Many Easter traditions, including the name itself and the symbolic use of eggs and rabbits, have pagan origins, but the Easter egg hunt, egg rolling and other holiday attributes are purely Christian additions. Many of the traditions followed today had their beginnings in the Middle Ages.
Debates rage over whether the English word "Easter" evolved from the Celtic goddess Eostre, the Greek goddess Astarte, or the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, with Eostre, also spelt Eastre, being the leading candidate. What is known is that the egg has long been used in fertility rites by cultures as far back as the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians. Early Roman Christians considered the egg to be the seed of life and readily adopted it as a symbol of new life, identifying it with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Eggs are given on Easter Sunday as a direct representation of that resurrection and life beginning anew, as Christians believe it did for Jesus following his ascension into heaven. The symbolism also indicates that as the bird emerges from its shell, so did Jesus from his tomb.
Colouring eggs existed in the pagan world, but was not a Christian tradition until the 13th century. Eggs were forbidden during Lent, and still are in Orthodox Christianity. Colouring them for Easter was a celebration of the end of Lent. The traditional Easter egg colour red is said to represent the blood of Jesus.
One story relates that the colour red comes from a meeting Mary Magdalene had with a Roman emperor. Preaching to him that Christ had risen from the dead, the emperor responded, "Jesus is as alive as this egg is red." The egg immediately turned red.
Another egg colouring story involves Mary Magdalene carrying a basket of eggs while on her way to anoint Jesus with oil. After doing so, she pulled back the cover of the basket to see that the eggs were decorated in bold colours.
A third story tells of the Virgin Mary offering eggs to the Roman soldiers so they would be kind to her son on the cross. When they refused, her tears fell on the eggs, dotting them in different colours.
No one is exactly sure when the tradition of hiding eggs on Easter Sunday began, but there is a Medieval story told to children that rabbits, another fertility symbol, laid eggs in the grass. Christians in southern Germany added the practice of hiding eggs in difficult to reach places, often putting obstacles before the hiding spots. The obstacles represented the Stations of the Cross, or the trials of Jesus on his way to crucifixion. A favourite hiding place was among thorns, symbolising the crown of thorns placed on Jesus' head.
Egg rolling may have Egyptian roots, but many Christians interpret it as rolling the stone away from Christ's tomb.
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