Thursday, March 25, 2021

Happy Easter, 1800s Style by Jo-Ann Roberts

Easter Sunday has been observed since the 2nd century as a way to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Over the years, many Easter traditions have taken shape, from chocolate bunnies to Easter egg hunts.

 As it turns out, there is so much that makes this holiday what it is today — religious or otherwise.

Easter Eggs

Throughout most of Christian Europe, the pagan symbols of the spring hare, the egg, and chick were quickly adopted as symbols for the Christian Easter. The colorful ritual of decorating eggs also has an intriguing origin. As part of the Lenten season leading up to Easter, early Christians abstained from eating food from animals as the Lenten fast. Yet chickens continued to lay eggs, so eggs were hard-boiled, then decorated to celebrate the Easter season but were not eaten until Easter. Easter egg decorating became a high art in Europe, especially in eastern Europe and Russia, that immigrants brought to America.

Easter Bunny

Like many Easter traditions, the Easter Bunny evolved out of ancient fertility and spring celebrations. Rabbits breed like, well, rabbits, and give birth in the spring. So, in places where the fields became overrun with baby bunnies, it was natural to incorporate the rabbit as a symbol for spring and, eventually, Easter.


Another legend tells of  a poor German woman who loved children. She would hide brightly colored eggs in her garden as Easter treats. One year, while the children searched for them, they noticed a hare hopping past and believed that the animal had left the eggs.


Easter Cards

Easter cards became very popular in the 1800s with colorful depictions of the egg-laying and egg-painting Easter bunny, as well as the Easter chick. And some cards combined the Easter bunny and chick in whimsical narratives to deliver colored Easter eggs to children.


Easter Egg Rolling

Given the egg’s symbolic significance representing the rock before the tomb, egg rolling became a popular children’s Easter activity in America in the 1800s, recreating the rolling away of the rock in front of Christ's tomb. According to the White House Historical Association, some historians credit First Lady Dolley Madison (yes, her name is spelled correctly!)with first proposing the idea of a public egg roll around 1810. There are also accounts of informal egg rolls staged by the children of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson on the White House lawn. The 1878 event hosted by President Rutherford B. Hayes on the South Lawn, however, stands as the first official White House Easter Egg Roll. 



Hot Cross Buns

According to popular lore, these Easter-famous breads trace back to ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece, where they served as symbols of honor toward their goddesses. Later, these sweet breads became popular at Easter, especially in England where bakers were forbidden to sell spice breads except on special holidays, like the Friday before Easter.

Chocolate Bunnies 

In 19th century Germany, chefs concocted pastry and sugar bunnies (some had hard boiled eggs inside of them!) were in production. And bunny-shaped tins, used for chocolate molds, have been traced back to Munich in the 1850s.

Around the same time, Robert Strohecker, a business man in Pennsylvania, placed a 5-foot-tall chocolate rabbit in his drugstore's window. The rest, as they say, is history.

Easter Outfits

How many of us remember the dressing up to the nines on Easter Sunday? Girls in frilly spring dresses with little gloves and purses? Boys in pastel suit jackets and bow ties? Purchasing a new holiday outfit may seem like a 20th century commercial invention, but even early Christians followed the practice of wearing new clothes for Easter.  It was the one time of year when, if you had new clothes, you wore them. You dressed in your finest to go to church as a manner of honoring the resurrected Savior. In America, stores soon latched onto the idea that creating Easter outfits and sales during the season would help them sell fancy bonnets or suits.

Fueled by the popularity of Irving Berlin’s song, Easter Parade, as well as the resulting movie featuring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire,  city-goers went to New York's Fifth Avenue to show off their new attire, eventually leading to the creation of the famous Easter Parade.  


Easter Egg Trees

It's only in recent years that miniature Easter trees have become popular in North America. This Easter tradition from Germany is a favorite. Beautifully decorated Easter eggs are hung on branches in a vase in the home or on trees outside, adding a splash of color to spring's palette.


Until this research, I never knew I was ahead of the curve on this tradition. From the time my children were babies, I’ve decorated a tree outside our home. Using plastic eggs (to endure the elements, e.g. ice/snow/wind/rain…you get the picture!), I would thread a ribbon through a hole in one end of the egg then loop them over the bare branches. Here is this year’s masterpiece!!!


As with Christmas’s Santa Claus—who came first from the pagan Father Winter, then morphed into the Christian St. Nicholas—the Easter bunny and Easter chick had pagan origins that then became symbolic to the Christian faith. But the Christian symbolism associated with all three and the historical context behind them is, sadly, little known by most in modern America. It is worth remembering that all three are associated with birth and rebirth, sharing gifts and bringing joy, and peace and good will.

Happy Easter!


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