We recently celebrated Easter. Of primary importance in the Christian calendar, Easter has become an annual event for many others as well, with celebratory eggs and chocolate rabbits being handed out and many looking forward to a long weekend.
Easter is the Christian festival of the resurrection of Jesus, celebrated at a similar time to Jewish Passover. Early records indicate Easter has been celebrated from at least the middle of the 2nd century. The rites and rituals around Easter differ between Christian cultures and denominations, but observance usually starts around 40 days before Easter Sunday and continues for 7-50 days afterwards. These times are accompanied by different traditions including fasting or feasting, special services and robes worn by the clergy, and periods of quiet contemplation or joyous celebration.
A chasuble, an embroidered robe from St Marys Catholic Church in Whanganui, worn by a priest during the liturgy of Eastertide, covering Easter and the 50 days after.
So where do eggs come in? Several denominations forbade the eating of eggs in the lead-up to Easter, but as chickens do not stop laying at this time, a household’s egg store would be quite full by the end of it. The eggs were often hard-boiled or preserved and turned into a celebratory feast when the fasting was over, as they had to be eaten before going bad.
Painted Ostrich eggs
Eggshells have been decorated for thousands of years, and eggs have been commonly used as a symbol of life, fertility and rebirth. Early Christians used eggs to symbolise the tomb of Jesus and subsequent resurrection, and often dyed them red to symbolise the blood spilt during crucifixion. The Christian Church adopted the custom and now eggs are widely associated with Easter, although the traditional decorated hen’s egg is now more likely to be chocolate or plastic accompanied by sweets or toys.
So what do rabbits have to do with it? Rabbits and hares are a common symbol in medieval church art; at that time these animals were believed to be hermaphrodites and their ability to reproduce on their own aligned them with the Virgin Mary. They are also good breeders and thus another symbol of fertility.
The Easter Bunny?
The Easter Rabbit first appeared in Georg Franck von Franckenau’s De ovis paschalibus (About Easter Eggs) in 1632, where he talks of the German tradition of an Easter Hare bringing Easter Eggs for children. The Easter Bunny originated amongst German Lutherans and was the judge of a child’s character, deciding if they had been good or bad and leaving them eggs, sweets or toys the night before Easter Sunday.
An Easter Greeting card, c1909
If you want to avoid eggs and rabbits, why not just send an Easter card? These became popular in the late 19th century as a way to send an Easter greeting to a far-flung loved one rather than try to send them an egg through the post. And today there are websites dedicated to sending still or animated Easter e-cards at little or no charge.