Easter in Australia is all about chocolate. In 2014, we spent $191.4 million on Easter eggs, which equates to thousands of tonnes of chocolate.
But chocolate is one thing you won’t find in the original Easter story, which tells of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday and his resurrection three days later.
Originating in the northern hemisphere, Easter draws heavily on pagan traditions marking the change in seasons, as winter gives way to spring. Symbols of renewal and fertility – like the egg – feature in both pagan springtime rituals and the Christian celebration of Easter.
Egg decoration is an ancient tradition common in many cultures. Eggs are often decorated during celebrations marking Persian New Year, which falls on the spring equinox in March each year. In Egypt, egg decorating features in the springtime festival of Sham el-Nessim. In Poland, pisanki, or decorated eggs, predates the arrival of the first Christians.
The decorated egg found its way into Christianity, where it came to represent the resurrection of Jesus from his tomb. Early Christians in Mesopotamia stained hardboiled eggs red to symbolise Christ’s blood, a tradition still practised in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Natural dyes like onion skin and beetroot were used to colour eggs, which were sometimes etched with elaborate patterns.
Popular Easter activities include egg hunts, egg-tapping – where the aim of the game is to break your opponent’s hardboiled egg with your own – and egg-rolling. The White House Easter Egg Roll, held on the White House lawn, is the biggest event held at the White House in Washington DC, USA. A tradition since 1878, entry to the annual egg roll is now allocated via a lottery system.
The most expensive Easter eggs ever made were created by Fabergé for the Russian Imperial family between 1885 and 1916. Created as gifts for the tsar’s wife and mother, each of Fabergé’s unbelievably lavish Imperial eggs opened to reveal a precious surprise. Of the 50 produced, the location of 43 is known. In 2014, the previously missing Third Imperial Egg, valued at $33 million, was recovered from an American flea market.
The decorated egg found its way into Christianity, where it came to represent the resurrection of Jesus from his tomb.
Handmade chocolate Easter eggs date from the early 19th century. Advances in manufacturing led to the mass-production of hollow chocolate eggs in the 1870s by British chocolateurs J. S. Fry & Sons, Ltd. and Cadbury.
It wouldn’t be Easter without the Easter Bunny, which appears to have originated in Germany in the 17th century. Known as the ‘Easter Hare’, this mythical character distributed eggs to children who had been well-behaved, in the same vein as Santa Claus. Like eggs, hares and rabbits have a long symbolic association with fertility.
And then there’s the hot cross bun. An English tradition dating from medieval times, the spiced sweet bread is topped with a cross made from flour paste to signify the crucifixion of Christ. Originally, hot cross buns were intended to be eaten on Good Friday, but today supermarkets stock them, somewhat controversially, from as early as January.
Another Easter treat is the simnel cake, a light fruit cake that’s popular in England and Ireland, topped with 11 marzipan balls symbolising the apostles, minus Judas.
Of course, not all Easter traditions involve food.
In Bermuda, a popular legend tells of a Sunday school teacher who cut a kite’s string while it was aloft to explain the Ascension of Christ.
In Spain, Holy Week or Semana Santa is marked by processions held nationwide. Despite their pious origins, in the Andalusian cities of Malaga and Seville these parades are extravagant events. Participants wearing hooded robes known as nazareno march alongside elaborate floats, or tronos, which depict scenes from the gospels, while crowds gather to sing and cheer their favourites.
In Bermuda, a popular legend tells of a Sunday school teacher who cut a kite’s string while it was aloft to explain the Ascension of Christ. Nowadays on Good Friday, children around the island fly colourful homemade kites and eat codfish cakes and hot cross buns.
In central Europe, women are subject to some unpleasant Easter traditions. On Easter Monday in the Czech Republic, some young men move from house to house, whipping girls and women with pomlázka – switches made from willow branches and adorned with ribbons – as they go. The men are rewarded with gifts of eggs and often a shot of homemade spirit. In nearby Slovakia, females are doused with ice-cold water. Both traditions are supposed to ensure a woman’s health, beauty and fertility for the following year.