Easter and Its Many Traditions
Spring is here—and with it, Easter.
And what does Easter mean to you? For the religious among you, it's the day that Jesus rose from the dead three days after he was crucified on the cross. But for the less devout, Easter might be the only day that you're willing to wait two hours for a brunch table. Maybe it's a day when you don a bunny bikini and wander around the French Quarter. Perhaps you see it as your chance to finally eat cheese again after giving it up for Lent or one of the two days of the year that they won't let you into Target.
Only you know why you pick the lavender ones out of the package of pastel Easter M&Ms, or why you insist on eating your Easter ham with a spoon, but if you're interested in learning about some of the more common, universal holiday traditions, read on.
Which Came First,
the Bunny or the Egg?
One of Christianity's main holy days may not have started out as Christian at all. It's likely that Easter pre-dates Jesus and friends and that it began as a festival to honor the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring (Eostre or Eastre), for which the holiday was named. The goddess was said to have two "sacred symbols," which were the hare and the egg. Although, in some accounts, the two symbols merged into one to become an egg-laying hare. Later, Christians adopted both bunny and egg to represent not only life and fertility associated with spring (leaves blooming, animals being born), but also the resurrection of Christ.
Eggs have represented life and rebirth since the beginning of time. And while nowadays it might be more common to find life and rebirth served over-easy with a side of bacon, eggs still stand as a symbol of renewal, emergence, and awakening, especially at Easter. Some Christians believe that the egg's shell represents Jesus's tomb, while the chicken that comes out of it symbolizes Jesus himself emerging from the dead. Some of the earliest egg decorating involved coloring the eggs a deep red to represent the blood of Christ.
During Lent, it was traditionally forbidden to eat any animal products. The custom of eating eggs at Easter was derived not from a desire to compensate for a 40-day protein deficiency, but to deal with a six-week-long egg surplus. Chickens, not fully aware that it was Lent, continued to lay eggs the entire time. Unable to eat them, early Christians would boil them, decorate them to make them pretty, keep them around for weeks (despite primitive preservation methods), and then pass them out for consumption once restrictions were lifted on Easter. It's a wonder that salmonella poisoning didn't become a regular Easter tradition as well.
for Different Folks
People around the world have developed their own egg-centric Easter traditions, including egg dancing, egg tapping, egg decorating, egg eating, egg hunting, and egg rolling on the White House lawn (which some say represents the rolling away of the stone that blocked Christ's tomb). There are eggs of every shape, substance, and nutritional value; eggs to serve every purpose or desire, from décor to digestion. In New Orleans, we throw eggs from floats.
Decorating eggs has been a common practice since as far back as the 1200s, with various cultures using different colors, patterns, and methods. Some people suggest that decorating eggs was invented as a festive way to spruce up the dark period of Lent or to break the Lenten fast in colorful style.
Hide or Hare
The tradition of hunting for eggs dates back hundreds of years, perhaps to Germany in the 16th century. Martin Luther supposedly conducted egg hunts at his church, during which men would hide eggs for the women and children to find.
Egg hunting also ties in with the Easter Bunny. Since bunnies are such bountiful breeders, they've long been associated with the renewal of life that is spring. The modern-day Easter Bunny is probably a descendent of the German "Oschter Haws" or "Osterhase," which means "Easter Hare." Osterhase was supposedly a rabbit who would lay vibrantly colored eggs, fill up a basket with them, and cottontail it on over to the homes of all the good little boys and girls, where he would hide the eggs for them to search for. The eagerly awaiting children would build grassy nests for Osterhase to lay his eggs in, which is likely a precursor of the commercialized, artificial grass-like substance that often fills today's Easter baskets.
When German immigrants settled in the United States, the mythical eggy rabbit hopped the Atlantic with them.
Being In Your Bonnet
Religious processions have been a thing since the dawn of Christianity, but the Easter parade as we know it today originated in New York City after the Civil War. It was a custom to celebrate the "new start" of life in the spring with a snazzy new pastel outfit and fancy hat, or "bonnet," often decked out with spring-like leaves or flowers. Many people thought it was good luck to buy new clothes for Easter, and they often wanted something fun and bright after Lent and a dapper getup to wear to church on Easter Sunday.
The first Easter parade began organically in 1870 when well-to-do New Yorkers came out of their Fifth Avenue churches following service on Easter morning and walked along the avenue. They wanted to show off their swanky Easter attire and check out what others were wearing. As more people joined in or came out to gawk, it gradually became a parade and a yearly Easter tradition—with around a million people in attendance at its peak.
In addition to its popular Easter bonnet contest, New Orleans now has three parades, including the Historic French Quarter Easter parade, the renowned Chris Owens parade, which began in the early 1980s, and the Gay Easter Parade, which has been a tradition since 2000.
Life is Like a Basket of Chocolate
As time has passed, the famous Easter rabbit has become an increasingly benevolent bunny. Although he still gives away eggs, he's also known to pass out stuffed toys, money, iPhones, ponies, and lots and lots of candy.
The transition to baskets full of chocolate eggs and chocolate Easter Bunnies, which began in 19th-century Europe, was a way to make Easter more kid-friendly. But it was almost certainly also a capitalistic ploy for the candy-making companies to keep their hands in the Easter basket and make an extra buck. Today, approximately 91 million chocolate bunnies and 16 billion jelly beans are produced annually, helping to make Easter the most candy-filled holiday after Halloween. If laid end-to-end, that's enough jelly beans to go around the globe five times.
Giving s'mores a run for their money, America's second favorite way to eat a marshmallow is surely in the form of a brightly colored, gelatinous, sugar-coated baby chicken. Peeps, now also available in a slew of other squishy shapes and flavors, were born in 1953 thanks to the company Just Born. Company founder Sam Born was a candy-minded genius who could not only work magic with a marshmallow, but also allegedly helped invent chocolate sprinkles and a machine that automatically inserts sticks into lollipops. He began making Peeps following the acquisition of another marshmallow-centric candy company, which had originated the idea and used to hand-make every chick by piping marshmallow through a pastry tube. Just Born mechanized the process, thus cutting the Peeps production time down from 27 hours to just six minutes. Today, Peeps are mass-produced using a machine called the Depositor, which is the only way to keep up with the demand for the 1.5 billion Peeps purchased every year.The candy has developed a cult following, complete with an entire Peeps-based merchandise line, Peeps recipes galore, Peeps-inspired artwork, and even a Peeps competitive eating contest (the record is 255 chickens consumed in just five marshmallowy minutes).