WASHINGTON, April 20, 2014 — Many Easter traditions stem directly from Christian symbolism, dealing with Christ and the resurrection, while others come from pagan rites of Spring.
For Christians, Easter celebrates both the day Jesus rose from the dead and the end of the fast of Lent. Renewal and rebirth are major themes of Easter, and many of these traditions began before the birth of Christ. The prominence of the egg is a symbol of that rebirth. Likewise, the tradition of eating lamb on Easter probably comes from the availability of the first lamb of the season, which historically came to market around the time of Easter.
A lamb is a lucky omen. Centuries ago, people believed the devil could take the form of any animal except a lamb. The devil could not transform into a lamb because of its religious symbolism.
Eggs also are symbols of rebirth and rejuvenation, and historically were associated with Spring. Their association with Easter likely came from this affiliation. Additionally, early Christians were not allowed to eat eggs during Lent, so the end of Lent was celebrated by eating eggs.
Eggs were decorated and exchanged as gifts before the birth of Christ, as early as 5000 BC. In China, children have received red eggs on their birthdays for thousands of years, and Persians have also exchanged decorated eggs as gifts. Central Europeans have a very long history of decorating Easter eggs, and two of the most elaborately decorated egg-types are Russian Faberge eggs and Ukrainian pysanky. In early history, eggs were part of spring festivals and were considered proof of the renewal of life.
In Yugoslavia, Easter eggs have the initials “XV” on them, meaning Christ is Risen. Under the Tsars, Russian Easters were elaborate celebrations and were far more important than Christmas. Germans remove the insides of the eggs and decorate only the shells, which they then hang on trees.
The Easter bunny does not seem to have any particular relationship to Christianity. Historically, it symbolized the arrival of spring. Rabbits are notoriously fertile, and Spring is a time of fertility.
Americans began celebrating the Easter Bunny around the 19th century, when the Pennsylvania Dutch continued the tradition of the Oschter Haws, or Easter Hare, who delivers eggs to good children. The tradition expanded rapidly, first throughout Pennsylvania and then to the entire United States.
The addition of the Easter egg hunts comes from the historic belief that finding eggs is lucky and will bring riches.
The association between candy and Easter appears to be relatively new, occurring in the 19th century. The introduction of factories and widespread availability of candy at that time likely contributed to this tradition. The famous marshmallow Peeps were introduced in 1953.