Whitefield Academy Blog
Christian Origins to “Secular” Easter Traditions
In our increasingly irreligious society, many holidays have developed two tracks. When selecting Christmas cards last year, my wife remarked that the website had a choice between “Christmas” and “Religious Christmas,” as if these were two different holidays celebrated on the same day. Christians have also seen this dual attitude applied to Easter. It may seem at first glance that many of our Easter traditions are completely secularized, following after the “non-religious” version of the holiday, but actually many “secular” traditions have Christian origins. By learning about these origins, Christians can reclaim traditions whose meanings have been de-sacralized.
Easter eggs are one of the most familiar Easter traditions. The most obvious association for Easter eggs, along with many other Easter traditions, is the new life which emerges from the egg, just as Christ was resurrected from the dead. Eggs as religious symbols actually predates Christianity. In ancient religions, eggs often symbolized the beginning of the world, which was believed to have “hatched” from some primeval lifeless matter. In the Jewish Passover Seder, a ceremonial roasted egg called the betzah is often taken to represent the sacrifice offered in the Temple on high holy days. Passover celebrates the time when God spared the sons of the Israelites in Egypt, and Christians consider this a foreshadowing of the sacrificial death of Jesus celebrated on Good Friday, which allows for our sins to be forgiven.
Early Christians appropriated the egg as a religious symbol and imbued it Christian meanings. In Mesopotamia, early Christians dyed eggs red before Easter, symbolizing the blood of Christ shed at his crucifixion. On Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday), the mother of the household would take the first dyed egg and bury it in the garden until Easter when it was dug up, symbolizing Christ’s resurrection. The egg is also commonly connected to Easter through its semblance with a tomb. Decorated eggs were often placed in churches on Easter Sunday in the Middle Ages for this reason. In Orthodox churches, the Easter Mass is held at night following a fast, and at midnight the priest proclaims “Christ is Risen,” with the congregation replying, “He is risen indeed.” The fast ends at this point, and the people are usually handed eggs as they leave which they may eat on the way home.
The Easter Bunny
Rabbits and hares are commonly associated with fertility and new life because of the speed with which they reproduce. An image of three hares chasing each other in a circle has also been found in many medieval churches, though the meaning of this symbol is now a mystery. They may represent the Trinity, or they may be connected to the virgin birth, since hares were once thought to reproduce without a male mate. This theory is buttressed by the fact that many of the Three Hare images are found in illuminated manuscripts with images of Mary.
The idea of an egg-laying Easter bunny has its origins in seventeenth-century Germany. Germans developed a story about a hare called Oschter Haws (German for “Easter Hare”) that laid nests of colored eggs for children who had been well behaved. These German Christians brought together the symbols of eggs and rabbits to celebrate the new life brought by Christ’s resurrection. German immigrants carried these traditions to America, and now you can have your children photographed with Oschter Haws at your local mall.
Traditions for Easter foods are not as well entrenched in the United States as Easter eggs or the Easter bunny, but there are many foods eaten at Easter that have some Christian significance. My favorite Easter dish is lamb, and this one turns out to have the clearest connection to the Resurrection. Many Christians see Easter as a fulfillment of the Jewish celebration of Passover. Lamb is the central food of the Passover feast, because Passover celebrates the time when the Lord passed over houses whose doorposts had been smeared with the blood of a lamb. Similarly, the blood of Christ, the Lamb of God, is what allows Christians to enjoy eternal life. Continuing this element of the Passover meal reminds us of our connection to God’s people in the Old Testament, as well as the sacrifice of Jesus.
Another Easter food with Christian significance is hot crossed buns. Of course, the cross on the rolls represents the cross on which Christ died. But less obviously the spices inside the rolls reminds us of the spices used to embalm him.
The Most Important Easter Tradition
The greatest Easter tradition, however, is gathering with God’s people, singing praises to our resurrected Lord, and celebrating communion around his table. This gives us the backdrop of faith through which all of our other activities can be understood. Having traditions like these that explicitly connect to our faith are great ways for families to proclaim Christ in our everyday lives.