12 Weird, Wonderful, and Worrying Easter Traditions
As we celebrate it today, Easter is a charming and confusing mish-mash of symbols, traditions, and commercial intervention. In fact, the combination of dyed eggs (from Europe), Easter lilies (Japan), the Easter Bunny (also Europe), jellybeans (United States), chocolate (South America), and Peeps (possibly outer space) makes this one of the most culturally and geographically inclusive holidays in the calendar year.
Even conceptually, the holiday has confusing origins. The name “Easter” in English is widely attributed to an obscure European goddess of the dawn “Eostre” (“Eastre” in Old English) who was honored for a month every spring. By the 8th century, the pagan celebration had largely been replaced by the Christian Paschal month, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but people have never really been keen on throwing out an amusing holiday custom, so elements of the earlier pagan celebrations (including the obsession with fertility symbols like eggs and rabbits) are still evident in Easter traditions worldwide.
So, hold on to your bunny ears…there’s more to this holiday than you imagined…
1. The German Easter Bunny
Technically a hare (not a bunny), this peculiar character was once a corollary to the more famous Santa Claus. Since the late 17th century, the Easter Hare has been checking on German children and rewarding good behavior with gifts (especially eggs). This tradition migrated to America via Protestant German emigrants, and, as always, the Americans eventually made the holiday concept so fun (and commercially viable) that the American version of the Easter Bunny was soon exported back to the rest of the world.
Bonus Factoid: Animal science in the Middle Ages was a bizarre field that specialized in prioritizing symbolism over actual biology. According to the bestiaries, the hare was a hermaphroditic animal that could reproduce without loss of virginity. Therefore, it was associated with the Virgin Mary, and therefore it was a suitable symbol for a Christian holiday (in spite of previous pagan associations). It’s amazing what you can justify if you really put your mind to it.
2. Easter Crime?
But Americans aren’t the only ones who figured out the commercial potential of the Easter season. In 1923, two young Norwegian authors, Nordahl Greig and Nils Lie came up with a bestselling idea—in the week before Easter, they launched a major ad campaign, which led to the book’s title Bergenstoget Plyndret Inat! (Bergen Train Looted in the Night!) being published on the front page of the Aftenposten newspaper. Most readers assumed that the story was about a real event, and the resulting furor launched the book into stardom.
But even more than that, the association of crime drama with the Easter season has led to a uniquely Norwegian tradition. On Easter, thousands of Norwegians head for a cabin in the woods and spend the long weekend skiing and reading crime fiction. Nordic Noir and dark chocolate…the perfect holiday pairing.
3. The Gift that Keeps on Giving: Fabergé Does Easter
While Russian Christians also adopted the tradition of giving Easter Eggs, the 19th century monarchs decided to take it to a whole new level when Tsar Alexander III decided to gift his wife the most impressive Easter Egg in the world. The “Hen Egg” was the very first egg crafted by Peter Carl Fabergé. Partly inspired by the traditional Easter Egg, and partly inspired by the traditional Russian nesting doll, the Hen Egg is made of an opaque white shell with a hinge; when opened, you see a matte yellow-gold yolk with its own tiny hinge; when you open the yolk, you see a multicolored gold hen with its own minute hinge; and inside that was a tiny diamond replica of the imperial crown and an even tinier ruby pendant (now lost).
The emperor was so delighted with this creation that he made Fabergé the royal goldsmith and commissioned an annual series of Easter Eggs for his wife, each containing some kind of surprise, and each more elaborate than the last. And while the Russian Revolution (and subsequent murder of the royal family) put a serious crimp in the Imperial Easter Egg tradition, almost a century later, this Christian tradition was eventually exported to the wealthy Arabian families in the Middle East. The Fabergé “Pearl Egg” (featuring 3,305 diamonds and 139 Arabian pearls) was released in 2015, and opens to reveal a 12.17 carat grey pearl, sourced from the Arabian gulf. Even accounting for inflation, it’s safe to say that the 17th century German Protestants never expected anyone to be that good.
4. Russian Easter Lambs
But even in Russia, the egg hasn’t been the most holy of Christian symbols. Even more sacred is the lamb…why? Because that wily Satan can transform himself into any animal, except the lamb. And that’s a real concern in Russia, because you don’t want to accidentally devour the devil in animal form. So, every Easter, they fashion little knobs of butter in the shape of lambs. This makes perfect sense, if you don’t think about the Satan turning into a cow. (Strangely, in Eastern Europe, “deviled eggs” are better known as “Russian eggs.” Coincidence? We fear not.)
5. Easter Witches, But Cute!
The devil is also a feature in Finland’s traditions, because Easter was the time of year when the Finnish witches would fly to German for a romp with the Devil. To ward off any potential evil associations, villages would light bonfires (to scare the witches away) and then mock the witches…by dressing up as witches. (Let’s be honest. Logic has never been a strong feature of Easter traditions.) This ancient practice was made Christian with the inclusion of willow twigs, which represent the palm leaves laid down before Jesus’s donkey on Palm Sunday. Today, children dressed as witches carry festive willow branches decorated with feathers and ribbons from house to house, wishing everyone “Happy Easter!” (sometimes in verse) and receiving candies and sweets in exchange.
6. Burning in Bratislava
But bonfires aren’t always just a warning. In Bratislava, traditional celebrants don’t just welcome in the new season, they make sure that winter won’t come back any time soon. Every spring, they create a straw figure dressed in women’s clothes named Morena (also known as Marmuriena or Kyselica). Morena represents death and the winter season, so to make sure that she won’t come back, they carry her effigy to the edge of town, light her on fire, and then drown her in the nearest river. Just to be safe, they then sprint back for home carrying willow branches (the symbol of spring) so that Morena won’t retaliate.
7. Eastern Europeans…and Buckets of Water?
In the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Hungary spring is a time for courting rituals, and Easter is the time for a tradition that loosely translates as “water and spanking.” Single guys (boys and young men) will visit homes known to have single girls, then chase the girls with buckets of smelly perfumed water and twigs. Girls “lucky” enough to be doused or whacked (in theory, gently) will receive beauty and prosperity for the coming year. The girls retaliate for this treatment by…giving the boys candy, painted eggs, coins, and dinner invitations.
One suspects that this tradition was invented by boys.
8. Easter Rodent, Anyone?
You’d think that since cocoa plants are native to Central and South America, that chocolate would be a favorite part of their Easter celebrations…but you would be wrong. Like the Europeans, the Colombians glossed Christian holidays over long-standing traditions, which includes a variety of native celebration foods. While the Good Friday soup is modestly made from a combination of codfish, spinach, and chickpeas. They really pull out all the stops for their traditional Easter feasts, which include roasts and soups made from crocodiles, iguanas, turtles, and capybara (the world’s largest rodent). Nummy!
9. World’s Largest Easter Omelette
But if roasted rodent isn’t quite your thing, consider travelling to Bessiéres, France, where the locals designed a custom Easter-pan more than twelve feet in diameter. Every spring, they donate 15,000 eggs to make the world’s largest Easter omelet.
But this tradition doesn’t have much of anything to do with Jesus, or with pagans. Rather, it traces its origins to the Napoleonic Wars. Legend goes that Napoleon happened to stop in the area, where he enjoyed his Easter omelet so much that he asked the villagers to collect all of their eggs together to make an army-sized version for Napoleon’s troops. We don’t know if the locals were happy about sharing their precious eggs, but they did manage to produce an epically memorable feast.
More than a century later, the local legend became a new reality. In 1973, the locals decided to resurrect the tradition, and they’ve been whipping up massive omelets ever since. Visit the village, and you might get omelet for your Easter breakfast…and lunch…and dinner…
10. Australian Easter Bilbys
To celebrate the uniquely Australian bilby (now an increasingly endangered species), Australians ran with the idea of animal-shaped Easter chocolate to create: the Chocolate Bilby. Because nothing says “keep this species alive” like biting the head off of its chocolate counterpart.
11. The New Zealand “Great Easter Bunny Hunt”
Speaking of massacres Down Under…while most Easter celebrants will be hunting for eggs hidden by the Easter Bunny, New Zealanders go after the bunnies more directly. Really.
Rabbits, better known as “the evil,” aren’t native to the island, and cause incredible damage to the local flora. Local farmers have tried basically everything that they can think of to stem the bunny tide: poisoned carrots, illegally-imported rabbit calcivirus, aerial toxins…but the little pests continue to flourish. In the war for biosecurity, New Zealanders needed something new.
Solution? The Great Easter Bunny Hunt. Every year hundreds of hunters form teams and trek out to shoot as many breeding rabbits as they can. The rules are basic: each team of hunters is assigned a specific tract of land, and they have 24 hours to bring in as many rabbits as possible. The winner gets a cash prize of NZ$3,500.
Armed with guns and deceptively cutsey names, groups like the Southern Hopper Stoppers, the Blasted Bunnies, and the East-West Bunny Boppers. The winning teams bag more than 750 rabbits apiece, with a collective record of 23,064 rabbits in one day. Bunny stew, anyone?
12. And a Compromise?
And for those of you who prefer exciting (but slightly less violent) Easter pastimes…here’s one that translates really well. In the UK, it’s traditional to take your painted, hard-boiled Easter eggs to the top of a hill, and see who can roll their egg the farthest. Novices will try this on a gentle slope, and they might use shaped sticks or spoons to encourage the eggs along. More experienced Easter enthusiasts head for rocky, tree-covered hills for more spectacular egg-sploding sport. To win, an egg has to be reasonably intact, so the game requires strategy, skill, and (because oblong eggs tend to spin unpredictably) a serious measure of luck.
In the U.S., egg rolling has become an annual White House pastime, but it hasn’t fully caught on in the rural areas, where the lack of manicured lawn might make for more interesting rolls.
And there you have it…
While you’re taking adorable pictures of kids searching for brightly-colored eggs, bear in mind that Easter has much more convoluted roots. Life and death and resurrection, triumph over evil, celebrations of survival, hope for a new planting season.
With gratitude and generosity…
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