As far as holidays go, Easter in the United States is a Mad Libs of a day. A giant bunny brings baskets full of candy to children, who spend the day hunting for eggs. Oh, and this is supposedly celebrating the day that the Christian savior Jesus rose from the grave. When is it? Let me check the lunar calendar. And it’s not only the United States, Easter traditions around the world are a grab bag of ideas.
The hodgepodge of Easter has historical roots, largely tracing back to the spread of Christianity. When Christians attempted to convert people to their religion, they tried to incorporate other holidays into their own. Looking at the origins of the modern holiday can reveal a lot about what Easter traditions around the world really mean. But keep in mind, we can only scratch the surface of this rich, complex holiday as it’s celebrated in other countries.
The Word Itself
The word “Easter” goes back quite a ways in the English language. It can be traced back to the Old English Easterdæg, which means roughly the same thing. It’s believed that this word comes from the even older Proto-Germanic *austron-, which was the name of the goddess of spring and fertility. Before the rise of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England, the beginning of spring was marked by a celebration of this goddess. The Christian celebration of Easter absorbed the word and many of the traditions.
But English isn’t the only language, and besides German (where Easter is Ostern), most other languages have a different etymological root for the holiday. Many European languages, particularly those in the Romance family, derive their word from the Latin pascha. In Spanish it’s Pascua, in French Pâques, in Swedish påsk and so on. Even in Middle English, the word Pasche was used for the holiday before “Easter” won out. Another notable feature here is that many languages use the same word to refer to both Easter and Passover, the week-long Jewish holiday that often overlaps with Easter.
Easter is not fixed permanently on the modern calendar, and it can be celebrated anywhere from March 22 to April 25. The exact formula is that Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday that occurs after the first full moon following the Spring Equinox (sometimes it’s called the Paschal Moon).
Why? The New Testament didn’t include any dates, and so early Christians did their best to guess when certain events happened. Jesus’ death and resurrection were recorded as happening after the Jewish holiday of Passover, and so they attempted to make Easter coincide with the end of Passover. The Jewish calendar is tied to the cycles of the moon, and so this holiday would be too.
There’s one other calendar mystery with this holiday: Orthodox Easter, which is celebrated later than the non-Orthodox one. The Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar — named for Julius Caesar — to calculate its dates, while pretty much everyone else uses the Gregorian calendar, which was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII. Because of this difference, Orthodox Christians in Russia, Greece, some Middle Eastern countries, and certain former Soviet countries celebrate the holiday on a different date.
The Easter Bunny
If the existence of the Easter Bunny seems confusing to you, you’re not alone. Jacob Grimm, one of the Grimm Brothers who traveled around Germany collecting folktales, called the Easter Hare “unintelligible.” It seems to be connected to the Saxon goddess Ēostre, who is related to the origins of the Easter holiday. It’s possible that the rabbit’s infamous ability to create offspring made it a potent symbol of fertility for the spring. Somehow the animal got roped into the duties of bringing baskets filled with treats and hiding eggs for young children.
No matter its exact meaning, the German Lutheran tradition of the Easter Hare spread throughout the Christian world. It’s part of the festivities in the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as in Denmark (Påskehare), the Netherlands (paashaas), and both Austria and Switzerland (Osterhase).
But the rabbit isn’t the only gift-bringer for the season. In Australia, where rabbits are considered a pest, they’ve given the holiday to a small marsupial: the Easter Bilby. In Norway, the chosen animal is a chick — the Påskekyllinger — which is also a common symbol of Easter, even in countries that use the bunny. Sweden and Finland take a very different tack with the Easter Witch, where children are forced to do the hard work of dressing up as witches and bringing drawings from door to door in exchange for treats. But perhaps none is more fanciful than in France, where the church bells of each town and city fly to Rome to get blessed on Good Friday, pick up some candy along the way, and then drop them down to the children as they return on Easter Sunday. Then there’s Italy, where there’s no mystical element at all: the gifts are given directly by the parents or grandparents.
The Easter Eggs
The tradition of dying Easter Eggs goes way back. Eggs themselves are seen as a (quite literal) symbol of birth, so it makes sense they would’ve been part of the celebration of spring. But the use of eggs in Easter is tied to early Christians choosing red-dyed eggs as a symbol of Jesus’ rebirth. Members of the modern Greek Orthodox still stick to the color red when they’re doing their dying. The most popular style of dying, though, is the simple pastel dyes that pop up in shops around the world in the weeks leading up to Easter. And then there are pysanky, which are Ukrainian Easter eggs that are intricately decorated using wax. This type of egg decorating is done in many Slavic countries, and it predates the Christian egg-dying, with roots instead in pagan traditions.
But there’s more to Easter eggs than dying. The holiday has an array of games and activities done with eggs that vary from culture to culture. One is the Easter egg hunt, where dyed eggs are hidden for kids to find (though many people use plastic eggs filled with candy today). Like the Easter Hare, the egg hunt originated in Germany, where the German Lutherans of the 17th century hid eggs for women and children to find. The event was popularized in England by Queen Victoria in the 19th century, which expedited its spread.
A related tradition is egg rolling, which involves… rolling eggs. Depending on where you are, egg rolling is a little different. In the United Kingdom, where egg rolling originated hundreds of years ago, children decorate eggs and roll them down a grassy hill or some other surface to see which one crosses the finish line first. But across the pond, the egg roll — which has been a major White House event for over 200 years — has children use wooden spoons to roll their eggs across a field.
Another big event is the egg cracking game. This can alternatively be called egg tapping, egg fight, egg chucking, egg knocking or a number of other names. In the game, there are two people, each with a hard-boiled egg (often dyed, but not always). The two take turns hitting the other person’s egg, hoping to crack their egg while leaving their own undamaged. The game has been recorded as far back as the 14th century, and variations of it are played in Northern England (egg-jarping), the Southern United States (egg paquing or pocking), Croatia, Germany (Ostereiertitschen), the Netherlands (Eiertikken) and Greece (tsougrisma). The tradition even features in some places that don’t celebrate Easter. In Assam, India, for example, people play a version of the game called Koni-juj.
Hard-boiled eggs are a big part of Easter, but the food doesn’t stop there. And while there are a few common dishes you’ll find, Easter dinner can vary a lot depending on where you are and who you’re with.
In many places, roast lamb is the centerpiece of the Easter feast. In the United Kingdom it’s roast lamb with mint jelly, in Italy arrosto d’agnello, in Germany Lammbraten, in France gigot d’agneau and so on. Ironically, the tradition of eating lamb predates Christianity. It’s taken from Judaism, where lamb was and is eaten during Passover.
Another common item you’ll find comes after dinner: the Easter cake. It’s sometimes called a lamb cake because bakers will shape it into a lamb, but there are several iterations. Italians bake the Colomba Pasquale, which is in the shape of a dove (kind of), Spaniards make their Mona de Pascua look like an Easter basket, and Austrians go for more of a roll than a cake with their Osterpinze. The United Kingdom also has more of a roll with hot cross buns. Russia has a small cake covered in icing called a Kulitsch, as well as an even sweeter cheesecake called a Pashka.
Once you get past those two items, the rest of the meals vary quite a bit. In Poland, it’s Easter Sunday brunch that is the centerpiece of the celebration. It often features huge meals with stuffed eggs (jajka faszerowany), white borscht, ryemeal soup (żurek) and more. The Greek Easter feast, held after a midnight church service, is also a formidable event, with lamb, spiced bread (tsoureki), cheese pastries (tiropitas) and spanakopita, among other dishes.
There are as many Easter traditions around the world as there are cultures that celebrate the day. With its roots in Christianity, Judaism, pagan religions and more, it’s a holiday that’s hard to pin down.