Easter Sunday celebrates the day on which, according to the Bible, Jesus rose from the dead after having been killed on the cross on Good Friday.
While Easter Sunday is undoubtedly an important date in the Christian calendar, you might wonder what this day has to do with chocolate eggs, painted eggs, the Easter Bunny and rolling eggs down hills.
Keep reading to learn a little more about Easter Sunday.
What does the Bible say about Easter Sunday?
The religious authorities in Jerusalem had been troubled by Jesus for a long time, and had been especially angered by his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday when crowds had proclaimed him “King of Israel”.
After inventing charges against Jesus, the religious leaders persuaded the Romans to crucify him on Good Friday. After Jesus died, his friends hurriedly took his body down from the cross as the Jewish Sabbath – upon which no one could do any work – would start at nightfall.
Jesus was laid in a tomb cut into rock owned by a rich follower, Joseph of Arimathea. There are slight variations between the four Gospels about what happened next, but the basic story is as follows.
On Sunday morning, some female followers of Jesus came to see his tomb. But they found the large stone that sealed the tomb’s entrance had been rolled away.
Jesus was not inside. Instead there were his folded-up grave clothes and a young man or angel or angels – depending on the Gospel – who told the women Jesus had come back to life.
The women ran to tell Jesus’s disciples, who were at first sceptical, but Jesus appeared to and talked to them several times over the next forty days before he ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of God.
Christians believe these incidents show that Christ triumphed over death and that his followers can triumph over death too and enjoy eternal life in heaven.
Easter Sunday – what’s in an egg?
The biblical account above says nothing about eggs, so why do we associate them with Easter Sunday?
One reason is that Easter Sunday marks the end of Lent – a period of fasting in which Christians used to avoid eggs, meat and rich food – so on Easter Sunday people celebrated the return of this important source of protein to their diet.
Eggs also symbolise the new life associated with the resurrection of Jesus. The chick coming out of the egg can be a metaphor for Christ rising from the tomb and the egg can even represent the stone that was rolled away from the tomb’s entrance.
In pre-Christian Europe, it is likely that eggs were symbols of the rebirth of nature in the spring following the ‘death’ of nature in winter.
What about the Easter Bunny?
The Easter Bunny started life in Germany as the ‘Easter Hare’, a folkloric figure – like Santa Claus – who rewarded well-behaved children by bringing them boiled eggs, presents and sweets.
The first written records mentioning the Easter Hare date from 1682, but the tradition might well be older.
German immigrants carried this piece of folklore to America, where it became part of popular culture. Today the American president hosts an annual event on the White House lawn during which children search for eggs supposedly left by the Easter Bunny.
Rabbits and hares have a lot more significance for this time of year. The fact they breed rapidly associates them with the fertility of spring – hares can even become pregnant with a second litter before they give birth to their first.
Some researchers claim the hare was sacred to Eostre, a Saxon goddess of spring from whose name the term ‘Easter’ probably comes.
Hares were also popular Christian symbols. They were linked with the Virgin Mary and a motif of three running hares could represent the Trinity.
What popular customs were associated with Easter Sunday?
Unsurprisingly, many Easter customs were centred around eggs. The custom of pace-egging – from ‘Pasch’, Latin for Easter – included all kinds of egg-based activities. Pace-egging was especially popular in Scotland and the north of England.
Pace-egging could involve painting, decorating and dyeing hard-boiled eggs, rolling eggs down hills and even fighting with eggs.
During such fights, two eggs were smashed together. The owner of the egg that stayed whole then got to devour the remains of his opponent’s.
Egg rolling could also be competitive, with eggs being aimed at each other – like in bowls – and the cracked or broken eggs being eaten by those whose eggs were undamaged.
Another pace-egging tradition involved people visiting houses and singing songs in exchange for decorated eggs and alcoholic drinks.
Even pace-egg plays were performed in the streets. During these plays two figures – one of which was often St George – would have a mock sword fight. One would be killed before being brought back to life by a doctor, in keeping with the Easter idea of resurrection.
Pace-egging customs continued into the 1950s and some are still practised today.
In the late 1800s, shops started selling professionally painted eggs and in 1875 John Cadbury launched the first ever chocolate Easter egg. Around 80 million chocolate eggs are now sold in the UK each year.
Another Easter Sunday custom was the giving and receiving of new clothes and people were expected to attend church wearing at least one new item of clothing. This was probably connected to the idea of Easter being a time of renewal.
A very curious tradition was the common belief that – as he rose on Easter Monday – the sun could be observed dancing for joy at the resurrection of Christ.