The date of Easter: Since the Council of Nicaea in 325, the dating of Easter has been that it be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. In the West, only the Celtic church in Britain and Ireland refused to accept the date until 664 because of their own Celtic calendar.
Easter Sunday Mass did not exist in the early church. What is celebrated today as Easter occurred during the night hours preceding dawn on Sunday, the Easter Vigil. This emphasis has been returned today. In fact, Easter Sunday is the first Sunday of Easter… implying that Easter itself has already occurred.
In the early church, those who were baptized at the Easter Vigil were dressed in a white robe. They would wear that robe throughout the whole Easter week as a symbol of their new life. Those who had already been baptized in prior years, did not wear white robes, but would wear new clothes to indicate their share in the new life of Christ. So, the wearing of new clothes at Easter was an external profession and symbol of the Easter grace. During the Middle Ages in Europe, people in their new Easter clothes would take a long walk after Easter Mass. This was a kind of procession preceded by a crucifix of the Easter Candle. The tradition evolved into Easter parades.
In ancient Egypt and Persia friends exchanged decorated eggs at the spring equinox (they have always been symbols of creation, fertility and new-life) the beginning of the new year. These eggs were a symbol of fertility for them because the coming forth of a live creature from an egg was so surprising to people of ancient times. Christians of the Near East adopted this tradition, and the Easter egg became a religious symbol. It represented the tomb from which Jesus broke forth. They were often colored red to represent the blood of Christ by which all believers were given a share in this new life of Christ. In medieval times eggs were traditionally given at Easter to all servants, and to the children (it was one of the foods forbidden during Lent), along with other gifts. It seems that the custom of hiding the eggs is a universal one.
Rabbits were also a pre-Christian fertility symbol. Often they were used as images of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances. These appearances were likened to the rabbits being seen and then disappearing and then being seen again somewhere else. The first mention of the Easter Bunny and his eggs seems to have come from Germany in the late 1500’s. In many sections of Germany, the belief was that the Easter bunny laid red eggs on Holy Thursday and multi-colored eggs the night before Easter Sunday.
In early Christian art the lily is a symbol of purity because of its delicacy of form and its whiteness. They did not exist in North America until about 100 years ago. The white trumpet lily, which blooms naturally in springtime, was brought here from Bermuda. They are popularly called Easter Lilies because they bloom around Easter time. The American public quickly made it a symbolic feature of the Easter celebration.
Prayers for the blessing of lambs, a significant symbol of Christ, dates back to the 7th century. From the 9th century, the main feature of the Pope’s Easter dinner was roast lamb. The ancient tradition of the Paschal lamb inspired the use of lamb as a popular Easter food among all the faithful. in Europe, small figures of a lamb made from butter, pastry, and sugar are popular.
The butterfly is an ancient Easter symbol. Just as the butterfly which emerges from the cocoon is the same caterpillar in new form, so Jesus, emerging from the tomb is the same person—glorified.
Easter water is blessed solemnly at the Easter Vigil. Families are encouraged to bring home a container of this holy water to be used at home for family blessings on persons, house, etc.
Some families clean out their fire-places on Good Friday and do without a fire until they bring home coals from the New Fire blessed at the Easter Vigil.
In many parts of the world people serve traditional breads and pastries at Easter like the Russian Easter bread (Paska—because it is made in the round and rises up), the German Easter loaves (Osterstollen), the Polish Easter cake (Baba Wielancona), etc. Very often these breads and pastries, together with meat and eggs, are blessed on Holy Saturday. An Italian custom is to make a simple sweet bread dough shaped in the form of a chick, bunny, or doll. These breads are baked with a whole egg placed in the tummy of the form and frosted with egg yolk. The whole family is involved in the making of these Easter breads. They are brought to the Easter Vigil to be blessed and are given as gifts on Easter Sunday to young friends and relatives.
Early Christians customarily celebrated Easter Week as days of joy and laughter. They would tell jokes, play pranks, feast on lamb, dance, sing and express humor and joy over this final joke on the devil, death and evil. They would add fragrant oil or perfume to the Easter water they had brought home with them from church, as a reminder of the sacred chrism. This water was used to sprinkle and bless food, pets, gardens, homes and more. In some countries you could get soaked this week. Baptism was recalled with the custom of dousing. On Easter Monday men wake women with a spritz of the perfumed Easter water while they whisper May you never wither. On Easter Tuesday women wake men with a bucketful of the scented water.