Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How Easter became an American holiday

How Easter became an American holiday

By Rev. John-Brian Paprock

For Capital Newspapers Supplement

Holy Week Worship 2009 Directory

(not published in the supplement)



My earliest childhood memories of Easter include a yellow blazer made for a preschooler, a constant wetting of the top of my head for a cow-lick, an Easter basket that I had to carry but could not dig for confectionary delight, holding a candle while getting sleepy at midnight services, running around the family house and backyard in search of colored eggs, a big meal, and Peter Cottontail. It seemed everyone I encountered was happy, hugging and kissing with exuberance.  For my family, it seemed all the secular inventions that seemed to increase through my childhood, only added to the religious and spiritual occasion.


American Easter, the holiday that is commercially known today, has elements that have always been celebrated in some form. From the earliest of human traditions, recognition of the equinox was common.  It is the heralding day for putting winter behind, celebrating the survival of life. Whereas the winter solstice and Christmas have the survival of light at is core, Easter is the triumph of light; from this time until summer solstice the hours of sunlight only grow. Daylight Savings Time is designed to take advantage of this.


The American Easter holiday is the result of the confluence of several traditions from different cultures.  In fact, there are almost too many diverse cultural and religious traditions to keep track of. Even the name for the holiday is diverse. 


Most of the world’s languages and cultures call the Christian holy day, Pascha or some variation of the term for Passover, the Jewish holy days of the same timing.  The scriptural stories of Passover and Pascha are intertwined.  Both are celebrated on dates related to the spring equinox and the nearest full moon. In Judaism, Passover is a holy time that acknowledges God’s protection and guidance, culminating in marking the homes of the faithful with lamb’s blood so that God’s wrath would “pass over” the righteous.  In Christianity, the culmination of the Gospels is the Roman crucifixion of Jesus Christ at the time of Passover in Jerusalem.  Easter is a variation of a word used in northern and middle Europe for the spring festivals and was used by the majority of the initial settlers of America.  So, in America it is Easter, except in homes where it is Pascha, Pasha, Pesaho, etc.  Eastern Orthodox Christians prefer the term Pascha to distinguish the holy days when the calculations of date are not the same as the Roman Catholic and Protestant (Western Christian) reckoning.

It might be surprising to some, that Easter was not celebrated in any traditional sense by many Protestant Christians until after the Civil War. In fact, Easter was not widely celebrated in America until the 1930s.

Here is some of the most common American traditions:


Greeting the sun at sunrise, facing east, is one of the oldest traditions.  In Eastern Orthodox Christianity midnight services are begun with a single candle until everything is lit. After the lengthy services and feast that follows, the faithful are greeted by the sunrise. In Roman Catholic churches, and in some Lutheran and Episcopal churches, the vigil includes a tradition from the early Middle Ages - a blessing of “the new fire.”   Many churches light a paschal candle at Easter service that will burn through the season.  Some churches celebrate a sunrise service.  Throughout America, Easter Sunday service remains the most popularly attended church service during the year. Even for those that do not belong to any church, gatherings to enjoy the spiritual symbolism of the Easter sunrise are held in parks and beaches every year.


Feasts and festivals in communities both religious and secular are common.  Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians follow an early Church tradition by fasting, that is abstaining from certain foods, for the forty or more days.  So the day of Pascha is also the day to return to eating meat and dairy products, like eggs.  Often there is a “paschal” lamb dinner to following the midnight services.  The feast often has eggs, candies, special breads all brought to church to be blessed and shared.


Exchanging gifts of fertility like eggs and flowers have been part of the spring celebrations for thousands of years.  The ancient Persians have the oldest recorded use of eggs at spring rituals, going back at least 5000 years. The Easter basket probably has it origins in bringing the gifts to the celebration. Hay and straw in the baskets would keep the eggs safe for the journey.


The Easter celebrations followed the isolating effects of winter.  The festivities began the official opening of social activities in many cultures. People would gather to see each other again, with new clothes and bonnets to catch the attention. 


The Easter Parade and the Easter bonnet had the height of popularity in America in the 1930s when Irving Berlin’s song “Easter Parade” was among the most popular on the radio and bonnets were actually worn fashionably throughout the year. However, in many Protestant churches, the tradition has been revived.


As one might guess, there has always been a market for the symbolic elements of spring festivities.  Easter continues to have the largest egg sales of any other time in America.  There is an increase of butcher requests for lamb, which many supermarkets do not even sell except at Easter.  More rabbits, as well as baby chicks and ducklings, are sold as pets during this time.  Shortly after Easter, the number of these animals given to Human Society shelters for unwanted pets often exceeds the ability to give them new homes.  Every year, caution is encouraged when buying and giving live animals no matter how cute.    


The American confectioner’s dream that Easter has become is mostly secular tradition. Stories and symbolic gifts that have become American icons have their popular origins in last century.  Peter Cottontail, the completely American Easter Bunny, became popular with the Gene Autry’s Top Ten song in 1950.  This was followed by the popular 1957 children’s book and the 1971 Rankin-Bass television special! 


Although the idea of a rabbit hiding “its” eggs may have origins to ancient Europe, the costumed bunny that graces so many egg hunts and egg rolling contests and gives away so much candy is mostly a spring-time version of the shopping mall Santa.  Peter Cottontail, according to American tradition (and the song), distributes gifts to people almost like Santa Claus. For some people; jellybeans. For others; a basket full of Easter joy. Wherever he goes, he showers his blessings on people. 


Balloon releases on Easter morning started more recently.  Although balloons have history that goes back centuries, latex balloons were not invented until mid 19th Century and were not mass produced until 1930s.  Easter is the Christian celebration of Jesus Christ resurrection from the tomb, so released balloons rising into the sky have similar liberation.  Some more traditional Christians celebrate the Ascension of Jesus Christ 40 days after Easter from the Gospel accounts of his rising into the heaven.  Biodegradable balloons are often encouraged in contemporary Easter releases.


Easter candy sales are the second largest during the year, with jelly beans, chocolate bunnies and marshmallow chicks leading the way.  Only Halloween sells more candy. In 2001, the National Confectioner’s Association reported that 7 billion pounds of candy were consumed at Easter. It’s estimated that American consumers spend over 1 million dollars on Easter candy every year.


The first known Easter bunny sweets come from Germany in the 19th Century – as a baked cookie-bread.  The first chocolate bunnies don’t begin their American prominence until the mid-20th Century, long after the chocolate egg became popular in Europe. Now, over ninety million chocolate Easter bunnies are produced each year. According to 76% of Americans, chocolate bunnies should be eaten ears first – among the newer Easter traditions. 


Jelly beans were merely an exotic candy until marketed as mini-eggs for Easter in 1933.  Today, giving and eating jelly beans have become one of the most popular Easter traditions. Over 20 billion jelly beans are made for Easter every year.


Peeps are the small marshmallow candies shaped into chicks, bunnies, and other animals They were introduced in 1958  and are almost exclusively sold in the US and Canada for Easter.  Each day, five million marshmallow chicks and bunnies are produced in preparation for Easter.  In the 1990s, Peep contests started growing popularity.  Eating contests are held the week following Easter when the candies were discounted. 


Although it seems that chocolate crosses (without Jesus) could have been part of the oldest of traditions, mass-produced chocolate crosses started being sold in 2005 by Russell Stover Candies Inc. Although chocolate crosses have been available before, mostly in other countries, this was a first by a major American company.  The crosses have quickly become part of American Easter baskets.


Although religious Easter celebrations in declaration of the triumph of God’s love and light will always be the most important to most Americans. The greetings of "Christ is risen!" and "He is risen indeed!" will always hold the most inner joy and peace in the hearts of Christians.  88 percent of parents carry on the Easter tradition of creating Easter baskets for their children.  It was a joy of my childhood.  And it was a joy to make Easter baskets for my son throughout his childhood.  Even though he is 17 years old this year, I think I will keep with tradition at least one more year.  I don’t think he will wear a yellow blazer or let me wet down his hair as we go to church to hold candles at midnight, but he will probably carry the basket to church to be blessed.



Peter Cottontail

by Steve Nelson & Jack Rollins

Peter Cottontail
Here comes Peter Cottontail,
Hopping' down the bunny trail,
Hippity, hoppity,
Easter's on its way.

Bringing' every girl and boy Baskets full of Easter joy,
Things to make your Easter bright and gay.
He's got jellybeans for Tommy,
Colored eggs for sister Sue,
There's an orchid for your Mommy
And an Easter bonnet, too.

Oh! here comes Peter Cottontail,
Hopping' down the bunny trail,
Hippity hoppity,
Happy Easter day.

Here comes Peter Cottontail,
Hopping' down the bunny trail,
Look at him stop, and listen to him say:
"Try to do the things you should."
Maybe if you're extra good,
He'll roll lots of Easter eggs your way.

You'll wake up on Easter morning
And you'll know that he was there
When you find those chocolate bunnies
That he's hiding everywhere.

Oh! here comes Peter Cottontail,
Hopping' down the bunny trail,
Hippity hoppity,
Happy Easter day.

No comments: