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Families and friends gather for roast lunches and the Easter bunny inexplicably hides chocolate eggs for children to find.
Other countries around the world hold to some equally odd traditions. So, if you’re spending Easter abroad, it may help to learn about your host country’s customs. Otherwise you could be in for a soaking...
First, let’s look at where Easter originates. In the Christian tradition, Easter’s Holy Week commemorates Jesus Christ’s final week on Earth, including his crucifixion and resurrection.
The origins of Easter
But, as with many holidays in Christendom, the celebration predates Christianity. In fact, the word ‘Easter’ comes from the name of the pagan spring goddess Ēostre (or Ēastre in Old English). Even pre-Saxon Celts held spring equinox festivals celebrating the end of winter.
So, why does the Easter bunny bring eggs? Well, eggs are a symbol of new life, like Christ’s resurrection and the rebirth of spring. And in Germanic mythology, hares – which are also associated with spring – laid eggs, apparently.
So, now you know why the Easter bunny brings eggs. But how do other countries commemorate Easter?
The practice of smashing plates is something of a stereotype, and it’s not as common as pop culture would have you believe. Nevertheless, throwing fragile tableware on the floor is a genuine (albeit rarely observed) Greek custom at some celebrations.
Greece: more cracked crockery
Corfiots – residents on the island of Corfu – follow a similar tradition every Holy Saturday at noon. They launch large clay pots from their windows. Fortunately, you can tell from which windows said heavy objects will fall as they’re decorated with red flowers.
Though the origins of the tradition are unknown, there are two main theories. The first is that it was adopted from the Venetian custom of throwing old goods out the window on New Year’s Day. The second is that it harkens back to the practice of destroying old pots at the beginning of plantation season, when farmers stored newly harvested produce in new pots.
Today, the gesture is meant to be symbolic of the 'great earthquake’ that occurred during Christ’s resurrection. Just watch where you walk on Holy Saturday in Corfu.
In Germany, and parts of other Germanic countries, people get together on Holy Saturday to build huge bonfires in a celebration called Osterfeuer, or Easter Fires.
Germany: the night is dark and full of terrors
In the Christian tradition, Osterfeuer starts with the lighting of Paschal candle for the Easter Vigil. The flame represents the light of Christ coming into our world to dispel the darkness.
However, scholars believe the Easter Fires tradition is based on pre-Christian, Saxon customs. In similar symbolism to the Paschal candle, this time of year represents the triumph of spring over winter, and the returning light after the dark seasons.
These days, Osterfeuer is more of a secular community celebration. Friends and neighbours gather together to drink beer and mulled wine, eat snacks and indulge in the seemingly universal human fascination with fire.
Much like Bonfire Night in the UK, some households hold their own celebrations for families and friends, while in other areas larger public fires are held. In parts of Northern Germany, Easter Fires have developing into smaller versions of Volkfests, with snack stands and rides for children.
In some Central European countries, including Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, Easter Monday turns into one big water fight known as śmigus-dyngus.
Central Europe: bring your brolly
The origins of the custom are unclear. One theory is that it’s related to the tradition of watering the Corn Mother – a corn doll or wreath that was symbolically soaked in water to ensure a successful harvest. Another theory suggests that it represents the baptism of Mieszko I, Duke of Poland, who united Poland under Christianity.
Traditionally, the festival involved boys throwing water over the girls they liked, and then lightly lashing them with willow switches (typical playground tactics). The girls would get their revenge the following day by soaking the boys back.
These days, most celebrations have done away with the willow-whipping and the gender-based distinctions. Instead, some regions engage in community-wide day-long water fights. So, if you want to stay dry then stay inside.
While British kids rummage around in bushes ‘hunting’ for chocolate Easter eggs, some New Zealanders are out hunting rabbits... as in actual, living rabbits.
New Zealand: hunting, but not for eggs
For more than 25 years, hundreds of hunters have gathered in Alexandra, Central Otago, to participate in an annual rabbit cull.
This might sound morbid, particularly to us Brits with our cuddly Easter bunny connotations, but rabbits are an invasive species in New Zealand. Not only are they a bane for local farmers, but they’re also threatening the country’s biodiversity and upending fragile ecosystems.
Rabbit numbers are such a problem that landowners are legally obliged to control them. The annual Easter hunt hardly makes a dent in the pest population. Instead, it’s meant to put the issue in the public eye and show solidarity with the affected farmers.
There’s an old Swedish legend that on Maundy Thursday witches would take to the skies and fly to the legendary island of Blåkulla to attend the Devil’s Earthly court, returning before Easter Sunday.
Sweden and Finland: Easter witches
During this time, Swedes and Finns would take precautions. They’d lock their barns so the witches couldn’t milk or ride their animals, and they’d put away any tools that the witches could use on their trip. Some communities would burn large bonfires to scare the hags away.
In modern times, the legend has given way to a tradition similar to Halloween trick-or-treating. On Maundy Thursday or Holy Saturday, children dress up as witches, with headscarves and painted-on rosy cheeks and freckles, going door-to-door wishing their neighbours a happy Easter, and receiving sweets in return.
While customs vary across cultures, festivals often have one thing in common: they’re a chance for the community to get together and celebrate.
Celebrating Easter overseas
If you’re spending Easter overseas, learn about the local traditions and get involved. It’s a great way to mix with your neighbours and make new friends.
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