Children love the celebration of Easter, from dressing up in new church clothes to tracking down hidden eggs from that seasonal rabbit.
Granted, these are the frivolous traditions of Easter — offshoots of celebrating the resurrection of Christ — but they have been around for centuries and have roots strongly connecting them to Christianity.
Of course there is no mention in the Bible of a long-eared bunny delivering treats at Easter, but rabbits are connected to Christianity and even to Mary through the symbolism of life.
Dating back to ancient Greece, people thought rabbits could reproduce as virgins, according to Catholic Answers. This belief persisted until early medieval times, when the rabbit became associated with the Virgin Mary. It was during the medieval period that rabbits began appearing in illuminated manuscripts and paintings where Mary was depicted, serving as an allegorical illustration of her virginity.
The rabbit was then popularized as a symbol of the season by German Protestants. In their earliest folklore, the Easter Bunny came to hide decorated eggs for well-behaved children.
The Easter Bunny followed German immigrants to the American colonies in the 18th century and the folklore spread. Children made nests for the bunny’s eggs, which evolved into decorated baskets.
The notion of the Easter Bunny as a pagan symbol developed in 1835, when Jacob Grimm suggested it came from primitive German pagan traditions. However, there is no evidence of this.
Eggs are another ancient symbol of fertility and life, and the Easter egg has Christian origins also dating back to the middle ages.
Lenten observations of the medieval period were stricter than they are today. According to Pope St. Gregory (d. 604), “We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.”
After following strict abstinence for the 40 days of Lent, people broke the fast on Easter with an assortment of celebratory treats, including eggs. In fact, medieval people boiled their eggs to help preserve them during the 40 days. This allowed them to dye and paint the eggs and give them as gifts.
Several stories explaining the custom of coloring eggs center on Mary and a basket of eggs. In one version, Jesus’ blood dyes the eggs red. In another, Mary’s tears fall on the eggs and spot them with color.
Another important point of symbolism connects the egg to the resurrection. Just as the baby chick pecks its way out of its shell during birth, Christ emerged from the tomb to new and everlasting life.
The custom of placing Easter eggs in a basket also arises from Christian traditions.
Dating back thousands of years, people packed large baskets of goodies and gathered as a community to celebrate Christ’s resurrection following 40 days of fasting.
In early Christian times, the Easter feast was served in churches. The baskets of food, including many of the delicacies given up during Lent, were taken to the church and blessed by the priest before being served.
Today’s modern-day Easter basket, filled with chocolate bunnies and colorful eggs, came from this custom.
As one of the very first flowers to bloom each spring, the lily became known as the “Easter lily.” In Christian iconography, white lilies are a symbol of purity and holiness.
There is also a traditional story that tells how the Easter lily originated in the Garden of Eden. As Eve was leaving the garden, it is said that she cried teardrops of repentance that fell and bloomed into lilies.
Now the Easter lily represents Christ’s resurrection, a new season and a new birth, such as when one comes to Christ.
Lamb of God
Another special animal, and food, that is an integral part of Christianity and Easter is the lamb.
Connections date back to Biblical times, when the Jewish people sacrificed a lamb for Passover during the time of Moses. Christ is the new Paschal lamb, who was sacrificed for our sins.
In the Middle Ages, lamb was the customary meat eaten on Easter, and was the main course for the Holy Father’s Easter dinner.
It is still the main meal on Easter Sunday in many parts of eastern Europe. In other areas, figures of a lamb made of butter, pastry, or sugar have been substituted for the meat, forming Easter table centerpieces.
In the early Church, people who were baptized during the Easter Vigil wore white garments at the baptism and throughout the week. White clothing symbolized that the person was freed from sin and reborn in baptism. Those who had already been baptized did not wear white, but customarily wore new clothes as a symbol that they had risen to new life through the prayer, fasting, and penances of Lent.
Each of the Easter traditions reflects the Christian celebration not just of new life, but new life in Christ.