“Easter Day, the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord, is the greatest of all the festivals of the Christian Church,” wrote Christina Hole in her book “Easter and Its Customs.”
According to Robert J. Myers in the book “Celebrations,” “No holy day or festival in the Christian year can compare in importance with Easter Sunday.”
Most Clevelanders may agree the celebration of the resurrection of Christ has special meaning for them and their families. However, the way people choose to celebrate Easter varies greatly from country to country.
For example, in addition to special church services, Easter parades are traditional in the United States, as well as Easter egg hunts with the annual White House Easter Egg Roll taking place in the nation’s Capitol on Easter Monday.
In Bulgaria, people don’t hide their eggs — they have egg fights. Whoever comes out of the game with an unbroken egg is the winner and assumed to be the most successful member of the family in the coming year.
In Mexico, children actually smash eggs over each other’s heads in the week before Lent begins. These eggs, however, are filled with small pieces of paper rather than raw egg yoke. In Germany, eggs are dyed green on the Thursday before Easter.
In Greece, the eggs are dyed red for religious significance. According to www.greekjourney.com, “All godfathers and godmothers during the Holy Week go to their godchildren with presents and a candle which is to be lit at the Resurrection Sunday. Also [featured is] a traditional bun with a red egg on it. Presents usually are shoes, clothes and a chocolate egg or chocolate bunny, duck, etc.”
Clevelanders Nicholas Lillios and his parents, William and Amy Card Lillios, are of Greek descent and shared their family’s special connection to Easter and the symbols associated with Christendom’s most significant holy day.
“For me, Easter has always meant my birthday — because my birthday is April 17,” Nicholas said. “This year Easter comes early, but sometimes Easter would be within a week of my birthday. So my birthday parties were alway Easter egg hunts. I tend to have a very pleasant association of birthday presents and parties and Easter egg hunts, all on my birthday. My sister’s birthday is April 9, so between the two of us we always had Easter birthday parties! Easter is a bigger holiday in Greece, where my father is from. It’s even bigger than Christmas in Greece. One of the Greek traditions is to dye the eggs in red and we play a game where — we boil them first, dye them red and the game is to crash the eggs together and whoever’s egg does not break, wins! So Easter has always been a fun egg competition.”
Amy added, “We dye them all red because it represents the blood of Christ. I think it make the eggs more meaningful that we dye them all red. People who come to visit see that as a little strange, but I think it makes perfect sense to tie it into the religious holiday. We get a little too commercial with our holidays.”
The choice to connect her children’s birthday to Easter gave Amy an easy theme and her children loved it, “So why not?” she said.
Referring to the origin of using eggs in association with the resurrection of Christ, Amy said, “In the Greek Orthodox Church the egg represents birth — renewal.”
Nicholas added, “The only thing I’m not sure about is how bunnies got in there. Wait! I actually do recall that rabbits represent fertility. In the spring the rabbit was a symbol of fertility and springtime is a time of fertility. I believe that’s how a rabbit got associated with birth and the rebirth of Christ after his crucifixion.”
“So many pagan things are in our religion — pagan rites,” Amy said.
Robert J. Myer’s book, “Celebrations,” stated, “Eggs were said to be dyed and eaten at the spring festivals in ancient Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome. The Persians of that time gave eggs as gifts at the vernal equinox.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia said, “A great many pagan customs, celebrating the return of spring, gravitated to Easter. The egg is the emblem of the germinating life of early spring. The rabbit is a pagan symbol and has always been an emblem of fertility.”
Even the name “Easter” is said to be linked to a pagan god, according to The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible. It states Easter was “originally the spring festival in honor of the goddess of light and spring known in Anglo-Saxons as Eastre. As early as the eighth century the name was transferred to the Christian festival designated to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.”
For these reasons, not all who believe that Christ was raised on the third day celebrate Easter. Sal Barone, a New Jersey native now living in Cleveland, said although he believes in the resurrection of Jesus, he does not celebrate Easter.
“I use to celebrate Easter when I was younger with my family in Hackensack,” Barone said. “My mother and father were Catholics. We celebrated Easter with the candy and colored eggs. But as I got older and started to study the Bible and research the subject I discovered Easter had a pagan origin. So I stopped.”
Barone, who is of Italian descent, added, “The Bible tells us to celebrate Jesus’ death rather than his resurrection — remember when he passed the bread being his body and the wine representing his blood? That’s the only occasion in the Bible that true Christians are told to commemorate. Because of his death and resurrection we now have a hope of everlasting life. Easter was a Roman and Greek holiday long before Jesus’ time. I respect people’s right to celebrate it, but personally, me and my wife don’t celebrate it.”
The Encyclopedia Britannica said, “There is no indication of the observance of the Easter festival in the New Testament, or in the writings of the apostolic Fathers. The sanctity of special times was an idea absent from the minds of the first Christians.”
Jerry Davis, pastor at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Chatsworth, Ga., said to him, “Easter means the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” When asked about the eggs and bunny rabbits linked to Easter, Davis said, “It’s just fun for the kids.”
Still, the deliberate mixture of Christianity with pagan customs has puzzled many curious Christians as to how such a thing could have happened. The book “Curiosities of Popular Customs,” said “It was the invariable policy of the early Church to give a Christian significance to such pagan ceremonies as could not be rooted out. In the case of Easter the conversion was peculiarly easy. Joy at the rising of the natural sun, and at the awakening of nature from the death of winter, became joy at the rising of the sun of righteousness at the resurrection of Christ from the grave.”
This compromise is something Barone said he is unable to embrace in view of how the Scriptures portrayed Jesus as a person who taught others to worship God in spirit and in truth.
“Jesus did not mix the pagan customs of his day with true worship, and neither will I,” he said. “That’s my opinion. As an Italian-raised Catholic I did all of those things, but no more. The only question we should be asking is, ‘What would Jesus want me to do? What did he say to keep doing in remembrance of me?”
In Florence, Italy, Easter is celebrated with the explosion of a huge, decorated cart that is dragged through Florence by white oxen until it reaches the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower in Florence’s historic center. Following mass, the Archbishop sends a dove-shaped rocket into the cart, igniting the fireworks held in the cart. This is followed by a parade in medieval costumes. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the tradition of rolling decorated eggs down steep hills are still adhered to.
With everything from egg rolling and egg tapping to egg hunts and egg dancing linked to Easter festivities, some people cherish while others cringe at the customs and commercialism associated with the resurrection of the most revered person who ever lived. Worldwide, Easter remains the most celebrated holiday of the year.