April 21 marks the Christian holiday of Easter this year, which summons thoughts of dyed eggs, elaborate parades, religious theater, and chocolate bunnies. The holiday celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but it also has roots in the start of spring (hence, bunnies and eggs).
Today, Christians recognise Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring, but there wasn’t always a unified idea of when it should be. In the third century, Easter was determined by the Jewish holiday of Passover, observed two weeks after the first full moon of spring. Christians celebrated Easter shortly after Passover, but different regions celebrated it on different days. In AD 325, the Christian Church established a unified Easter—which continues to the present.
Women perform a traditional Easter dance in Megara, Greece, in this autochrome photo from a 1930 issue of National Geographic magazine.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MAYNARD OWEN WILLIAMS/NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
For many Christians, celebrations don’t start with Easter; they start the week before, during Holy Week, the last week of Lent. The days of the Holy Week represent milestones of Jesus’ life: Palm Sunday is his entry into Jerusalem, Maundy Thursday his last supper, Good Friday his crucifixion, and Easter Sunday his resurrection. And so the holiday carries echoes of a somber and profoundly religious death—and the renewal of life. (See pilgrims celebrating Holy Week in Jerusalem.)
WHY ARE BUNNIES ASSOCIATED WITH EASTER?
Where did the Easter Bunny come from? For historians, the question is a bit of a mystery. There are some clues that take us to the American colonial era, and the German Renaissance. But before that, the bunny trail goes cold. The history of humanlike rabbits is pretty weird, though, so it’s worth taking a hop down this historical rabbit hole.
Editor’s Note: This story originally published March 30, 2018. It has been updated with additional photos.