Symbols of Easter
Easter has an awkward history, no doubt.
But we have to remember Christianity is a relatively ‘new’ Religion in comparison to some.
As Christianity was spreading, and missionaries were stepping out of the Church that was established in Asia Minor and spreading around the Roman Empire. These teachers didn’t have access to Bibles in over 670 languages, as we do. So, they had to be creative, a lot like Jesus did, by using parables and symbols that were familiar to the majority.
So many of the iconic images and traditions of Easter, would have pagan origins, because that is who were being introduced to Christianity throughout the first century. But isn’t it amazing that most elements of Easter can be reclaimed to point to Christ, just like in my book ‘An Easter Bunny’s Tale”?
So where do some of our Easter Symbols come from?
In some households, a character known as the Easter Bunny delivers candy and chocolate eggs to children on Easter Sunday morning. These candies often arrive in an Easter basket.
Rabbits are, in many cultures, known as enthusiastic procreators, so the arrival of baby bunnies in springtime meadows became associated with birth, fertility, and renewal. In which the original holiday of the Spring Equinox celebrated.
According to some sources, the Easter bunny first arrived in America in the 1700s with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and transported their tradition of an egg-laying hare called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws.” Their children made nests in which this creature could lay its colored eggs. Eventually, the custom spread across the U.S. and the fabled rabbit’s Easter morning deliveries expanded to include chocolate and other types of candy and gifts, while decorated baskets replaced nests.
Decorating eggs pre-dates Christianity, actually. Some 2,500 years ago, the ancient Persians, or Zoroastrians, painted eggs for Nowruz, or Persian New Year. Persian families still dye eggs for the springtime celebration, which kicks off on the vernal equinox. And there are more eggs, too: One of the traditional items served during the holiday is kuku sabzi, a frittata loaded with herbs to represent rebirth, and eggs to represent fertility.
Now, it’s no secret that religions often borrow from each other, and that’s where the Easter connection comes in. No one knows for sure when Christians adopted the tradition of painting eggs, but it was most likely in the Middle Ages — at least as far back as the 13th century. One of the earliest records is from the year 1290, when England’s King Edward I ordered 450 eggs to be colored (or covered with fancy gold leaf) and given to royal relatives.
Eggs were relatively inexpensive, which probably helped the decorating tradition catch on more easily, according to Stories Behind the Traditions and Songs of Easter, by Ace Collins. And the egg symbolism fit in nicely with Christ’s resurrection, too.
Some stories include the Virgin Mary bringing a basket of eggs to the soldiers guarding Jesus, with her tears staining the eggs red. Another one says that after Mary Magdalene found Jesus’ tomb empty, the Roman emperor said he would only believe her if the eggs next to him turned red — and then, spoiler alert, they did. (This is why red Easter eggs are a thing, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox Church.)
Among Christians, Eastern Orthodox were probably the first to color eggs, often draining them of yolk and painting them that symbolic red. In Germany, people began to paint eggs green the day before Good Friday and hang them on trees.
The elaborate folk designs out of the Ukraine and Poland, called pysanky, or pisanki, which are done with wax and dye, likely pre-dated Christianity, but also became associated with Easter as the practice spread across Europe.
Egg Hunts Are Ancient, Too
If you’ve ever been to a modern Easter egg hunt, you know they can be pretty cutthroat — I’ve personally witnessed parents pick up slow toddlers and carry them under one arm, so they could then ferociously gather the eggs themselves.
Look back in history, though, and egg hunts were literally life or death: Even before eggs became a symbol for Christians, their ancient tribes would go on egg hunts — literally searching nests of any kind of bird — for food. But they’d bring the most brightly colored eggs home to children as presents, Collins writes. (Competitive parenting even existed back then, apparently)
Easter Eggs Today
Funny enough, given how ancient the practice is, our mass-market egg-dying kits haven’t changed much since a New Jersey drug-store owner came up with the Paas dye tablets that could be mixed with water and vinegar, back in the late 1800s.
Lamb is a traditional Easter food. Christians refer to Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” though lamb at Easter also has roots in early Passover celebrations. In the story of Exodus, the people of Egypt suffered a series of terrible plagues, including the death of all firstborn sons.
Members of the Jewish faith painted their doorposts with sacrificed lamb’s blood so that God would “pass over” their homes. Jews who converted to Christianity continued the tradition of eating lamb at Easter. Historically, lamb would have been one of the first fresh meats available after a long winter with no livestock to slaughter.
White Easter Lilies symbolize the purity of Christ to Christians and are common decorations in churches and homes around the Easter holiday. Their growth from dormant bulbs in the ground to flowers symbolize the rebirth and hope of Christ’s resurrection. Lilies are native to Japan and were brought to England in 1777, but wound their way to the U.S. in the wake of World War I. They went on to become the unofficial flower of Easter celebrations across the United States.
I think this one is my favorite. Not only is it the symbol of my faith, but it embodies the transformational power of God.
Just think about it. In the Roman Empire the cross was the most despicable possible criminal sentence. It was a gruesome form of torture, save for the worst of criminals.
But what do we see now?
After Jesus' death on the cross, it is now a symbol of hope, salvation and love. What was once a torture device is now the symbol of a whole religion. That is a powerful transformation.
That is the type of transformation God wants to do with us. He wants to take our sin filled stained hearts and wash them white as snow. He wants to trade our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. And he has done that through the events we now celebrate as Easter.
What symbols of Easter are the most meaningful to you?