Easter brings back memories of springtime, pastel colors, sunrise church services, new clothes, egg hunts, chocolate bunnies, and large family dinners for many Americans. I’m sure you’ve seen depictions of our holiday traditions on TV shows or in movies, but maybe you’re curious to learn a bit more about the holiday.
I’ve done my best to touch on some of the biggest traditions, but this post doesn’t and can’t cover everything. Also, please keep in mind that different families celebrate in different ways, so their traditions may differ slightly from what I’ve written here.
Religious or Secular?
Easter is a Christian religious holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Christ. It is one of the most important holidays for Christians so even people who are not regular churchgoers will often attend services on Easter Sunday. Many churches hold sunrise services outdoors. In the days leading up to Easter, many churches install a large wooden cross on their property (if they don’t have a permanent one) and drape it with a purple or white cloth.
However, even many Americans who are not Christian or who aren’t religious in any way will still celebrate Easter. They won’t go to church, but they still participate in the other secular traditions like egg hunts, egg decorating, and large family dinners.
Many school children receive the week before or the week after Easter off. Schools don’t call it Easter Break because of its religious nature so we refer to it as Spring Break. Most businesses that are usually open on Sundays (like malls, restaurants, stores) stay open on Easter. Additionally, most government offices, post offices, banks, and other businesses stay open on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Monday.
Eggs are central to the holiday. As in many cultures and religions eggs are highly symbolic of rebirth, renewal, and life so it is no wonder that they play a large role in Easter. It is common for children to dye and decorate hard boiled eggs. I have very fond memories as a child of my siblings and I sitting at the newspaper-covered dining room table dipping our eggs in coffee mugs filled with dye. We would wear old ratty tshirts and the house would smell like vinegar because that’s what activates the dye tablets that we use.
Traditionally, the eggs that are dyed are then hidden on Easter Sunday for the Easter egg hunt. However, it’s also common to use plastic eggs for the egg hunt instead; they’re usually filled with candy, small toys, or even coins. When I was a kid, my mother would hide our eggs around the house and my grandfather would hide plastic eggs filled with change (another word for coins) in his large back yard.
The egg hunt is the highlight of Easter for many children. What is more fun than running around the yard, trying to spy hidden eggs before another kid grabs them? Many cities and churches also hold egg hunts for the community on a weekend before Easter.
The Easter Bunny and Other Animals
The Easter Bunny is a large imaginary rabbit who appears once a year to leave children a basket filled with candy and toys on Easter Sunday. Most people believe that the Easter Bunny tradition was brought over hundreds of years ago by German immigrants.
In Easter imagery you’ll see a lot of rabbits (normal rabbits, not the Easter Bunny), lambs (baby sheep), and chicks (baby chickens) or ducklings (baby ducks). Although these animals aren’t necessarily a symbol of Easter, they are common symbols of spring. And since Easter always falls in the Spring they have become intertwined. Many animals give birth in the Spring, so these baby animals are reminders that Spring is a time of birth and renewal. Chicks and ducklings are born from eggs, which we’ve learned already are very symbolic. Lambs figure prominently in the Bible; in fact Jesus is even referred to as the Lamb of G-d. Rabbits are known for their prolific fertility and this ties into Spring being a season of birth.
It is traditional that on Easter morning, children each receive a basket filled with goodies. In most families, the Easter Bunny is responsible for this awesomeness, but in other families the parents claim the credit. I’ll admit, I’m a lazy parent and take full credit for giving my daughter her Easter basket. When I was a child, Easter Baskets contained mostly candy and very few toys. Today, I am seeing more and more stores trying to convince parents to put full-sized toys in their children’s Easter Baskets, as finite were a springtime version of Christmas.
I would say that most children’s baskets are filled with a good amount of candy and some smaller gifts such as bubbles, sidewalk chalk, crayons or pencils, dress-up jewelry, small dolls or action figures, a book, etc. Some parents spend a lot of time buying items for the baskets, but it is possible to find a pre-made, thematic basket at any store and some of us opt for that convenience.
Many people buy a new outfit especially to wear on Easter. Many people wear this outfit to Church and continue to wear it all day long. For girls and women, this usually is a cute spring sundress, usually in a pastel color. Most men don’t buy an entirely new suit, but they may by a new pastel dress shirt or pastel tie. Often, little boys are dressed up in pastel or khaki suits. My family did not buy into this tradition when I was a child, much to my dismay. My mother was very practical and, as much as I would beg her, she never gave in and bought me a fluffy pastel-colored dress. However, as a mother myself now, I usually to treat my daughter to an Easter dress.
There are many types of candy that are only available at Easter time. Most popular are chocolate bunnies — large chocolate molded in the shape of a rabbit. An Easter basket is not complete without a chocolate bunny. Another strange sweet that is common around Easter is a colored-sugar-covered marshmallow in the shape of a baby chick or a bunny. These are called Peeps and people either love them or hate them. But, they are an Easter tradition, even if you dislike them. Also, we love to make candy in the shape of eggs or to make them in pastel colors; most candy companies have at least one egg-shaped or pastel-colored candy for Easter.
Every family will have their specific food traditions, but in my experience Easter is a holiday that people tend to spend at home with a large family meal. Some families prepare a special breakfast, especially if they are a church-going family that spends the morning at services. Other families have have a large dinner (which, by the way, is often served in late afternoon instead of in the evening).
For dinner, ham and lamb are popular. These are paired with a number of side dishes which vary depending on the family and their traditions. For example, my family, which is a little bit Southern, usually has ham, roast chicken, potato salad, deviled eggs (which have nothing to do with the devil), green beans cooked with pork, and mashed or scalloped potatoes We also make sure to sure some rolls (a type of bread). As I typed this, I realized that my family may be a little obsessed with pork products and potatoes.
Oh, and you remember all those eggs we dyed? Yep, those are often turned into deviled eggs for Easter dinner or used for egg salad sandwiches the following week. We’re also usually still eating chocolate the week after Easter. And some of us are even known to stock up on candy on the day after Easter because it is put on sale on Monday.