The rabbit is a really old Easter association and some say the Easter bunny was originally a pagan goddess, worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons. They held a huge festival each year to mark the return of spring and fertility, and celebrate the goddess of spring, Eastre. But as the Christians spread around the world, preaching and converting, they in turn came into contact with different cultures and beliefs. Inevitably, some of these rituals were integrated into their own celebrations and in the case of the Saxons, religious beliefs merged and they changed the spelling of Eastre to Easter. The rabbit or hare – a symbol of abundant life in ancient times – was the pagan symbol for the goddess and celebration of Eastre, although Germany was apparently the first country to recognise it as an Easter symbol around the 1500s. Christians only acknowledged the bunny a while later.
Easter eggs, much like the Easter bunny, predate Christianity. Eggs and chicks represent new life and have symbolised the coming of spring since ancient times – along with all new life. Some believe the egg is a symbol of the rock tomb in which Christ lay for three days before rising again. An ancient tradition though, saw people of various cultures exchanging eggs during this time of the year as a symbol of rebirth – the wealthy wrapped them in gold leaf, poorer families boiled the eggs and coloured the shells using flowers and leaves. This was more to do with the onset of spring, although it later became part of the traditional celebration of the resurrection.
Some say that decorating Easter eggs dates back to the 13th century. One explanation given is that it was forbidden to eat eggs during Lent and so people would paint and decorate them to mark the end of the 40 days of fasting and penance, and eat them during Easter celebrations.
Hunting for Easter eggs is widely believed to have stemmed from a German tradition. They made the first edible rabbits from pastry and sugar in the 1800s. But before that, children would hide “nests” (usually their bonnets or hats) around their homes in the hopes that an egg-laying hare known as "Osterhase" or "Oschter Haws" would fill them with coloured eggs overnight. If they had behaved well, the bunny was sure to come. When German settlers arrived in the US – as the early Mennonites, or Amish – they brought this tradition with them. It spread around the world and baskets as receptacles for eggs were introduced in England during the reign of Queen Victoria, when children would fill them during the hunt for Easter eggs.
The White House holds an annual “egg roll” on the Monday after Easter, a race in which children push hard-boiled eggs across the lawn. President Rutherford B Hayes held the first official egg roll in 1878. Some Christians see egg rolling as symbolic of the stone being rolled away from the entrance to Jesus’ tomb.
Easter wouldn’t be Easter without chocolate, particularly chocolate eggs, which date back to early 19th-century Europe. The Germans were masters of the culinary arts and made chocolates and sweets alongside their pastry bunnies. Chocolate eggs and rabbits inevitably followed and are probably the most well-known symbols of Easter in modern times. Today’s marshmallow eggs stem from confectionary originally made by Russian immigrant Sam Born in Pennsylvania during the 1950s. He sold handmade, marshmallow-flavoured chicks known as Peeps, and later introduced other shapes and flavours such as chocolate mousse bunnies.
Nowadays, Easter’s commercial side far outweighs the religious and traditional aspect of the holiday. The stores are filled with chocolate eggs and rabbits, baskets and chicks, and strings or boxes of marshmallow eggs – all of which are eagerly hidden or sought out, depending on which side of the hunt you fall. And in the US, jellybeans are popular Easter candy as well.
Pattern featured: Easter Egg Hunt, available on Etsy, Craftsy or from my SA shop.