By Lois Hoffman
Even though Easter is the oldest Christian holiday, we are generally more familiar with the customs and traditions of Christmas than we are of this “floating” spring holiday.
Easter falls on a different day every year, either in March or April. It is actually designated to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon which occurs on or after the vernal equinox or, as we all look forward to, the first day of spring.
The date on which Easter falls also determines when Lent is observed each year. Lent is the 40-day period preceding Easter that is devoted to fasting, abstinence and penitence which commemorates Christ’s fasting in the wilderness. The period runs from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday.
In medieval times, the fast of Lent included meat, milk and eggs. Eggs was the one of the three that did not spoil without refrigeration. Thus, the Lentin tradition led to a surplus of eggs which meant they were cheaper to buy and give as gifts which is why they are still a key part of our Easter celebrations. In recent years Lent has become more a period of giving up one specific indulgent. The word indulgent is key here, which means for me it cannot be brussels sprouts which to this day I still despise!
Easter is named for the Anglo Saxon goddess Eostre, the goddess known for springtime celebrations and fertility. One of Eostre’s symbols of fertility was a bunny because of rabbits’ prolific reproductive cycles. German immigrants are given the credit of bringing the Easter bunny tradition to the United States.
The giving of eggs has been a symbol of rebirth in many cultures and the tradition dates back even before Easter. The actual act of painting eggs, called pysanka, originated in the Ukraine using wax and dyes. Some believe that Eostre also had a connection to dyeing eggs. There was no PAAS back then so eggs were dyed using natural items like onion peels, tree bark, flower petals and other esters occurring naturally, hence esters are linked to Eostre.
Speaking of PAAS, what kid has not watched those magical tablets turn water and vinegar into something magical? The word originates from the Dutch word Passen, their term for Easter. Each year PAAS sells around 10 million egg coloring kits.
Some folks take their dyeing for Easter one step further and dye baby chicks. Sure, they are cute, but really? Half of our states ban this practice even though proponents argue that the dyes used are not harmful and that the dye only lasts until the chicks shed their down and grow feathers. Florida has overturned their ruling and now permits the dyeing of any animal. By the way, Florida also has the largest Easter egg hunt where 9753 children search for 501,000 eggs. Coloring that many eggs shouldn’t leave time for coloring any animals!
The first Easter bunny who hopped along bearing eggs and candy was in Germany in the middle ages and the first written account of an Easter bunny hiding eggs in a garden was published in 1680. In the United States, more than 90 million chocolate bunnies are produced each year.
I still remember the disappointment as a kid biting into that chocolate bunny which I just knew was solid chocolate, only to find it hollow inside. I later learned there are two reasons for this. First of all, less is more and each indulgent bite is savored more than if one was inundated with so much chocolate that it would make you sick. The second reason is for safety, especially with the larger bunnies. Biting into a solid block of hard chocolate would certainly send many kids to the dentist with broken teeth.
By the way, the manner in which a chocolate bunny is eaten is a ritual in itself. According to the stats, 76% of people eat the ears first, 5% dive into the feet and 4% go for the tail. I guess that the remaining 15% just eat the bunny in no particular fashion.
Incidentally, the largest chocolate bunny stood 14.8 feet tall and weighed 9359.7 pounds and was fashioned in Brazil in 2017. By contrast, the world’s largest Easter egg was over 34 feet high and measured 64 feet in circumference. It was molded in Italy in 2011 and weighed 15,873 pounds. It’s hard to imagine that much chocolate!
Candy has always been associated with Easter and, after Halloween, Easter is the second largest candy consuming holiday. Americans consume more than 16 million jelly beans during each Easter season. This is enough to circle the globe three times! Marshmallow peeps are the most popular non-chocolate Easter candy and Americans buy more than 700 million of them.
Peeps have an interesting story all their own. It used to take 30 hours to produce one batch of these sweet little critters. Representatives for the company Just Born, the manufacturer who acquired Peeps in 1953, watched a woman with pastry tubes making Peeps by hand. Due to the cooling process, it took 27 hours then to make each batch. Just Born got it down to 6 minutes.
Another seasonal delicacy,Cadbury cream eggs, were born in Birmingham, England. John Cadbury sold chocolate drinks in his shop and had a chocolate and cocoa factory. Joseph Fry, a competitor, started experimenting with making moldable chocolate bars. They merged their efforts in 1919 and in 1923 the first cream filled chocolate Cadbury egg was “hatched.” This sweet version that mimics a real egg with white and yellow cream fondant inside a milk chocolate shell.
Of course, this holiday has its own flower too. The white lily is the official flower of Easter because it represents grace and purity. Often referred to as “Easter lilies,” many homes and churches are adorned with these throughout the Easter season.
This year marks the 138th Easter Egg Roll in our nation’s capital. This tradition was started in 1867 and was on the grounds of the Capitol building in Washington, D. C. However, it annoyed Rep. William Steele Holman of Indiana, chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds. So, in 1876 Holman was instrumental in the passing of the “Turf Act” which made it illegal to use any portion of the Capitol grounds or terraces for play. It was in the interest of protecting the grass.
In 1878, a group of kids approached President Rutherford B. Hayes while he was out for his walk and asked him if the egg roll could be held at the White House. Thus, it is still held today on the south lawn of the White House the Monday after Easter Sunday. The event is open to kids who are 13 years old or younger and their parents and this year some 35,000 people will attend. People sign up and are chosen through a lottery.
It is estimated that Americans spend $14.7 billion on Easter with an average household pitching in $131 on candy, décor and dinner. Sadly, it is a Christian holiday turned into a commercial powerhouse. Only 12 of the 50 states still recognize Good Friday as a holiday.
The true essence of Easter should be joy, celebration and new life but too often it is turned into only a celebration of egg hunts and chocolate bunnies. Personally, I think we ought to keep it all.
Images courtesy of Getty Images
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