1) Sweden’s Easter Witches
Many of the things you don’t know about Easter have to do with odd, intensely national Holy Week traditions. So why not start off with the most unexpected one — the Easter Witch. In Sweden and parts of Finland, a mini-Halloween takes place on either the Thursday or Saturday before Easter. Little girls dress up in rags and old clothes, too-big skirts and shawls and go door to door with a copper kettle looking for treats.
The tradition is said to come from the old belief that witches would fly to a German mountain the Thursday before Easter to cavort with Satan. On their way back, Swedes would light fires to scare them away, a practice honored today by the bonfires and fireworks across the land in the days leading up to Sunday.
2) Ethiopia’s Belated Easter Celebration
Ethiopian Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter anywhere from a week to two weeks after the western Church (sometimes, they occur at the same time, due to the vagaries of the Eastern Orthodox calendar, which Ethiopians follows). Fasika (Easter) follows eight weeks of fasting from meat and dairy. On Easter Eve, Ethiopian Christians participate in an hours-long church service that ends around 3 a.m., after which they break their fast and celebrate the risen Christ.
3) The Randy Easter Bunny
Explanations for the Easter Bunny all seem to tie into the old Anglo-Saxon festival of Easter, the spring goddess, whose symbol was, yes, a rabbit. A symbol of fertility, the rabbit became associated with the American celebration of Easter when the Germans who settled Pennsylvania in the 1700s brought from the motherland tales of the “osterhase,” the mythical egg-laying bunny kids have grown to love.
4) Hot Cross Buns
The children’s nursery rhyme aside, hot cross buns are an actual pastry traditionally eaten on Good Friday, particularly in Great Britain. A sweet bread lightly flavored with fruits and spices, the bun is a fairly literal food — the white cross adorning each is an echo of Christ’s suffering. Years ago, a false report was circulated by a British newspaper that the City of York had banned hot cross buns from its public schools in order to avoid offending non-Christians.
5) Easter Parades
There is said to be an old superstition which held that wearing new clothes at Easter time meant good luck for the remainder of the year (does this mean that the three months or so prior to Easter were just awful?). Starting in the mid-1800’s, upper-class New Yorkers exiting the grand churches along Fifth Avenue would parade and promenade their finery. From such elitist beginnings (as well as the 1948 Judy Garland film Easter Parade), comes the present-day Fifth Avenue Easter Parade, which is decidedly wackier and looser.
6) Faberge Eggs: The Fanciest Easter Gift Ever
Russia, 1885. Tsar Alexander III is looking for an Easter/anniversary gift for his wife, Maria Feodorovna. He gets in touch with jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé, who proceeds to make a white enameled gold egg that opens to reveal a golden yolk containing a small golden hen with ruby eyes. So began a yearly tradition of intricately detailed eggs, each unique, each with its own surprise, like a really expensive box of Cracker Jacks. Faberge eggs continue to represent the height of opulence, a point made with tragic finality when the Russian monarchy was overthrown in 1917, the final year Fabergé eggs were produced.
7) The Burning of the Judas
Easter is a time of joyous celebration in the Christian Church. Joyous and cathartic celebration. Joyous and cathartic and, in some places, violent celebration. Take the tradition known as the Burning of the Judas. Common in several Latin American nations and in some parts of Greece, the practice involves stringing up an effigy representing the Apostle that betrayed Jesus and either burning it or exploding it from within with fireworks.
In recent years, crowds have used the effigies to represent politicians or businessmen who have wronged the people. In Venezuela in 2008, a Judas dressed up as an Exxon representative (above) was burned following the settlement of a legal fight between the nation and the oil giant. The tradition has also been a venue for misunderstanding, as a 2005 U.S. State Department report criticized Greece for its annual “burning of the Jew.” Greece essentially responded by saying, “you’re idiots.”
8) The Sunrise Service
In 1773, America’s first Sunrise Service — an Easter Mass held early enough for congregants to witness the dawn’s first rays together — was held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, organized by the Moravians — a church with its roots in the present-day Czech Republic. The service is held to mark the empty tomb that greeted Mary as dawn broke on Easter morning. Since then, such celebrations have been held in such diverse and scenic venues as the Hollywood Bowl (which celebrates its 88th service this year), the Lincoln Memorial and Colorado Springs’ Garden of the Gods.
9) Bermuda’s Good Friday Kites
Legend has it that a Bermudan teacher in need of a simple yet effective way to demonstrate the Ascension of Christ into heaven, used a kite decorated with Jesus’ image to imprint the concept on the minds of his charges. As a result, Good Friday in Bermuda finds colorful, multi-sided kites made of sticks and tissue paper dotting skies all over the island.
10) Easter Eggs
The egg appears in many ancient traditions as a symbol for life, or life’s beginnings. In medieval Europe, eggs were often one of the first foods — blessed by a priest of course — eaten after the Lenten fast. The practice of dyeing eggs can be traced back to early Greek and Syrian Christians, who exchanged crimson eggs “to represent the blood of Christ,” write Priscilla Sawyer and Daniel J. Foley in Easter Garland. German and Austrian immigrants later brought the practice to America.