By Mary Kate Wirfel
Growing up in a Catholic household, we all know the true meaning of Easter. On Good Friday, Jesus died on the cross. On the third day, that day being Easter Sunday, he rose from the dead. There is another version of Easter, the childhood version. That’s right, we are talking about the Easter Bunny. As children, we would go to bed on Easter Eve knowing that an Easter basket would be hidden somewhere in the house and we’d wake up to find it full of goodies and chocolate. Where did this childhood folklore come from? Where did the story of the Easter Bunny begin? Where did other Easter traditions come from? How was Easter celebrated in years past?
Many cherished Easter traditions have been around for centuries. The idea of the Easter Bunny first arrived in the United States in the 1700s. German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania brought their tradition of an egg-laying hare called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws.” Their children made nests so the hare could lay its colored eggs. The decorating of Easter Eggs is believed to date back to the 13th century, and the Easter parade has even older roots. Other traditions, such as Easter candy, are more of a modern-day tradition that is celebrated with this springtime holiday.
The Easter Bunny
The Bible makes no mention of a long-eared, short-tailed creature who delivers decorated chocolate Easter eggs to good children on Easter Sunday. The Easter Bunny has become a symbol in this Christian holiday. The exact origins of the Easter bunny are unclear, however, rabbits are known to symbolize fertility and a new life. After the German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania bringing their own Easter traditions, the idea of a hare that lays colored eggs soon spread across the United States. The Easter Bunny soon brought chocolate, candy and gifts. The decorated basket known now as the Easter Basket replaced the nest that the children use to make. Just as children leave milk and cookies for Santa Clause, the children would leave carrots out for the Easter bunny just in case he needed a snack. Check out the popular children’s movie, Here Comes Peter Cottontail for examples.
Some customs, such as Easter eggs, can tie into religious traditions. Painting and decorating eggs is linked to pagan festivals that celebrate spring. The egg is a symbol of new life. The Catholic perspective is that Easter Eggs represent Jesus as he emerges from the tomb and then to his resurrection.
Decorating Easter eggs dates back to the 13th century. According to some traditions, eggs were formerly a forbidden food during the Lenten season. People would paint and decorate the eggs to mark the end of the Lenten season. Easter egg hunts became popular when the White House began its annual Easter egg roll. This event would take place the Monday after Easter. President Rutherford B. Hayes started the tradition. Along with finding Easter baskets, the children would find decorated eggs hidden in hard to reach places. The largest Easter egg ever made was over 25 feet high and weighed over 8,000 pounds. It was built out of chocolate and marshmallow and supported by an internal steel frame.
Easter is the second-best-selling candy holiday in America after Halloween. Popular candies included chocolate marshmallow eggs and jelly beans. The jelly bean became associated with Easter back in the 1930s. The jelly bean’s origins date back to the biblical era, in a concoction called “Turkish Delight.”
The jelly bean is the top non-chocolate Easter candy that is sold every year for Easter followed by the marshmallow Peep. Peeps were founded by Sam Born, a Russian immigrant, in 1923. Peeps began selling in the 1950s. The original peep was a handmade yellow marshmallow chick. New colors, shapes, and flavors were introduced later, including chocolate Peeps and bunnies. Peeps for other holidays such as Christmas, Halloween and Valentine’s Day were later introduced.
The Easter Parade
In New York City, the Easter Parade tradition dates back to the mid-1800s when the high society would attend church. After the mass was celebrated, the people would stroll outside showing off their spring dresses and festive hats. People of the lower class would watch as the rich strolled down Fifth Avenue admiring their outfits. The tradition reached its peak by the mid-20th century. In 1948, the popular film Easter Parade was released, starring Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, and the music of Irving Berlin. The title song includes the lyrics: “In your Easter Bonnet, with all the frills upon it/ you’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade.”
The Easter Parade tradition lives on in Manhattan, with Fifth Avenue from 49th Street to 57th Street closed to traffic. People are often spotted in decorated bonnets and hats. The event now has no religious significance. The Easter processions, however, have been part of Christianity since the earliest days. Today other cities across the United Sates have their own parades.
Wherever you are and however you celebrate Easter, we hope you have a good one. For more information on the History of Easter traditions click here.