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.
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.
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.
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