Legends & Lore of Easter Icons

Easter Symbols, Icons, Legend, Lore and Customs

Many traditions of Easter, a religious holiday, have their origins in pagan rituals and beliefs. The result is lots of legends and lore behind the popular icons, symbols and customs that are part of the Easter celebration.

Hallmark historian and archivist Sharman Robertson explains the meaning of the word “Easter” and highlights the origin of Easter customs:

The Word “Easter”

Centuries before Christ, the pagan tribes of Europe worshipped a beautiful goddess of spring named Eostre (EE-ah-tra). Festivals celebrating the end of winter and the birth of spring were held in her honor at the end of March, the time of the vernal equinox. Some historians believe the word Easter is a variation of her name.

Others see a connection between Easter and the rising of the sun in the east. 

Easter Eggs

The egg has been called nature’s most perfect container. It also is the world’s most popular secular symbol for Easter, and the most popular symbol on Hallmark Easter cards.

In all cultures, the egg symbolizes the beginning of life or the universe. A Latin proverb says, “All life comes from an egg.” Eggs were dyed and eaten during spring festivals in ancient Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome and colored eggs were given as gifts to celebrate the coming of spring. These cultures regarded the egg as an emblem of the universe, the work of the supreme divinity, the germination of life.

Christians of the Near East adopted this tradition and the egg became a religious symbol – it represented the tomb from which Jesus broke forth. The various customs associated with Easter eggs were not recorded in Western Europe until the 15th century. Speculation is that missionaries or knights of the Crusades were responsible for bringing the tradition of coloring eggs westward. In medieval times, eggs often were colored red to symbolize the blood of Christ.

More than 1 billion Easter eggs are hunted in the United States each year in parks, back yards, and on the White House lawn.

Chocolate or candy eggs emerged in the late 1800s.

Plastic Easter eggs made their debut in the early 1960s. More than 100 million plastic eggs are purchased for Easter.

Easter Bunny

The Easter bunny has its origins in pre-Christian fertility lore. Hares and rabbits served as symbols of abundant new life in the spring season. It really is a hare – not a rabbit – that symbolizes Easter.

From antiquity hares have been a symbol for the moon, and the first full moon after the vernal equinox determines the date for Easter.

Hares are born with their eyes open, while rabbits are born blind. The hare was thought never to blink or close its eyes, and it is a nocturnal creature, like the moon. The hare also carries its young a month before giving birth – like the changing moon erupting into fullness monthly.

According to one legend, the Easter bunny was originally a large, handsome bird belonging to the goddess Eostre. One day she magically changed her pet bird into a hare. Because the Easter bunny is still a bird at heart, he continues to build a straw nest and fill it with eggs.

Legend of the Easter Lily

The lily is a symbol of purity because of its whiteness and delicacy of form. It also symbolizes innocence and the radiance of the Lord’s risen life. It is called the Easter lily because the flowers bloom in early spring, around Easter time.

The Bermuda, or white trumpet, lily was brought to the United States from Bermuda in the 1880s by Mrs. Thomas P. Sargent of Philadelphia, Pa., and it has become the mainstay of Easter floral arrangements and church decorations.

Hot Cross Buns

One of the oldest Good Friday customs is eating hot cross buns. These small sweet buns, marked with a cross of white icing, may have originated in pre-Christian times. Early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans marked their loaves of bread with symbols to honor their gods and goddesses.

Many superstitions grew out of this custom – a cross bun kept from one Good Friday to the next was thought to bring luck, the buns were supposed to serve as a charm against shipwreck, and hanging a bun over the chimneypiece ensured that all bread baked there would be perfect.

Another belief was that eating hot cross buns on Good Friday served to protect the home from fire.

Dogwood Tree/Cross

As one legend goes, at the time of Christ’s crucifixion, the dogwood tree was as tall as the oak and other forest trees. Its wood was so strong and firm that it was chosen for the cross.

The tree was very distressed to be used for such a purpose and Jesus understood. He told the tree, “Because of your regret and pity for my suffering, I promise this: never again shall the dogwood tree grow large enough to be used for a cross. Henceforth it shall be slender and bent and twisted, and its blossoms shall be in the form of a cross. And in the center of the outer edge of each petal there will be nail prints. And in the center of the flower, brown with rust and stained with blood, will be a crown of thorns – so that all who see it will remember it was upon a dogwood tree that I was crucified, and this tree shall not be mutilated nor destroyed, but cherished and protected as a reminder of my agony and death upon the cross.”

Easter Parade and Wearing New Clothes

In the early church, those who were baptized at the Easter Vigil dressed in white robes and wore the robes during Easter week as a symbol of their new life in Christ.

People who had been baptized in previous years wore new clothes to indicate their sharing in the new life. New clothes at Easter became a symbol of Easter grace.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, people in their new clothes would take a long walk after mass, which has evolved into the tradition of Easter Parades.

An American belief is that good luck can be ensured for the year by wearing three new things on Easter Sunday.

Easter Sunrise Service

The Easter custom of the sunrise religious service was brought to America by Protestant immigrants from Moravia who held the first such service in Bethlehem, Pa., in 1741.

Origins of the early morning time stem from a passage in the Bible from the book of Luke: “…but on the first day of the week, at early dawn” women visited Jesus’ tomb and found it empty.

Sunrise services also may be related to the Easter fires held on hilltops in continuation of the New Year fires – a worldwide observance in antiquity. Those rites were performed at the vernal equinox, welcoming the sun and its great power to bring new life to the world.

The famous sunrise service on Mount Rubidoux in California was first held in 1909. Reportedly Theodore Roosevelt and philanthropist Jacob Riis organized the service. One of the best-known sunrise services is at the Hollywood Bowl, which began in 1921.

Easter Weather Superstitions

If it rains on Easter Sunday, it will rain the following seven Sundays.

A white Christmas will bring a green Easter, and a green Christmas will bring a white Easter.



Source: Hallmark Archives

4 Comments

  1. Meagheanne Donahue said,

    April 1, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    Here is the old Nordic folktale of Eostre (and the “Easter Bunny” and the coloured eggs)
    The Story of Eostre
    As told by my brother, Michael P. Donahue
    Once upon a time, there was a village in the North. The village
    lay at the base of the mountains and the winters were cold and cruel.
    In the deepest part of winter, when food and fuel were scarce, the
    villagers would look hopefully for signs of the coming of Eostre, the
    Rainbow Goddess of spring, who would bring back warmth and
    greenness and new life.
    One year, the winter was especially long and cruel. The sun rose
    earlier each day, but the snow remained thick on the ground and the
    chill North wind continued to blow.
    One young girl was sent out into the woods around the village to
    gather sticks for her family’s fire. Because the winter had been so
    long and cold, all of the sticks lying on the ground near the village
    had already been gathered up, and so the little girl had to walk deep
    into the woods. As she walked she bowed her head low to shield her
    face from the wind as well as she could. Overhead, the bare, black,
    leafless branches clattered against each other.
    As the girl circled the trunk of an especially grim tree, she caught
    sight of something moving. A Little bird was hopping about in the
    snow. As it hopped, it flapped one wing while the other dragged at
    it’s side.
    “The poor thing has hurt it’s wing” thought the girl to herself. She
    set down her armload of sticks and carefully picked up the struggling
    bird. She looked up and saw a nest high up in the tree. It was much
    higher than she could climb, the trees lowest branches were out of
    her reach.
    The girl looked around to the other trees. “Oh please,” she
    implored them, “please give this poor creature a place to rest”
    But the trees only replied:
    “Hush! Hush! Such things unheard! No shelter here for man nor
    bird!” And the clattered their branches even louder.
    The girl turned her back to the North, trying to protect the bird
    from the wind. “Oh please,” she said over her shoulder to the wind,
    “please stop your blustering and spare this poor creature your icy
    blasts.”
    But the wind only replied:
    “Foolish girl! Foolish pleas! It is my task to blow and freeze!” And
    the wind blew harder than ever.
    The little girl squeezed her eyes shut. “Oh please,” she asked one
    more time, “please, anyone, help me save this poor creature.”
    Then, the little girl felt a warmth on her face. She opened her
    eyes and stared: in front of her, a rainbow stretched down from the
    skies to touch the ground, and from the end of the rainbow stepped
    the goddess, Eostre.
    “Oh Eostre,” begged the girl, “can you please bring the springtime
    and save this little bird?”
    Eostre shook her head. “It is not yet time for spring in this place.
    Even I may not change that.”
    “But the bird cannot survive in this cold!”
    “It is not so cold south of here. There, I have already brought the
    spring. Let the bird fly south, to where the sun is warm and the earth
    is green.”
    “Oh Eostre, the bird cannot fly anywhere. It’s wing has been hurt,
    it can only hop.”
    “Well, child, if it can hop, then let it be a hare.”
    No sooner had the rainbow goddess of spring spoken than the
    bird transformed into a hare with sturdy legs and a thick coat of white
    fur. It hopped down from the young girls arms, it wiggled it’s furry
    ears and twitched it’s furry tail and hopped away into the woods.
    The girl watched it go, then turned around to thank Eostre, but the
    rainbow and the goddess were nowhere to be seen. She ran home
    and told her family what happened. At first, no one believed her.
    Then, only two weeks later, a warm breeze blew from the south,
    the snow began to melt, buds appeared on the tree-branches and the
    birds began to sing the songs of spring. The girl’s family went out,
    and were astonished to find the prints of a hare all around their home.
    They followed the prints all about and, in a patch of crocus that was
    poking up through the snow, they found a hidden bird’s egg, coloured
    all the hues of the rainbow.
    Since then, on Eostre’s day the young girl would lead the children
    of the village on a hunt for the rainbow coloured egg left by a hare. In
    time, her children continued the tradition, and so did their children. It
    continues to this day.

    The End

  2. Carson said,

    March 7, 2011 at 9:26 am

    um thanks this sight was really helpful because im writing an article on Easter for my schools newspaper so thank you.

  3. Charlie Weaver said,

    March 30, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    I was looking for different Legends of . . . and found your site. It has more than I had hoped for. I am still searching for more and hope they all are put together as nicely as yours.

    Thanks for a wonderful site!

  4. mama kelly said,

    March 16, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    A wonderful mix of customs and folklore!!! Thank you for a great post


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