It’s that time of year when we all question what chocolate eggs and bunnies have to do with Easter.
Originally, church leaders didn’t allow the eating of eggs during Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter), so any eggs laid at this time were saved and given to children on Easter Sunday, painted in bright colours.
Easter celebrations have clearly changed since then. Here’s a look at how Europe likes to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.
An Anglo-Saxon legend tells of the goddess Eostre, who found a wounded bird and transformed it into a hare, so that it could survive the winter. The hare found it could lay eggs. Each spring it would decorate the eggs and leave them as offering to the goddess.
Norwegians continue to practice a tradition which the Victorians briefly adopted. Beautifully decorated cardboard eggs are filled with Easter treats and offered as gifts.
In the 19th century, France and Germany started experimenting with the idea of chocolate Easter eggs, founding the chocolatey treats we look forward to today. Bunnies also became a common symbol of new life in this century.
Other food traditions
They’re eaten in memory of a pre-Christian springtime festival, sacrificing a lamb to thank the gods for the edible abundance they suddenly found around them.
Several countries bake a form of traditional Easter sweet bread. In Italy they bake dove-shaped bread called colomba. In Croatia it’s called pinca. Each family has their own recipe, flavoured with citrus zest, candied or dried fruit, rum or rosewater, and served on Easter morning.
Greeks prefer a braided sweet bread called tsoureki, and eat a traditional magiritsa – a dish that contains lamb offal, along with some lettuce, dill and onion. It’s served at a great feast that continues long into the night, to mark the end of the 40-day fast Greek Orthodox people practice to mourn the death of Jesus.
In Finland, it’s the desserts that everyone looks forward to. Mämmi is the traditional Easter pudding, served with cream. The mixture of rye flour, powdered malt, dark molasses and orange zest gives it an unusually gloopy, granular texture.
Other religious traditions
On the Croatian island of Hvar, the villagers participate in a 22km procession known as ‘Following the Cross’. It starts on Holy Thursday and ends on Good Friday morning.
On Good Friday in Greece, there is a sombre atmosphere as the church bells ring and the flags fly at half-mast. In some villages, a shrine representing the tomb of Jesus is carried through the streets. This sad mood is soon broken in true Greek style, with lots of eating and singing. Late Saturday night, people head to the churches. At midnight, the church goes dark and the bells ring out to proclaim the resurrection and people start to cheer and let off fireworks. Greeks take Easter candles to church. The priest then lights a single candle, representing Jesus’ eternal flame, and everyone lights their own candle from this one. They then carefully carry their candle home and mark a black cross on their house with the flame as a blessing.
At noon on Holy Saturday, thousands of locals and visitors gather in the centre of Corfu Town to witness the annual ritual of pot smashing. People decorate their windows with red flowers and badges. When the church bells ring, the people then throw huge clay pots filled with red ribbons out of their windows. This symbolises the earthquake that occurred following Christ’s resurrection from his tomb.
There are several different games to choose from at Easter. Egg rolling down grassy hills has been an Easter pastime for centuries, but the rules differ depending on the country. In Germany, the eggs are rolled down a track made of sticks. An old Lancashire legend says after the race the broken eggshells should be crushed or they’d be stolen by witches and used as boats!
In Croatia and Greece, the preferred game on Easter morning is egg tapping. The participants tap their eggs against the opponent’s with the aim to crack it. The strongest egg is said to bring good luck for the whole year.
It’s common to see children in handmade Easter bonnets, but in western Finland, you’re more likely to spot children dressed up as witches on Holy Saturday, the day the evil spirits and witches are believed to get up to mischief. They burn large bonfires to eliminate them.
But why should children be the only ones dressing for the occasion? Spain’s customs include processions of ornate floats which depict scenes from the bible; while in Verges, Catalonia, church goers dress up as skeletons and perform a death dance as a reminder that death comes to all, no matter your standing.
Books and TV
As well as eating copious amounts of chocolate, Norwegians like to sit down in front of the TV for a week of family-friendly quizzes. Newspapers and magazines are also stuffed with quizzes, and pubs host quiz nights across the country.
The other Norwegian Easter obsession is crime literature. In the 1920s, two authors placed an advert in a newspaper with a really realistic headline. Thinking the story was real, people bought their book to learn more. Since then, there’s nothing Norwegians like more than to head to their mountain cabins and settle down with the latest crime novel or TV series.
Another bizarre one
For over 350 years, a float is pulled through Florence, Italy, by two white oxen. From the cart, a huge firework display explodes into life to honour Pazzino, who had been among the first to enter Jerusalem during the First Crusade. Not a bunny in sight!