I don’t really like Easter. Now before anybody starts screaming “sacrilege,” let me clarify that it’s not the life-death-rebirth spiritual message celebrated by Christians in churches, nor is it the metaphor of the cycle of nature celebrated by solstice revelers that bothers me so much as it is the way we in America have come to acknowledge all this in the holiday we call Easter. As usual, we have commercialized belief and wonder with stories and stuff that stretch the imagination. Bunnies and chicks, chocolates and peeps, baskets and eggs — it’s all just too cute. And I don’t do cute.
The word “Easter,” and the notion of an Easter Bunny, have their origins in myths and legends celebrating the renewal of life presided over by an ancient goddess of spring during the vernal equinox. In Scandinavian culture, she was called Ostra; the Anglo-Saxons called her Eostre, and later in Germany, she was known as Eastre. This might reasonably explain the origin of the word “Easter.” The hare was long seen as a symbol of fertility and, therefore, associated with spring, even in pre-Christian times. Putting the goddess and the rabbit together, however, is where myth and legend get fuzzy.
Some stories say that Ostra was usually represented by a rabbit or an egg, both obvious signs of fertility. Other versions claim Ostra turned a bird into a hare and that the hare showed his gratitude by returning to his bird function and laying colored eggs for her annual festival. Other accounts propose that the hare was actually Ostra’s consort. Good luck explaining any of this to little kids when they ask where the Easter Bunny comes from.
Conflicting, confusing accounts of ancient history cost me a couple hours down the Google rabbit hole of research on the origins of Easter, but I have come to some basic conclusions: first, all of this is mostly folklore, tweaked and fine-tuned throughout centuries of European cultural and religious hearsay and appropriation. There are no documented pre-Christian records of any goddess named Eostre, and only a brief mention of her name as the likely source of the word “April” by the Medieval cleric known as the Venerable Bede (672-735). Secondly, the Easter Bunny appears to have only arrived in America in the 1700s with German immigrants who brought with them their traditions of an egg-laying hare called “Osterhaus.” Eventually, the custom of an Easter Bunny who left colored eggs, candy, and other small items in decorated baskets or Easter nests spread across the country. Lastly, if Easter is related to celebrations of the vernal equinox and the arrival of spring, then how does the holiday make sense in parts of the world that are NOT in the Northern Hemisphere?
The search for rhyme or reason within cultural practices in America these days increasingly makes me tired, but as long I have uncovered some trivia about Easter traditions, let me share some with you. Did you know, for instance, that Easter is second only to Halloween for candy sales? The egg-shaped jelly bean became associated with Easter back in the 1930s, although its history can be traced back to Biblical times in an ancient confection called a Turkish Delight. Over 16 billion jelly beans are made in the U.S. each year just for Easter (National Confectioners Association). But still, the top selling candies associated with Easter are chocolate eggs, milk or dark, solid or hollow, filled or not. Over the last few years, the top-selling non-chocolate treat has been the marshmallow Peep, the sugary, yellow or pastel colored chicks that are sweet enough to make your teeth ache. Even my favorite year-round Junior Mints came out this year with pastel Junior Mints for Easter. Give me a break! I’m not a pastel person either — just too cute.
If anything rivals the Easter Bunny as an identifiable holiday motif it’s the egg. Decorated, painted, dyed, or just the shells filled with confetti (cascarones) for springtime festivals, Easter egg hunts and egg rolls have been delighting children for decades. The annual White House Egg Roll, a race in which children push decorated eggs across the White House lawn, is held the Monday after Easter. The first event occurred in 1878 when Rutherford B. Hayes was president and it has only been cancelled a few times since then due to war (WWII) and national illness (Covid 19).
One tradition that is actually quite interesting and not entirely commercialized is the idea of a new outfit for Easter. At one time during the penitential period of Lent that precedes Easter, the faithful were supposed to wear the same set of clothing for six weeks as a sacrifice and then discard that clothing for a new, fresh outfit for celebrating the holyday itself. Though most people don’t know where the tradition of an Easter outfit comes from, the custom continues. When I was growing up, my Mother and I always got new outfits for Easter, or at least some new item of apparel though not usually hats. It is that tradition that begat the idea of an Easter parade, particularly to show off new, fancy hats.
In the mid-1800s, the elite of New York society would attend Easter services on Fifth Avenue and then stroll down the street afterwards to display their new outfits, especially their hats. In 1948, the popular film Easter Parade starring Fred Astaire and Judy Garland featured the song “In Your Easter Bonnet …” The parade tradition lives on today in Manhattan, with Fifth Avenue from 49th to 57th Streets shut down to traffic on Easter Sunday for parading pedestrians sporting elaborate Easter bonnets. In recent years, the parade has become more of a spoof of Fifth Avenue style, a tongue-in-cheek event with outrageously-decorated hats and everyone, elite or not, old or young, gay or straight, women or men welcome to participate.
Only in New York, where it’s always beyond just too cute.
In NYC at this moment enjoying all the flowering trees, fresh spring flowers , and yes, all the cute decorations, including a gigantic chocolate Easter egg on display in our hotel lobby. Happy Spring. happy Easter.
Are you planning on donning a new bonnet and walking in the Easter Parade on Sunday? If so, remember the more outrageous, the better.
Are you planning on donning a new bonnet and walking in the Easter Parade on Sunday? If so, remember, the more outrageous, the better.