According to the Venerable Bede, Easter derives its name from Eostre, and Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. A month corresponding to April had been named “Eostremonat,” or Eostre’s month, leading to “Easter” becoming applied to the Christian holiday that usually took place within it. Prior to that, the holiday had been called Pasch (Passover), which remains its name in most non-English languages. (Based on the similarity of their names, some connect Eostre with Ishtar, the Babylonian and Assyrian goddess of love and fertility, but there is no solid evidence for this.)
It seems probable that around the second century A.D., Christian missionaries seeking to convert the tribes of northern Europe noticed that the Christian holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus roughly coincided with the Teutonic springtime celebrations, which emphasized the triumph of life over death. As it did with Christmas, Christian Easter gradually absorbed the traditional symbols of those celebrations.
In Medieval Europe, eggs were forbidden during Lent. Eggs laid during that time were often boiled or otherwise preserved. Eggs were thus a mainstay of Easter meals, and a prized Easter gift for children and servants. In addition, eggs have been viewed as symbols of new life and fertility through the ages. It is believed that for this reason many ancient cultures, including the Ancient Egytians, Persians, and Romans, used eggs during their spring festivals. For the Eastern Orthodox (for which Easter is on April 19th this year) Easter is the most significant and sacred season of the church’s calendar. The annual holiday consists of a series of celebrations or movable feasts commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Many traditions and practices have formed around Easter eggs. The coloring of eggs is a established art, and eggs are often dyed, painted, and otherwise decorated. Eggs were also used in various holiday games: parents would hide eggs for children to find, and children would roll eggs down hills. These practices live on in Easter egg hunts and egg rolls. The most famous egg roll takes place on the White House lawn every year.
Orthodox Christians in the Middle East and in Greece paint eggs bright red to symbolize the blood of Christ. Hollow eggs (created by piercing the shell with a needle and blowing out the contents) were decorated with pictures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other religious figures in Armenia. Ukrainians do elaborate, lost wax dying of eggs, producing exquisitely intricate patterns.
Germans gave green eggs as gifts on Holy Thursday, and hung hollow eggs on trees. Austrians placed tiny plants around the egg and then boiled them. When the plants were removed, white patterns were created.
The most elaborate Easter egg traditions appear to have emerged in Eastern Europe. In Poland and Ukraine, eggs were often painted silver and gold. Pysanky (to design or write) eggs were created by carefully applying wax in patterns to an egg. The egg was then dyed, wax would be reapplied in spots to preserve that color, and the egg was boiled again in other shades. The result was a multi-color striped or patterned egg. New York artist, Paul Wirhun (aka The Eggman) does modern and traditional examples of this art, here: http://paulwirhun.com/eggs/
The Easter Bunny
Hares and rabbits have long been symbols of fertility. The inclusion of the hare into Easter customs appears to have originated in Germany, where tales were told of an “Easter hare” who laid eggs for children to find. German immigrants to America — particularly Pennsylvania — brought the tradition with them and spread it to a wider public. They also baked cakes for Easter in the shape of hares, and may have pioneered the practice of making chocolate bunnies and eggs. Rabbits and hares are common motifs in the visual arts, with variable mythological and artistic meanings in different cultures. The rabbit as well as the hare have been associated with moon deities and may signify rebirth or resurrection. They may also be symbols of or sensuality, and they appear in depictions of hunting and spring scenes in the Labors of the Months.
Easter cards arrived in Victorian England, when a stationer added a greeting to a drawing of a rabbit. According to American Greetings, Easter is now the fourth most popular holiday for sending cards, behind Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
After their baptisms, early Christians wore white robes all through Easter week to indicate their new lives. Those had already been baptized wore new clothes instead to symbolize their sharing a new life with Christ. In Medieval Europe, churchgoers would take a walk after Easter Mass, led by a crucifix or the Easter candle. Today these walks endure as Easter Parades. People show off their spring finery, including lovely bonnets decorated for spring.