In South Florida — where a new season doesn’t always mean new weather — the arrival of spring is heralded with pastel-colored plastic eggs, marshmallow Peeps and chocolate bunnies, milk or dark. In churches, Easter is met with blood-red eggs, incense-laden candles, lilies on the altar and fronds shorn from the swaying palms.
A pink bunny, or a fluorescent basketful of sweets, are well-known symbols of Easter. But where did they come from? Why do most people eat lamb — or ham — on Easter, the holiest day in the Christian calendar? What’s the significance of the Paschal candle? Why the eggs?
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski and religious studies professors from the University of Miami and Florida International University share the history behind the holiday’s most recognizable symbols.
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An egg is a tiny mystery, said Erik Larson, chair of FIU’s religious studies department. The opaque shell hides what’s happening until it bursts open and “new life springs out,” he said.
Ancient people were intrigued by eggs and associated their oval shape with rebirth and fertility. Rabbits, with their power to procreate, also are considered a fertility symbol, which might explain where the more secular “Easter bunny” comes from.
Neither eggs nor rabbits have a connection to the Biblical record, said UM’s religious studies chair David Kling. Christians co-opted these pagan symbols and ascribed them a part in the Easter story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Easter eggs are said to be symbolic of Jesus emerging from the tomb and ultimate resurrection on Easter Sunday.
In some places, eggs were considered a delicacy and were forbidden during the 40 days of Lent, a Christian period of abstinence that precedes Easter, and then were eaten on the holiday.
Mesopotamian Christians, who date to the fourth century, were the first to adopt eggs as an Easter food, and the first to decorate them. They dyed the eggs bright red as a symbol of the blood that Jesus Christ shed on the cross. Eastern Europeans took it up a notch, creating intricate patterns out of wax, carving and embellishments.
But Christians also might have adopted eating eggs at Easter from the religion the early Christians converted from — Judaism. Eggs are included on the Passover Seder plate, commemorating one of the sacrifices performed during the Seder in ancient times.
“It’s kind of a universal symbol,” Larson said.
Lamb, like eggs, has its Christian roots in Jewish practices.
Jesus Christ was crucified the same week as Passover, which Jews celebrate as the holiday when the “angel of death” passed over the homes of those who had sacrificial lamb’s blood smeared on their doorposts, sparing the firstborn sons. Roasted lamb shanks are an important part of the Passover Seder plate; roasted leg of lamb is popular for Easter in Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Greece.
In Jesus’ time, Jews traditionally sacrificed a 1-year-old lamb at the temple every year for Passover. Christians decided that Jesus’ death meant they could discontinue the practice.
“After His time, there didn’t need to be any more sacrifices because He made the ultimate sacrifice,” Larson said.
Jesus is called “the lamb of God” and “our Passover lamb” in the Bible, Larson added. That’s what makes the lamb Wenski’s favorite Easter symbol, he said.
“The Easter season is the Christian Passover feast because we’re celebrating Jesus’ passover from death to life,” Wenski said.
The last week of Jesus’ life takes up the most space in the four Gospel accounts in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The stories begin with Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem atop a donkey on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. The Son of God’s no-frills entrance on such a humble mount captivated his disciples, who laid down palm branches — “sort of like the red-carpet treatment,” Kling said — on his path.
As a concrete reminder of that day, the modern faithful cut down palm fronds and bring them to church on Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week in the Christian calendar. Liturgical churches bless them before distributing them, Larson said, but some Protestant churches are “a little more low-key” and just hold them. Others fold the palms into the shape of a cross.
The discarded palms are later collected and burned; the ashes are used for the next year’s Ash Wednesday.
Christians hold several Masses and services during the week leading up to Easter.
Maundy Thursday, also known as Holy Thursday, commemorates the Last Supper and Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Good Friday commemorates Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, with many Christians reenacting the Stations of the Cross to symbolize Jesus carrying a large wooden cross through Jerusalem before his death. On Saturday night, churches hold Easter Vigil services.
The vigil, Wenski said, is held between sundown and sunrise and represents the night before Jesus’ believers opened the tomb and found He had risen.
“In some places, the vigil may start in the late evening and go four to five hours,” Wenski said, but “that’s for people who like a lot of religion.”
During the vigil, a priest will bless the “Easter fire” and light the new Paschal candle for the coming year. The candle, several feet tall, is ornately decorated with inlaid rings of incense to symbolize the wounds of Christ, Wenski said.
The priest then walks to the front of the church holding the candle, stopping occasionally to light the smaller candles the congregation holds. By the time he reaches the front, the whole church fills with “the light of Christ” that dispels the darkness of sin and death, Wenski said.
The candle will be used at every baptism and funeral in the year ahead to symbolize the light of faith passed on, Wenski said.
“The whole basis of our faith as Christians is the resurrection of our Lord,” he said. “It’s what we’re about.”
A relative newcomer to the Easter symbol roster, lilies have a pagan connection to motherhood, starting with the Roman myth that they were created wherever drops of milk fell to Earth as Juno, the queen of the gods, nursed her son, Hercules, Kling said.
“Legend has it that white lilies were found growing in the Garden of Gethsemane after Christ’s agony and that they sprang up where drops of Christ’s sweat fell to the ground in his final hours of sorrow,” he said.
The garden is at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, the spot where Jesus prayed and the disciples slept on the night before his crucifixion.
Today, Christians see the pure white lily as a symbol of life and joy.