International Easter Customs – More than bunnies

Christmas is barely over and the new year has just begun, when already the supermarkets are populated with Easter bunnies. Here in Germany, we cannot imagine Easter without Easter eggs and Easter bunnies, but our European neighbors can. From Scandinavia to Greece, there are more Easter customs than there are colorful eggs in an Easter basket. Join us on a journey through the multi-facetted world of Easter customs.

Spring equinox and Easter come together like no other holiday time. The Christian church honors the death and celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ while all around us, nature is reawakening. No wonder that most of our German Easter customs are centered around this topic.

The Easter fires that blaze in many regions of Germany are intended to chase away the cold winter and bring warmth back into our lives. Also Easter eggs, cherished worldwide, have symbolized new life and rebirth since the beginning of time. Cooking Easter feasts and giving colorfully painted eggs once had a very practical reason. In the Christian tradition, eggs and meat were not allowed to be eaten during Lent, the time of fasting. But since chickens laid eggs anyway, the eggs were hard-boiled, so they wouldn’t spoil. So when Lent ended on Easter Sunday, there were eggs galore.

The custom of hiding eggs and sweets in the garden or park is not so old. The first report of an Easter Egg Hunt in Germany was in the 17th century. Besides that, an Easter egg hunt is a wonderful opportunity for an extended Easter walk. In and around Coburg, in Upper Franconia, the Easter bunny hides his eggs earlier, on Maundy Thursday.

But where does the Easter Bunny really come from? Scholars cannot agree. Depending on the region, the eggs could once have been hidden by a fox, a rooster or a cuckoo. The rabbit, a symbol of fertility and spring, eventually prevailed, at least in Germany. In other countries, the children look forward to receiving sweets from the Easter rooster or the Easter dove, or believe the candies are brought by Easter bells.

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Easter witches and birch switches – how Easter is celebrated in Scandinavia

Easter ushers in the spring, and everywhere in Scandinavia the people enjoy the first warming rays of sunshine that melt away the long winter’s frost. Everywhere? Not in Norway. There, the people do exactly the opposite. They follow the retreating snow up to mountain cabins where they celebrate Easter. Sounds strange, but the tradition has the following background: at the end of the last Ice Age, the first Norwegian allegedly led his clan North, following the melting ice up the glacier, instead of South. Enjoying the irony of it, Norwegians continue to do as their ancestors did.

Those celebrating Easter in Finland might just find a surprised “whipped up” for them. Finns “whip” their neighbors with birch switches – similar to after the sauna -  to bring them luck in the coming springtime. Easter eggs in Finland are laid by an Easter rooster, and not the Easter bunny.

As in Finland, on the days between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday, girls in Sweden dress up as Easter witches and go from house to house asking for sweets. In return, the Eater witches bring luck to the houses or give pictures they drew at home. The children in Sweden get their chocolate eggs on Easter Saturday - not in a nest, but in a large, cardboard egg. A special Easter treat is Påskmust, a malty lemonade made only on Easter.

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Where herrings are buried and bells fly – Easter customs from Ireland to France

Before the Irish can dig into their Easter basket chocolates, they must first come through Lent. At the end of this “hard” time, the Easter fun begins with burying a herring. Often, this herring burial is organized by the local butcher, who gains a little more than amusement.

Like the Irish, lamb is traditionally served in France, either as a roast or as a chocolate figure. Little chocolate bells are also popular, such as the ones German children enjoy at Christmas. Not the Easter bunny, but “flying bells” bring the Easter egg and sweets to French children. Traditionally, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the church bells are silent. They say the bells have flown to Rome, bringing all kinds of sweets with them when they come flying back. 

In the canton Wallis in Switzerland, Easter Sunday is greeted actively. Before sunrise, the people gather and climb up a hill in a procession, where they welcome the sun with three somersaults.

In Poland, however, you may want to bring along an umbrella. Even on the most beautiful, sunny day you just might get wet. On “Wet Monday”, Poles commemorate the baptism of their first ruler in the 10th century by “baptizing” everyone. Whether tourist or neighbor, water pistols and water balloons are in everyone’s hands.

In the Czech Republic, when a young man and young woman meet on Easter, they have a special exchange. He gives her a symbolic smack with an Easter switch made of braided and decorated willow twigs. This is meant to give her some of the tree’s strength and vital energy, keeping her healthy and happy throughout the year. To thank him, she gives him a colorfully painted Easter egg.

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Red eggs and processions – traditional Easter customs in Southern Europe

Tourists flock to Spain during Holy Week and the Easter holidays. It is like traveling back to ancient times when religious orders in hooded robes pass through the streets in long processions, carrying sacred figures or representations of Jesus’ stations of the cross on their shoulders. On the lighter side, the Catalan Caramelles singers, both children and grownups, walk through the streets singing songs, not only religious ones. In return, they are given eggs, sausages and sweets. 

Easter in Italy requires a good portion of patience. During the traditional processions through the streets, the believers sometimes move so slowly, they need hours to cover one single kilometer. But those who persevere are rewarded with a “Colomba Pasquale” (Easter Dove), a cake formed like a dove and filled with candied fruits, raisins and almonds. 

Easter is probably the most important holiday of the year in Greece. Accordingly, there are countless traditions and Easter dishes. “Egg Beating” is an amusing custom. On Maundy Thursday, eggs are hard boiled and painted red. On Easter Sunday, two people beat their eggs together, and the person’s egg that remains intact wins. If you want to join in the fun, take a good look at your partner’s egg. Some jokers enter the contest with wooden eggs painted red.