Though mainly concentrated on the three days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, in some parts of the world Easter is traditionally preceded by Lent – a 40-day period of fasting and reflection, and followed by a seven-week season known as Eastertide.
The holiday itself is ‘a moveable feast’, as the date shifts from year to year according to the lunisolar calendar, with Easter Sunday falling closest to the first full moon after the vernal equinox of 21 March.
Springtime is essential to the celebration, and some believe that older customs were basically folded into the Easter rites by early missionaries on the orders of Pope Gregory. Eggs, for example, are an ancient symbol of rebirth. Central European cultures developed the egg-decorating tradition of ‘pysanky’ thousands of years ago.
People abstained from eating eggs during lent, then consumed them to break that long fast, painting the shells as part of the Easter festivities. Across the intervening millennia, the customary chicken eggs have come to be substituted for chocolate versions, filled with little bags of candy and wrapped in brightly coloured foil.
At the same time, various egg-related games are still played at Easter, rooted in folk traditions that have barely changed over the centuries. ‘Egg-jarping’ is the old English name for a sport also known as ‘egg-tapping’ – where two eggs are knocked together by players trying to break their opponent’s without breaking their own. There’s an annual world championship held in Durham, UK (around the same time that southern English counties send morris-dancers through the streets ringing bells and waving ribbons to chase off the spirits of winter) but variations are also played from Egypt to Greece to Assam in India, where farmers associate it with ‘cattle day’ in mid-April.
Certain Greek islands have their own distinctive springtime rituals, like the throwing of pots out of windows on Corfu to celebrate the planting of new crops. While in India, Easter celebrants enjoy street plays and dances lit by brightly coloured lanterns across Goa and the northeastern states.
‘Egg-rolling’ has its origins in the medieval practice of tossing eggs down steep hills in the grasslands and forests of northern Europe. It’s still done for fun across Scandinavia, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and it has long since made its way to the south lawn of the White House, where a children’s egg-roll has been hosted on Easter Monday by every United States President since James Madison (whose wife Dolley organised the first event in 1814).
America’s Easter habits were largely imported by early German immigrants and adapted from the culture of the ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’. Egg-hunts, for example, of the sort once held by reformer Martin Luther, have since expanded to consume whole communities. The record is still held by the small town of Homer, Georgia, where 80,000 eggs were hidden and hunted by 850 residents in 1985.
As a measure of how Easter is now big business, major British chocolate manufacturers like Cadbury’s now sponsor a nationwide Easter Egg Trail, while Thornton’s have taken to teaming up with the geocaching community to hide eggs across the UK. And then, of course, there is the Easter Bunny. Another springtime symbol from the folklore of medieval Europe, he (or she) was originally a stern, judge-like hare who would only give Easter treats to children who had been good.
These days, the bunny is a bit more forgiving, and often represented in chocolate form. In Australia, however, rabbits are considered a pest, especially during the autumn harvest, which falls around Easter down there in the southern hemisphere. Aussies have replaced the bunny with a bilby – the cute, endangered marsupial whose growing status as a totem has raised awareness of its plight. Certain local makers of chocolate Easter bilbies now pour some of those profits into conservation of the species.
In France, meanwhile, the bunny concept is considered too frivolous for such a solemn holiday, and children receive their chocolate treats in the form of winged bells –while the actual bells across the country remain silent for a sombre spell after Maunday Thursday but ring out on Easter Sunday.