Guest post by Charlotte Riggle, author of Catherine’s Pascha: A Celebration of Easter in the Orthodox Church (Phoenix Flair Press, 2015).
If you look at a collection of children’s Easter books, you can’t help but wonder: How did Easter become associated with bunnies and baskets and eggs?
Let’s start with the bunnies. We know that Easter baskets and Easter eggs are very, very old. The Easter bunny is a much newer tradition. It seems to have appeared in the early years of the Protestant Reformation. During times of anti-Catholic fervor, traditions and stories that were associated with the older, Catholic celebrations were suppressed. If a tradition was to be kept, a new story had to be created.
And that’s just what happened. The Easter hare first showed up among Lutherans in Germany in the sixteenth century. The hare decided which children had been naughty and which had been nice, and the nice children received fancy colored eggs on Easter morning.
From there, the Easter hare traveled west to America with German immigrants. Once it arrived, it changed to a rabbit, because the cottontail rabbit was common in America, and hares were not.
The story didn’t travel east to countries that weren’t affected by the Reformation. Those countries kept the old traditions and the old stories.
So, if the story about Easter bunnies bringing eggs is a new story, what were the old stories?
My favorite of the old stories tells about Mary Magdalene’s trip to Rome, shortly after the very first Easter morning. While in Rome, she arranged an audience with the Emperor Tiberius. She told the Emperor about Jesus, about his death and resurrection. As she spoke, she picked up an egg from the table. Perhaps she used it to illustrate the stone that had sealed the tomb. Perhaps she was just fidgeting.
Whatever the reason, Tiberius grew tired of her story, and shouted, “A man can’t come back from the dead any more than that egg in your hand can turn blood-red!” As he spoke these words, the egg in Mary’s hand changed from white to red. Mary, astonished, held the egg up for all to see, saying, “Christ is risen from the dead!”
And so, in honor of Mary Magdalene, and in honor of the Resurrection, Christians have dyed eggs red at Easter ever since.
Of course, throughout America, you’re more likely to see eggs dyed in pastels, or with stripes or polka dots, than red eggs. But if you go to an Orthodox Church on Pascha (which is the name that Orthodox Christians use for Easter), you’ll likely see baskets full of red eggs.
What do those baskets full of red eggs have to do with baskets of eggs and candy and toys that we give children on Easter morning?
Among the early Christians, it was customary to take baskets of food to church on the most important feast days. The baskets would be blessed, and the food shared. On the feast of the Transfiguration in August, for example, people brought baskets of fruit. At Pascha (which is what the early Christians called Easter), people brought baskets loaded with meat and cheese and eggs. These were the foods that they had fasted from for all of Lent.
The custom of bringing baskets of food to church on Pascha was mostly lost in Greece during the four centuries of Turkish rule. The practice survived only in a few villages in northern Greece and in the Peloponnesus region.
In England and America, the custom was lost in the seventeenth century, when the celebration of Easter and other holy days was banned. But, as in Greece, the custom did not disappear entirely. When the holy days were restored, Easter baskets returned. But as the hare had changed to a bunny, the big baskets full of meat and cheese changed to small baskets filled with sweets for children.
The ancient practice lived on in Slavic countries. In Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and at many Orthodox churches in America, wicker baskets are loaded with rich foods and meats, decorated with bows and flowers, and covered with embroidered cloths. These baskets are brought to church before the midnight service of Easter begins, and they’re blessed at the end of the services.
Things to Read and Things to Do
It’s easy and fun to make red Easter eggs. The natural red dye is made from the papery brown skins of yellow onions.
Learn more about the tradition of making embroidered Pascha basket covers. Your children can make simple cloth covers for their Easter baskets. And if you’re handy with a needle, you can make a Pascha basket cover using one of these patterns. If you don’t need to cover a Pascha basket, you can frame your work and hang it on the wall.
Share Catherine’s Pascha with your children. The story follows a sleepy young girl as she attends the Orthodox Easter service in the middle of the night. Can she stay awake all night? Will her parents let her play with burning candles? Will she catch someone’s hair on fire? Who will win the egg-banging contest?