Ever wonder where the Easter Bunny tradition came from, or what the word Easter even means? Brush up on the origin stories of common Easter traditions before this year's holiday.

By Josey Miller
Updated January 06, 2020
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Easter is a deeply religious holiday for Christians that typically falls in the spring. The holiday celebrates the day Jesus arose from the dead, three days after the Crucifixion. Like many other religious holidays (looking at you, Christmas), Easter has also become a highly commercial event often catered toward young children, full of chocolate rabbits, decorated Easter baskets, and colorfully dyed eggs. And, of course, there’s the Easter Bunny, dropping off baskets of gifts and treats in the middle of the night to delight children everywhere on Easter Sunday morning. But how did all these Easter traditions—from candy chicks, chocolate bunnies, and dyed eggs to the Sunday celebration and festive meal of Easter lamb—become such a large part of the celebration?

Here's what to know about the most popular Easter traditions today and the holiday itself.

When Is Easter in 2020?

This year, Easter falls on Sunday, April 12, 2020—much earlier in the spring than it did last year (Sunday, April 21, 2019). The holiday is a "movable feast," meaning the date, which is always a Sunday, changes every year and follows a similar calendar to the Hebrew calendar based on the lunar cycle.

Where Do Easter Traditions Come From Originally?

Photo: Chattrawutt Hanjukkam / EyeEm/Getty Images
Chattrawutt Hanjukkam / EyeEm/Getty Images

The Holiday's Name

Some claim that the word Easter derives from Eostre, a pagan goddess of spring and fertility. According to folklore, Eostre found a bird dying from the cold and turned it into a rabbit so its fur would keep it warm—but that rabbit still laid eggs like a bird. “In one version [of the story], the bunny paints and decorates the eggs as a gift to Eostre to show his loyalty and love,” says Brandi Auset, the author of The Goddess Guide ($20, amazon.com). It’s possible this story is the reason for the Easter Bunny tradition and why bunnies and birds in general—and chicks, if you ask the company that makes the popular Peeps marshmallow candies—are connected with the holiday.

Dyeing Easter Eggs

Beyond making for pretty Easter decor and being a fun activity to do with kids, dyeing Easter eggs may have a deeper religious connection as well. One tradition regarding Easter eggs is related to Mary Magdalene, the first person to see Jesus after the Resurrection. As the story goes, she was holding a plain egg in the presence of an emperor and proclaiming the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The emperor said that Jesus’ rising from the dead was as likely as that egg turning red—and the egg turned bright red while he was still speaking.

In addition, for the 40 days leading up to Easter, known as Lent, Christians begin preparing for the holiday by praying, meditating, and making personal sacrifices. "Christians [have historically] prepared themselves by forgoing ordinary dietary items, such as meat, eggs, and milk,” says Anne Kathryn Killinger, the author of An Inner Journey to Easter ($5, amazon.com). “For many years, Easter was known in Western Europe as Egg Sunday, for eating eggs on that day was one of its joys.” Those eggs were often presented in baskets lined with colored straw to resemble a bird’s nest, thanks again perhaps to Eostre.

Easter Egg Hunts and Games for Kids

It’s very likely that children play an important role in the origin of the fun side of Easter. In particular, annual Easter egg hunts, whether at home, with friends and neighbors, at local parks, or churches, are one of the most fun Easter traditions for kids to participate in. “For Christians, this is a serious holy day, dealing with issues of life and death,” says Robin Knowles Wallace, the author of The Christian Year: A Guide for Worship and Preaching ($16, amazon.com). “Because of the difficulty of sharing these big issues in age-appropriate ways, sometimes we divert to the more lighthearted symbols of eggs and rabbits, hence the proliferation of Easter egg hunts at churches.”

Photo: Ania Tuzel/Getty Images
Ania Tuzel/Getty Images

(Lots of) Chocolate

Where does all the chocolate come from? “The tradition of chocolate eggs began in 19th-century France and Germany and soon spread to the rest of Europe and eventually the United States,” says Katherine Tegen, the author of The Story of the Easter Bunny ($8, amazon.com). “To receive the special Easter eggs, children were told to make nests from hats or baskets so the Easter Bunny could leave them there.” Killinger says that many Christians are also eager to eat chocolate on Easter because it’s a common modern-day sacrifice during Lent.

Eating Lamb

Another typical Easter food is lamb. “Lamb is traditional because Jesus's last supper was the Passover meal,” says Karen Jean Matsko Hood, the author of Easter Delights Cookbook (from $40, amazon.com). “If he ate meat during that meal, it would have been lamb.” However, Jews traditionally do not eat pork, so why is ham so often a part of the Easter table? “Salted pork would last through the winter and be ready to eat in spring before other fresh meat was available,” says Hood. (If you're not planning a big home-cooked meal this Sunday, we found 61 restaurants that will be open on Easter.)