Everyone knows there’s no such thing as the Easter Bunny. But the lovable hare has been mighty successful at edging out Jesus as the symbol of Easter. So just where did it and other Easter traditions come from?
Not yet ready to leave the nest
A recent study found that one in five Germans had no idea what the original Christian liturgical meaning of Easter was. Nearly all, however, were familiar with the Easter Bunny.
Perhaps that's not surprising, considering the tradition's German roots. Yes, historians believe the Easter Bunny made its debut among German-speakers in what is now the French-German border region between Alsace and Baden-Württemburg.
It all started, says Alois Doering, an author of books on German traditions, as a way to keep kids happy.
The Easter Bunny has a lot of fans
"The Catholic kids knew that Easter meant they could eat eggs again,” says Doering, referring to the prohibition of dairy products during the Lenten fast.
“But how do you explain all the egg-eating to protestant children? Where are all the eggs suddenly coming from?”
So Protestants, says Doering, made up a story about hares who brought baskets of eggs around to pious households. The hare was probably chosen for the task because it had long been a symbol of fertility.
A joyful event
Another German Easter tradition, this one Catholic, is Easter laughter. Beginning in the 1400's priests in Bavaria began lightening up their sermons, inserting jokes and anecdotes, to get parishioners to laugh – as a way of making evident the joyful nature of Jesus' resurrection.
Not surprisingly, this went down well, and soon priests were opening up the floor at church to garrulous members. But such active participation by laymen and women was anathema to conservatives within the church, and two popes spoke out against Easter laughter before it was banned for good in the 19th century.
The practice, though, is now making a comeback, among Catholics and Protestants alike, around the world as an Easter Monday activity.
Fun with eggs
Just the red egg please, I'm Orthodox
Decorating eggs is a tradition that has never been under threat. According to Alois Doering, because of the strong association of eggs with new life, they've been linked with Easter almost from the beginning:
“Originally it was the case, and in the Orthodox church it still is the case,” Doering says, “that Easter eggs were painted red. It's the color of blood, Christ's blood, and also the color of love.
The paint was also used to separate the blessed eggs from the un-blessed ones.
And, of course, most children just can't resist playing with all those eggs. They hunt down those that have been hidden; they race them against each other in roll-offs; one particularly popular tradition in Germany has two competitors knocking eggs against each other – with high stakes: the person holding the egg that breaks has to give it to their opponent (provided their egg didn't break too).
Doing the math
Gauss' Easter date predictions have, so far, been right on the money
These Easter traditions that have stood the test of time, says Alois Döring, are likely to stay with us. And thanks to a revered old German we have a way of calculating on what date Easter will fall, in perpetuity.
It was the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss who came up with an algorithm to predict the date of Easter.
“If you use it correctly,” says Doering, “you can figure out what the date of Easter 3575 will be.”
That date will be April 20th. Get ready.
Author: Sabine Damaschke / Matt Hermann
Editor: Chuck Penfold