Before another Easter season is history, I thought that a column on Easter customs, practices and traditions could be helpful. There is so much superstition and confusion about such topics in the secular media, as well as academia, whose biases and preferences are not trustworthy.
First, Easter is the summit of all liturgical celebrations; it outranks all other Christian feasts and festivals, with a special post-Easter Octave. "Easter" is our English word for the great festival of Resurrection from the grave. Hence, everything about Easter itself is especially sacred. Problems arise for the most part when various peripheral aspects of the Greatest Festival are discussed or applied.
Which brings up the topic of "the Easter Rabbit," which became the target of various journalistic pieces recently (as usual). According to Father Francis X. Weiser, the initial reference to the "Easter bunny" appeared among the peoples of Northern Europe and Christian Asia. Rome, he says, adopted the symbolism about two centuries later. The Easter Rabbit, while never seen as a religious ikon, was nonetheless an ancient reminder of fertility. Indeed, the rabbit and hare have long been associated with Easter festivities linked to children, and "candy-like" replicas date at least from two centuries ago, in Germany, for example.
The best known Easter foods are lamb and ham. Lamb, of course, brings us back to the Scriptures and the Paschal Lamb, itself a type (i.e., a sign of a future reality, attested to within the text of the Bible). The lamb which the Israelites consumed within the Paschal dinner prior to the Exodus – the great flight from Egypt – was meant as a sign of the future Christ Jesus, who, by his Precious Blood freed his Chosen People from slavery and led them to the Promised land. Thus it is that lamb has a special place in Easter dinners.
Another staple commonplace at Easter is the ham. In ancient times the pig was taken as a sign of good luck. Eventually ham became a symbol of good fortune, and as early as the 10th century a blessing for the Easter ham was provided by the Church.
Then there is the Easter egg. Again, this is a fertility issue, dating from ancient Indo-European customs. Moreover, since the egg was disallowed during the Lenten Fast, it quickly became a reminder of festivity. Multiple practices have since developed over the years; e.g., exquisitely colored eggs, "Easter egg" hunts, etc. Easter eggs were once given as special gifts, also. England’s King Edward I (1307) once reportedly gave about 450 eggs dyed in gold leaf.
The blessing of Easter foods, long a practice in European countries, has been kept alive in the Church’s most recent Blessings Ritual. The faithful gather on Holy Saturday morning, for example with "Easter" breads and/or sausages, meats, pastries, for a moving benediction in the context of freshly prepared foods at the close of the Lenten Fast and the summit of the Paschal Triduum. Often the foods are transported in baskets.
There are countless more Easter practices – all reminiscent of the Lord’s entrance into our daily lives.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.