The True Story Behind 10 Easter and Passover Traditions

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Throughout history, springtime has been an important period of celebration for many of the world’s religious faiths and cultural groups. Today, several religions observe major holidays in the weeks around the vernal equinox, each of which is surrounded by an array of long-standing – and sometimes unusual – traditions and practices. Contemporary Easter and Passover traditions have been shaped by an interesting potpourri of influences, including the ancient pagan rites of spring. Let’s explore the origins of ten popular Easter and Passover traditions.

10. Dyeing Easter Eggs

Today, kids around the world observe Easter by decorating eggs. The most common approach involves dipping hard-boiled chicken eggs into bowls of dye that have been created using a mixture of food coloring and vinegar. Although eggs have long been associated with springtime and fertility, the practice of decorating eggs to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a somewhat puzzling association. Scholars and theologians have offered different takes on the issue. It is said that in medieval times, it was common to observe Easter by giving eggs to one’s servants and household staff. In aristocratic households, these gifted eggs were often decorated with designs rendered in gold leaf. Another explanation comes from the Greek Orthodox tradition, where eggs that are exchanged as gifts are dyed a deep crimson shade to represent the blood of Christ. Others believe that the tradition has its roots in the pagan appreciation of the cycle of life and the remarkably colorful bird eggs that can often be spotted in nests at this time of year.

9. Peeps

Many Easter traditions celebrate the wonders of the natural world, but the traditional exchange of Peeps – a marshmallow confection made in shapes such as chicks and bunnies in bright pastel shades – seems to be more of a celebration of human ingenuity. These so-bad-they’re-good treats are decidedly unnatural – and unnaturally delicious. Dating from 1958, when each confection was handmade in a painstaking 27-hour process, Peeps are manufactured by Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based Just Born, Inc., which also makes other popular sweet treats such as Hot Tamales, Just Born Jelly Beans, Mike and Ike, and Teenee Beanee gourmet jelly beans. Although Peeps have long been an Easter tradition, the company has recently begun to expand its product offerings, creating Peeps with Halloween and Christmas themes, as well as several new flavor and color varieties. Today, the Just Born facility manufactures more than 1 billion Peeps each year. If you’re interested in taking your love for this Easter delicacy to the next level, check the Internet for Peeps-based art and recipe ideas.

8. The Seder Feast

Seder is the Jewish feast that marks the beginning of Passover, a religious celebration that honors the ancient Israelites’ escape from involuntary servitude in Egypt. In addition to a ritual retelling of the story of the escape from Egypt, the typical Seder feast involves several specific elements that are key to the religious observance. These include drinking four cups of wine, consuming matzos, and passing around a plate of symbolic food items, some of which guests are asked to eat. Maror and chazeret are bitter herbs that evoke the harsh conditions of the Jews’ enslavement. Charoset is a sugary paste that represents the mortar that Jews used in the construction of storehouses and other buildings in ancient Egypt. Karpas is an herb or root vegetable dipped into salt water, which represents the tears of the enslaved Jews. Beitzah is a hard-boiled egg that is a symbol of mourning, while the Z’roa is a roasted piece of meat – usually lamb, goat, or chicken – that represents the Pesach, or sacrifice, offered by enslaved Jews in the temple in Jerusalem and is not typically eaten during the Seder meal. In some areas, Seder traditions are evolving – it was recently reported that a growing number of believers are including a piece of an orange on the Seder plate to symbolize the fruitfulness that comes from the inclusion of marginalized groups.

7. Easter Bonnets

Since ancient times, Christian believers have been gearing up for Easter celebrations by buying or making new clothes. References to this practice have been found in texts dating back to the earliest Easter celebrations, and even a casual glance at newspaper advertisements in the weeks leading up to Easter is enough to reveal that the tradition of putting together a new outfit for Easter is still alive and well today. But in tough economic times, such as the Great Depression that swept the United States in the 1930s, the luxury of an entire outfit for Easter was too much for many families to be able to afford. For some, buying a new hat temporarily replaced the tradition of purchasing or making a new outfit. For others, the practice of embellishing or decorating a hat one already owned for Easter became popular. It is this kind of embellished hat that popular songwriter Irving Berlin immortalized in his 1933 hit, “Easter Parade.” In some countries, the Easter bonnet also serves as a makeshift Easter basket, holding the treats and toys left overnight by the Easter Bunny.

6. Chametz traditions

Although the Seder feast is an important part of the Passover tradition, the ritual cleansing of chametz is another key facet of Passover observance among Jewish believers. According to tradition, when the Israelite slaves were freed from servitude by the proclamation of the Pharaoh, they had to leave the country so quickly that they could not wait for their bread to rise. For that reason, Passover is known as the “Festival of Unleavened Bread” and no leavened bread – or chametz – is consumed during the celebration. Instead, matza, which is flat, cracker-like unleavened bread, is used and plays a central role in several Passover rituals. In preparation for Passover, Jewish families go through several ritual phases of finding and discarding all the foodstuffs in their home that could be classified as chametz. Many Observant families and businesses undertake a thorough bout of spring cleaning to rid the premises of any hint of chametz-containing substances or particles, and some own complete sets of dishes and serving implements for use during Passover that have never come into contact with leavened bread.

5. Easter Baskets

For kids in many countries, there’s nothing like waking up on Easter morning and jumping out of bed to sift through the goodies that have been packed in your very own Easter basket. According to the National Confectioners’ Association, more than 90 million Easter baskets are distributed each year in the United States alone. Chocolates, jelly beans, and other assorted candies are the most popular basket filler, although non-food toys and trinkets have been gaining popularity in recent years, as well. Although there is some debate over the origins of the Easter basket tradition, many scholars believe that it may have originally come from depictions of the ancient pagan goddess of spring, Eostre, who was often depicted carrying a basket of eggs.

4. Recounting the Exodus

The festival of Passover commemorates the period when the ancient Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt and returned to their homeland. Although there are a number of food-related traditions that are observed during Passover, perhaps the most important part of the celebration is the ritual retelling of the Exodus story. In the Torah’s Book of Exodus, Jews are exhorted to tell their progeny about the enslavement and escape of the ancient Israelites. The act of recounting this story in a ceremony known as Magid forms a key component of the Seder feast, and it is told from a special text known as the Haggadah. The ceremony is meant to be interactive and inclusive, and includes questions and answers, special blessings, discussions, and songs. The story is usually told in both Hebrew and the native language of the majority of the guests attending the feast, according to tradition.

3. Matzo

According to tradition, the ancient Israelites who escaped from servitude in Egypt were forced to leave quickly, and thus were unable to undertake extensive preparations for the long trip home. Among other things, this meant that they could not wait to bake bread according to the usual procedure, which includes a lengthy period during which the dough rises. What they wound up with instead was unleavened bread, or matzo. To commemorate the escape, Passover is known as the “Festival of Unleavened Bread.” Matzo – also known as matza, matzah, matze, and matsah – is the unleavened, flat, cracker-like bread that has come to be most strongly associated with Passover. There are many different varieties of matzo, including a chocolate-covered version that is popular among children, but most Observant Jews select only certain types of matzo for use during the Passover Seder feast. The most popular matzo for Passover is known as shmura matzo; shmura translates literally as ‘guarded’ and refers to the fact that the ingredients used to make the bread have been watched carefully throughout the entire manufacturing process to avoid any fermentation.

2. The Easter Egg Hunt

Like so many other Easter traditions, the Easter egg hunt – now a staple of Easter celebrations in many countries – developed out of a mish-mash of different cultural traditions around the world. Much as the process of egg dyeing mimics the brightly colored bird eggs that are a hallmark of springtime, the Easter egg hunt takes its cues from the natural world, as well, where doting mother birds often carefully tuck their precious eggs away in an attempt to befuddle predators. Some experts point to other holiday hide-and-seek games as possible influences for the Easter egg hunt, including the hiding of a particular Christmas tree ornament or the hiding of the last piece of matzo at Passover celebrations. In earlier times, parents often hid Easter treats in bonnets or grassy “nests” and then set their children loose to find them.

1. The Easter Bunny

Whether you think he’s cute or creepy, the Easter bunny is perhaps the single most important feature of modern Eastern celebrations. However, it wasn’t always that way – according to historians, the Easter bunny is a symbol that only entered popular culture about 300 years ago. The tradition is said to have originated in Germany and then spread around the world as German settlers emigrated. The Osterhase, as the German Easter bunny was known, would reward well-behaved children by laying brightly colored eggs in their hidden bonnets, baskets, or nests. Today, whether you celebrate Easter by chowing down on his chocolate effigy or by trekking to the local mall to sit for portraits with his costumed counterpart, the Easter bunny continues to loom large over modern Easter celebrations.