is done throughout all the eight days.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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