According to Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on Good Friday and later arose from the dead, revealing himself to his disciples before finally, ascending to heaven. The holiest day in the Christian calendar, Easter Sunday marks the resurrection as described in the New Testament.
Many of the secular symbols associated with Easter trace back to the pagan Goddess of spring and the dawn, Ēostre or Ostara, from the Old English Ēastre.
History fades into mythology in the pre-Christian past and accounts differ, but this Teutonic deity was frequently depicted with eggs symbolizing the rebirth of Spring and rabbits, symbolizing fertility.
An egg laying Easter Hare called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws” first arrived with the “Pennsylvania Dutch”, German immigrants who came to America in the 1700s. Children would make nests of clothing and blankets in which the creature could “lay” her colored eggs.
The eggs themselves go back before anyone thought to write it all down. Cultures as widespread as ancient Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians and Hindus all believed the world began with an enormous egg, symbolizing the rebirth of new life. The practice of coloring eggs is believed to go back thousands of years. Except then, it was ostrich eggs.
In Mesopotamia, early orthodox Christians colored them red, in memory of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Household accounts of King Edward I “Longshanks”, King of England from 1272 to 1307, note the expenditure of eighteen pence for 450 eggs, gold-leafed and colored for Easter gifts.
The origins of confectionary bunnies is hazy. Chocolate molds may be found in Munich dating back to the 1890s, around the same time Robert Strohecker first placed a five-foot chocolate rabbit in front of his Pennsylvania drugstore, as an Easter promotion.
Overlapping as it does with pagan celebrations of Spring, some seasonal traditions are enough to make even 5-foot chocolate rabbits seem, positively normal.
In France, the Netherlands and Belgium, it is said that church bells literally depart and fly to Rome, returning Santa Claus-like on Easter morning bearing colored eggs and chocolate rabbits.
Across Scandinavia and northern Europe, April 30 – May 1 celebrates Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht), a festival dedicated to the 8th century nun-turned saint Saint Walpurga, with roots in pagan era rites of fertility. Little girls dress as witches as children “trick or treat” for eggs while bonfires are lit, to chase away Judas.
In the Czech Republic, young men fashion Easter “whips” called pomlázka, with which spank the behinds of wives and girlfriends.
As bad as that sounds it seems the only pain, comes when nobody comes to milady’s door. Kind of like being left out from Valentine’s cards. More symbolic these days than real, it’s still best to do your “whipping” in the morning. To do so after noon is to invite a bucket of ice water, to be poured over your head.
In Russia, Poland and Slovenia, no Easter dinner is complete without a heart attack on a plate known as the baranek wielcanocny. A butter lamb.
The lamb is made entirely of butter, and consumed from the tail to the head. Presumably, in one day.
Believed to go back to the middle ages, today the butter lamb may be found in Milwaukee, New York and other cities with large numbers of Polish Catholics. The Broadway market in Buffalo New York sells nearly 100,000, every year.
Across the Caribbean and Bermuda, Easter kite festivals combine windblown fun with colorful symbols of the ascension, spiraling up toward the heavens. In Grenada, Easter weekend kite festival is held at the narrow isthmus, at Fort Jeudy. The location is not for the faint of heart. With that steep drop over on the leeward side, one false move and all that work will end up in the ocean.
How to make an Easter kite, with “Rasta Man Joe”
On Trinidad & Tobago, behemoth kites called “Mad Bulls” measure twelve to sixteen feet and more requiring four to ten people, to launch. Haiti runs their kite festival in January, based on prevailing winds. Competitors are allowed to put “zwill” on their kite’s tails, razor-sharp bits intended to take competitors, out of the running. Yikes.
In Finland, the Easter pulse races with the excitement, of watching the grass grow. Literally. And when that’s done, children decorate it with painted eggs and paper bunnies.
In a nation one-third of which rests above the arctic circle, may it IS that exciting to watch the grass grow. For those accustomed to a bit more stimulation, you can always try Florence, Italy, where the Scoppio del Carro, (“Explosion of the Cart”) goes back almost 400 years.
As the story goes, a young knight of the noble Pazzi family took part in the first Crusade, in 1099. Young Pazzino was the first to scale the walls of Jerusalem to raise the Christian banner for which he was awarded, with three flints from the Holy Sepulcher.
Fast forward to 1622 when Florentine officials built a cart, not quite three stories tall. Festivities begin at 10:00am when a priest rubs the flints together, to produce a flame. With the Easter candle thus lit, coals are kindled and the whole cart laden with fireworks, a team of two oxen leading the whole procession as the Holy Fire is transported to the Santa Maria del Fiore, better known as the Duomo. There, the Archbishop of Florence lights a dove-shaped rocket called a “Columbina“, signifying the Holy Spirit.
If the whole Rube Goldberg contraption actually works, the dove will “fly” down a wire to the Holy Fire and spectators will be treated to the “explosion of the cart”, one heck of a fireworks display ensuring good luck and bountiful harvests, throughout the year.
And if one rocket isn’t enough for you, (even if it is shaped like a dove), how about a War of rockets?
The Greek archipelago comprises some 1,200 to 6,000 islands, depending on how you count them. The fifth largest by landmass is Chios, said to be the birthplace of the blind bard of antiquity himself, Homer.
There on Chios in the coastal town of Vrontados you will find the Rouketopolemos. (Greek Рουκετοπόλεμος: literally “rocket war”).
There are two major parishes in Vrontanos: St. Mark’s and Panaghia Ereithiani. The two are located some 400 meters from each other, about 1,300 feet. Every year at Easter, rival congregants hold a rocket war. It used to be cannon but, on or about this day in 1889, Chios’ Ottoman overlords forbade it. So it goes, the Easter Rocket War, with gunpowder rockets launched by the tens of thousands at each other’s bell tower.
The winner is the one with the most hits, except the two sides can never agree, and so it is…NEXT year…we’ll REALLY settle some scores.
And the best part? These guys celebrate Orthodox Easter, which doesn’t come around until May 2. You still have plenty of time to get there.
Feature image, top of page: The annual Easter bunny dog chase, St Agnes, Cornwall.