Where do our Easter traditions come from?

The most important celebration in the Christian calendar, Easter is when we remember Jesus’ death and resurrection. But where do all our Easter traditions come from?

The Holy Week of Easter begins on Palm Sunday (14 April this year), which commemorates his triumphant arrival in Jerusalem. Some denominations hold small crosses made of palm leaves at Palm Sunday services, and these are burned at the beginning of Lent the following year to provide the ash for Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent, when worshippers are marked with ashes as a symbol of death and sorrow for sin).

Maundy Thursday (18 April), or Holy Thursday, remembers the Last Supper, when Jesus famously washed his disciples’ feet. The word ‘maundy’ comes from the Latin word for ‘mandate’ or ‘command’ given by Jesus to love one another (see John 13:34-35). Maundy Thursday was also the night Jesus was betrayed by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane and arrested by soldiers.

During the 17th century, the reigning British monarch would wash the feet of several poor people in remembrance of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet of the disciples. Roman Catholic services often feature a foot-washing sequence on Maundy Thursday, in which the priest washes 12 people’s feet, and many other denominations also include foot-washing in their commemorations.

Good Friday (19 April) marks the day Jesus died by crucifixion. Many Christians hold a day of mourning, with processions or re-enactments of the crucifixion taking place publicly to remind others of Jesus’ life-changing sacrifice. Many churches hold church services on this day, focusing on the final moments of Jesus’ life on earth and the last words he spoke.

Holy Saturday (20 April) often involves an evening vigil service as Christians watch and wait for the return of Christ. In some traditions the Paschal candle, or Easter candle, is lit as a symbol of Christ, the light of the world. Often the service begins around a fire in the open air and there may be set readings and hymns to mark this day of sadness before the jubilation of Easter Sunday begins.

Easter Sunday is the last day of Holy Week and marks the resurrection of Jesus. It is celebrated with great gusto by most denominations, and churches may be filled with flowers. Upbeat hymns are often sung and the message, or sermon, focuses on the amazing miracle of Jesus being raised from the dead.

So what about our modern traditions?

Easter Eggs

Many of us give or eat chocolate eggs around Easter time, but the eating of eggs during Holy Week was banned by the Church back in the day. Any eggs laid during the week would be set aside, decorated and given to children as gifts to commemorate Easter. The tradition evolved during the Victorian age, when satin-covered cardboard eggs were filled with Easter gifts. Chocolate eggs were first made in Germany and France during the 19th century. They weren’t particularly tasty, but this paved the way for our modern chocolate eggs, which are popular with children and adults alike.

The Easter bunny

Rabbits are commonly seen as a symbol of new life because they have such large litters. According to legend dating back to the 19th century, the Easter bunny would lay, decorate and hide eggs for children to find. This is why so many people attend Easter egg hunts over the Easter period. While some people feel this tradition should not be followed because of its pagan origins, most embrace it as a fun game that has little to do with either pagan or Christian traditions. In other countries eggs are traditionally believed to be delivered by different members of the animal kingdom, for example the fox in Germany and the cuckoo in Switzerland.

Hot cross buns

Traditionally eaten on Good Friday, hot cross buns are sweet buns made with currants or raisins and spices, and are marked with a cross on the top. They were eaten to mark the end of Lent, during which time dairy products were forbidden. The spices in the buns are to symbolise the spices used to embalm Jesus’ body, while the cross symbolises his crucifixion.

Other unusual Easter traditions

The Easter meal in Russia often comes with a knob of butter in the shape of a lamb, as lambs were considered a symbol of good luck. In Colombia, turtles, iguana and large rodents are often eaten at Easter. In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, men and boys roam the streets with ribbon-adorned willow branches looking for women and girls to ‘lightly whip’ as a way of encouraging beauty and good health! Meanwhile, Hungarian women dress up in traditional dress on Easter Sunday and are splashed with water.

Many Australians eat the Easter Bilby, a chocolate treat in the shape of a small marsupial called the bilby, or rabbit-bandicoot, which is endangered. Proceeds are often used to help save the dwindling population. In Haux, France, 4,500 eggs are cracked on Easter Monday to make a giant Easter omelette that serves more than 1,000 residents, which in Greece only red eggs are available to represent the blood of Christ and his victory over death.