Lent, the Christian liturgical season of fasting and preparation for Easter, began yesterday. (We hope you ate a pączki on Fat Tuesday!) March 19 at 4:30 pm, Rick Steves explores the other end of Lent in a rebroadcast of a special exploring European Easter traditions. Here are some intriguing facts, exciting traditions, and little-known history about the holiday.
Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion and entombment. It is linked to both the Jewish holiday of Passover and pagan spring festivals, connections revealed in its various names. “Easter” may derive from a Germanic goddess named Ēostre who was associated with spring, while “Pascha,” the Orthodox term for the holiday, comes from Passover.
Throughout its history, Easter has generated controversies over its proper date. Unlike such holidays as Christmas, Easter is not fixed to a calendar date but rather is determined by the lunar and solar cycles. Schisms over the date emerged in the first centuries of Christianity, leading to attempted excommunications and a formal ruling by an ecclesiastical council. Even as recently as 2016, proposals for a fixed date have been floated.
Traditions and symbols
Scoppio del Carro – In Florence at the Santa Maria del Fiore or Duomo, the cardinal lights a fuse during the Easter service with historic flints from Jerusalem. The fuse launches a mechanical dove that speeds along a wire to the plaza outside the cathedral, where it ignites a cart loaded with fireworks. The pyrotechnic display lasts around twenty minutes. “Scoppio del Carro” translates to “Explosion of the Cart.”
Pomlázka (Czech) or Korbáč (Slovak) – These are handmade whips with which men spank women on the Monday after Easter. Brutal as it sounds, the ritual can be a sign of flirtation. Women often give colored eggs to their spanker, and may later get revenge by pouring bucket of cold water on a man.
Murder mysteries – In Norway, all the major television channels air detective shows on Easter, while magazines print crime stories and new detective novels are often published just before Easter.
Simnel cake – This is a light fruit cake with a layer of marzipan in the middle and on top. It is decorated with eleven marzipan balls that symbolize Jesus’s apostles. A United Kingdom tradition, simnel cake is eaten toasted.
Paschal Greeting or Easter Acclamation – On Easter Sunday, Orthodox Christians say “Christ is Risen!” instead of “hello” and respond with variations on “Truly, He is Risen.” Russians and Serbs add a triple kiss on alternating cheeks.
Bermuda kites – On the North Atlantic island of Bermuda, people build and decorate hexagonal or sometimes octagonal kites that they then fly on Easter to symbolize Jesus’s ascent to heaven.
Clipping the Church – Formerly widespread in the United Kingdom, this practice has mostly died out. A congregation circles the church in an outward-facing, hand-holding ring on the Monday after Easter or Tuesday before Lent then often sings hymns.
Easter eggs – One of the most familiar of Easter traditions, the coloring of eggs in spring predates Easter. Decorated ostrich eggs as old as 60,000 years have been found in Africa. In ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Crete, decorated eggs were associated with death, rebirth, and kingship and were often placed in graves. Early Christians in Mesopotamia dyed eggs red in memory of the blood of Jesus on the cross. Eggs eventually came to symbolize Jesus’s empty tomb, from which Christians believe he was resurrected.
Other egg traditions – Egg hunts, in which children search for hidden eggs, probably originated with Martin Luther and the egg’s already established Easter symbolism. Egg rolling, where children push eggs with a spoon in a race, may have originally been symbolic of the rolling of a boulder away from the entrance to Jesus’s tomb on Easter morning.
Easter bunny – Also associated with colored eggs, which it brings to children along with candy or toys, the Easter bunny originated amongst German Lutherans. It was at first a Santa-like figure who judged whether children had behaved well. Rabbits and hares are prolific breeders (hence the expression “breed like rabbits”), so they have long been symbols of fertility tied to spring and rebirth.