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Easter hunt

Easter: Origins and Traditions

By No author

Easter is approaching! I know for most of you, it will just be the perfect opportunity to eat loads of chocolate without feeling guilty for once but before stuffing yourself, do you know its origins? Of course we will be commemorating the resurrection of Christ but why do we also eat chocolate? And why is chocolate brought to us by bunnies in the UK and by bells in France?


Even if it’s impossible to imagine Easter without a big chocolate egg, everybody knows that it is first and foremost a religious ceremony which marks Jesus’s resurrection. Actually it is the most important religious event in the Christian calendar. Did you think it was Christmas? If you did, you were mistaken and you should definitely carry on reading this to deserve your chocolate.

For Christian, Easter is not just about one day but at least a whole week called Holy Week. It is the last week of Lent and the week before Easter. It begins with the Sunday before Easter, or Palm Sunday which celebrates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem in the days before his Passion. Then, there are Maundy Thursday, Good Thursday and Holy Saturday: that stands for the Easter Triduum (Latin for three days and particularly used by the Roman Catholic Church).

Maundy Thursday is the day of the Last Supper, when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and established the Eucharist, giving them bread saying, "This is my body", and wine saying, "This is my blood." It was just before his arrest; Jesus knew it and forgave the ones who were about to betray him.


La Cène - Léonard de Vinci
La Cène - Léonard de Vinci


Then comes a day of profound mourning, Good Friday, which commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This is the opportunity for Christians to meditate on Jesus’s sufferings and his death on the cross. The meaning of what is called the Passion of Christ and the impact of such a sacrifice are the pillars of the Christian faith. It sounds bizarre that such a day is called “Good Friday” in English (‘vendredi saint’ in French) but it is likely to be a deformation of God’s Friday.

Christ on the Cross - El Greco
Christ on the Cross - El Greco
Christ carrying the Cross - El Greco
Christ carrying the Cross - El Greco











Easter Sunday is the day of the resurrection of Christ, the most important event for a Christian. To be more precise, this is so important that Christian (well some of them) people prepare themselves for 40 days with Lent. This period implies prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial to be ready for the annual commemoration of Christ’s resurrection. Easter Sunday is always on the first Sunday of the full moon following the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Resurrection of Christ - Giovanni Bellini
The Resurrection of Christ - Giovanni Bellini


Note however that religion is not all this is all about. In fact, Easter has its beginnings before Christianity. (Don’t despair, I will talk about chocolate!) Pagan ceremonies took place around the same date celebrating the upcoming Spring and the reviving of nature. English denomination “Easter” comes from the name of a goddess associated with Spring, Eostre. 

The Return of Persephone - Frederic Leighton
The Return of Persephone - Frederic Leighton

For example, in Ancient Greece, there was a legend about the coming back on earth of Persephone the goddess. As she was stuck in hell, her mother, the goddess of the Earth decided to sow desolation on the earth until she came back. Eventually, a compromised was reached and Persephone could spend half of her time on earth and the other half in hell. That implied the rhythm of seasons and a celebration was made to celebrate Persephone’s yearly return on earth.

Christian Easter simply re-packaged the spring celebrations into a Christian celebration which explains why the ceremony is always strongly connected with revival, rebirth and the end of a tough period.


Easter eggs

Easter eggs
Easter eggs

Eggs have always been a symbol of rebirth and rebirth has always been used to symbolised spring. Exchanging and eating eggs for Easter was already very common before Christianity. Christian folklore just borrowed it. However, when and why people decided to decorate them or to eat chocolate ones is another matter. In Europe, decorating eggs has been a long tradition. As far back as the 17th century, manufactured and artificial painted eggs could even be purchased as Easter gifts. They came in a wide variety of materials. For example, the fabulous Faberge Eggs were Easter gifts commissioned by Czar Alexander III for his wife Maria Fyodorovna in 1885.
Chocolate eggs (at last!) appeared both in France and in Germany at the beginning of the 19th century. No wonder this delicious new tradition spread quickly to the rest of Europe… However people had to wait for modern chocolate making to enjoy them massively. That’s why, by the 1960s, eating chocolate eggs for Easter became such a a common thing nearly everywhere in the world.

Bunnies VS Bells

Well, if nearly everybody eats chocolate for Easter, it is not always coming from the same benefactor. As far as France and the UK are concerned they are indeed very different; the Holy Bells (les cloches de Pâques) and the Easter Bunny respectively.
The tradition in France is that, as a sign of mourning, church bells stop ringing between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday. Children are told that during this period, bells go to Rome to see the Pope and on their way back home, they drop chocolate eggs in their path. That’s when the Easter Egg hunt starts.
But why bunnies in the UK? Rabbits are, because of their fecund nature, a symbol of fertility and as such also an Easter symbol. The hare, for instance, was Eostre’s (the goddess of spring) fellow. It seems logical, therefore, that a bunny be chosen by Britons. Note however that the origin of the bunny as an Easter symbol to comes from Germany where it is mentioned for the first time in the 16th century.

Easter lamb

Both in France and in the UK, the traditional Easter lunch implies inevitably lamb and generally a nice juicy leg. Here are some recipes.

Why lamb? First of all it is the perfect season for it but, symbolically, lamb stands as a saving sacrifice. This symbol comes from Jewish history. In fact it is thanks to lambs blood that Jews were saved from the Angel of death. Then the Old Testament abounds with references to lamb and sacrifice. Don’t you remember Cain and Abel? As Adam and Eve had been chased from Eden, angels came to tell them God still loved them and Jesus, his son, would come on earth soon and sacrifice himself to save them. To remind that they had disobeyed God and to honour Jesus’s upcoming saving, God taught them to execute sacrifices. That’s why Adam and Eve used to sacrifice lambs. Their sons, Cain and Abel were raised in this attitude. However, when Cain grew up he decided not to offer a lamb to God but some fruits. His offering was simply refused. On the contrary, Abel picked one of his beloved lambs up to honour God. Eventually, his brother Cain was so jealous that he murdered him. In the same way, Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his unique and beloved son Isaac to prove his faith and submission. As he was ready to do it, God replaced the beloved son by a lamb.

" Lamb of God, who took away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us"

The symbolic is extremely strong and, in the Christian belief, Jesus who has been sacrificed to save the humanity is called “Lamb of God”.The Agnus Dei is a common prayer, " Lamb of God, who took away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us".

As a consequence, during the Middle Ages people used to sacrifice a lamb during the Easter vigil. Tradition is way more charming nowadays in Alsace where cakes shaped like a lamb are made for children. It is said that, once, young men used to offer them to their lovers as a proposal.

Easter cakes


The Easter cake from Alsace is called Oschterlammele and you can find the recipe here.

However, In France, except from Alsace, there are no specific Easter cakes. Bakers are free to do what they want but Easter nests appear to be the most  common type of cake.

In the UK, hot cross buns are eaten during the Easter season. This is a slightly sweet bun filled with raisins and candied fruits. Before baking, a cross is made on the top and, once the hot cross bun is ready, filled with ice sugar. Children are so happy to get some that there is even an old song about it:

hot cross buns
hot cross buns

“Hot cross buns,
hot cross buns,
one a penny, two a penny,
hot cross buns.

If you do not like them,
Give them to your sons,
one a penny, two a penny,
hot cross buns.”
Find the recipe here:

Simnel cake
is another traditional sweet to break the Lent fast and celebrate Easter in Great Britain and Ireland. This light fruit cake was supposedly invented by a couple named Simon and Nelly. Whilst they were making a cake to celebrate the end of Lent, they argued about whether it should be boiled or baked. As a compromise they decided to do both. Here is the recipe:

Morris dancing

At last comes my favourite Easter tradition in the UK: the Morris dance. No one knows for certain the origins of Morris Dancing, it may well have its roots in rites celebrating fertility and the coming of spring. Men dressed up in costumes with hats and ribbons go down the streets and dance. One of the men generally carries an inflated pig bladder on a stick and hits young women with it… this is supposed to be lucky. Maybe I will simply stay home and eat my chocolate…

Morris dancing
Morris dancing

Easter recipes

Ideas for the Long Easter Break

What to offer for Easter?


25/03/2010 - cartierbresson said :

I would totally disagree with one respondant - your article was a really dispassionate view of easter - and gave a perfect view of a Christian festival - whether it be anglican, or roman. Thank you for your insights.

03/04/2009 - patriciaconnell said :

You are of course absolutely right.In France, the catholics and the protestants account for 64% and 2.1% respectively (source: Ifop Survey carried on 1st March 2007). The question asked was: "What religion do you think closer to?". The same survey indicated that nearly 27% did not feel close to any religion.
In England, the figures are very similar in terms of number of Christians.

03/04/2009 - deanejennings said :

Hmmm...this is a lovely article, but it has obviously been written from a Catholic view point!

Marvellous as Catholicism maybe, it doesn't represent the full spectrum of Christian practice or belief about Easter. Neither does it represent French Christianity. No, in fact, there are many Protestant Christians in France today, the fastest growing church in France amoung the young. And we should of course remember where those 18th century London Hugeot Churches came from - French Protestants at a time when France was the world's biggest exporter of Protestantisme.

As a Protestant living in France, Easter really is all about the chocolate. Oh and yes, we celebrate Jesus as well - but then we like to that everyday of the year.


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