Easter traditions around the world

by Cordula Zastera

In the United States, Easter brings to mind egg hunts, chocolate, jelly beans, and the Easter bunny. Of course, it’s also a very important Christian holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But how is Easter viewed and celebrated elsewhere around the world? In a surprising variety of ways, it turns out – with traditions like chocolate bilbies, wooden rattles, cod fish, and bonfires. BabyCenter’s team of international editors tells us all about these fascinating festivities and more.

Secular Easter traditions

Easter egg hunts aren’t limited to the United States. They also take place in Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Malaysia, Australia, Brazil, India, and the Philippines, where parents hide eggs and sweets – usually outdoors – for their children to find. Ann Elisabeth Samson, editor of BabyCenter Canada, says, “There are usually community Easter egg hunts leading up to Easter. It’s a fun way for neighborhoods to get together.”

The Easter bonnet parade is a tradition shared by Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Australian kids go around school and up and down the streets wearing hats decorated with bunny ears, chicken designs, Easter eggs, and chocolate. British children often make wide-brimmed hats decorated with spring flowers, while “the bigger, the better” describes bonnets worn by American kids, says Linda Murray, BabyCenter U.S. editor-in-chief.

The Easter bunny (actually a hare in Sweden, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland as opposed to a rabbit in the United States, Canada, and Australia) is known for delivering sweet treats to young children, so it’s no surprise that Easter baskets often feature a chocolate bunny. In France, however, it’s not the Easter bunny that children have to thank. “It’s the Easter bells, back from Rome, that are responsible for sending the chocolates everywhere,” says Patricia Réveillaud, editor of BabyCenter France.

Rabbits are actually considered a pest in Australia for causing damage to the environment, explains Danielle Townsend, editor of BabyCenter Australia, “so there’s a strong campaign to give Easter bilbies instead. The bilby is an Australian animal that’s endangered, is very cute, and has long soft ears. People still give bunnies, but you see a lot of bilbies as well.”

Religious Easter traditions

For Christians, Easter is the holiest and oldest of all traditions, and it’s related to the even more ancient Jewish festival of Passover, which is described in the Old Testament. Both holidays are celebrated at the same time of year, often (but not always) in the same week. Passover takes place over one week in remembrance of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. For Christians, Easter commemorates the resurrection of Christ after his crucifixion.

Christians throughout India celebrate Easter with special church services and prayers, says BabyCenter India editor Vidya Sen. “Most homes will have a special get-together with family and close friends. The celebration is mainly spiritual and not too elaborate.” Also, Sen explains, families in India may keep a small box or earthen pot as a place to put money aside regularly as an offering. On Easter Day, some families donate this sum to the local church, an orphanage, or people in need.

In Austria, there’s a unique twist to the religious observance of Easter. “Between Holy Thursday and Easter Sunday morning mass, you won’t hear any church bells ringing, because according to religious lore, they all fly to Rome,” says Ilse Eichinger, editor of BabyCenter Austria. “Instead, the ‘Ratschenbuben’ (altar boys with rattles) go to work, making a lot of noise with their ‘Ratschen’ (wooden rattles), saying prayers, and singing rhymes.”

Pagan Easter traditions

Many things about Easter are neither Jewish nor Christian in origin. For example, the English name “Easter” and the German name “Ostern” are both derived from old Germanic roots. Also, the traditions of having an Easter eve bonfire or burning Easter wheels and then pushing them downhill come from Germanic and Celtic heliolatry, or sun worship. Even the popular colorful Easter egg has its origins in another pagan belief: It was considered a symbol of fertility in Egypt.

Today, eggs are nearly synonymous with Easter in many countries, including Germany, Austria, India, and Switzerland. At the end of Lent, hard-boiled eggs are colored, Easter trees or bouquets are decorated with little wooden figurines and hollowed-out painted eggs, and people buy or bake special sweet Easter breads, often bursting with raisins.

Easter foods

Wherever Easter is observed, just about the favorite celebratory food is chocolate. This is true in the United States, Brazil, Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, France, Canada, India, and even Malaysia. “In Malaysia, Easter isn’t generally a big festival since it’s a Muslim-majority country,” says Mei Leng Wong, editor of BabyCenter Malaysia. Still, children there delight in all kinds of chocolate treats. In Spain, people celebrating Easter enjoy “beautiful chocolate sculptures that can come in the form of a princess castle or pirate boat, as they do in Catalunya, in northeastern Spain,” says Isidra Mencos, editor of BabyCenter en Español.

But Easter isn’t just about sweet treats. “In Brazil, many follow the tradition of not eating meat on Good Friday, even those who aren’t very religious,” says Fernanda Ravagnani, BabyCenter Brazil editor. “Having some kind of dish made of cod fish – the salted and cured version, Portuguese-style – is very popular, even though prices go through the roof, making it expensive for the average Brazilian family.”

In strongly Catholic Mexico, celebrating with chocolates and the Easter bunny is mainly the realm of the upper class. Instead, says Norma Mora, BabyCenter Mexico editor, “most of the country observes the Semana Santa or ‘Holy Week’ holidays, which are Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Saturday of Glory, and Easter Sunday (or Resurrection Day).” This means the majority of families follow the ritual of abstaining from meat on Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Spain, another Catholic country, is also steeped in many Easter food traditions – including one that could really hurt! Says Lourdes Alcaniz, BabyCenter Spain editor, “In the northeast, people bake a special pastry with a whole egg inside (shell and all), then break it on top of people’s heads.”

Baked Easter goods are popular all over the globe. In the United Kingdom and Australia, hot cross buns filled with dried fruits and spices with a cross on top, symbolizing the crucifixion, are eaten on Good Friday. In Ireland and the United Kingdom, the Simnel cake is the traditional Easter pastry; it’s been around since the Middle Ages. Sasha Miller, BabyCenter UK editor, describes it as “a rich fruit cake with 11 marzipan balls on the top. These balls represent the 12 apostles minus Judas.”

Unique Easter rituals

Where in the world is Easter cause for physical aggression? In Brazil, where there’s a tradition of “beating up” Judas, the apostle known for betraying Christ. “People make straw men representing Judas, hang them on the streets, and then destroy them. Many times politicians involved in scandals become Judas,” explains Fernanda Ravagnani, BabyCenter Brazil editor. But there’s plenty of happy celebrating in Brazil, as well. “Easter Saturday is called ‘Sábado de Aleluia,’ and in many small towns there’s a small version of Carnaval on that day to celebrate the end of Lent.”

Surprisingly, Easter in Sweden sounds a lot like Halloween in the United States. Carina Westling, BabyCenter Sweden editor, says that in her country, “Children dress up as witches with a broom, kettle, long old-fashioned skirt, scarf tied under the chin, two big circles of blush on the cheeks, and drawn-on freckles! They want sweets and occasionally go around between houses and ask for them.”

In the Philippines, Easter involves little girls dressed as angels and a procession that usually starts very early in the morning, before dawn. The men make up one procession, led by an image of the resurrected Christ, and the women form another, following a black veil-clad Mother Mary. When the two groups finally meet at the church, it symbolizes Christ meeting and consoling his mother after his resurrection. “This is when the little angels remove Mary’s lambong (veil of mourning) and the procession changes into one of light and festivity,” says Candice Quimpo-Lopez, BabyCenter Philippines editor. This tradition is called the Easter “salubong” (encounter or meeting).

Easter as the weather warms

In the Northern hemisphere, Easter arrives as the weather is transitioning from cool winter months to the warm days of spring. So not only are Easter egg hunts and other games held outdoors to usher in the warmth, but in places like France, families sit down to a traditional banquet of spring lamb and “gâteau de Pâques,” a lamb-shaped Easter cake.

In Germany, lamb is also a common Easter centerpiece, but children often cringe at this custom because they’d much rather see the little lambs alive on the grassy range, says Cordula Zastera, BabyCenter Germany editor. What they do like, however, are the bonfires that take place all over the country, where families, friends, teens, and club members congregate to eat, drink, and be merry. The bonfire is often the first barbecue party of the year.

Easter as the weather cools

In the Southern hemisphere, Easter marks a turn from the warmest time of year to the cooling months. Down Under, for example, “Easter is mostly a time for holidays away with the family to enjoy the last warm days before the cold sets in,” says Danielle Townsend, BabyCenter Australia editor. “It’s also the first school holidays since the Christmas break, so families often spend a week away camping or at the beach.” Nearly the same is true in Brazil, says Fernanda Ravagnani, BabyCenter Brazil editor.

Easter egg games

Here are three simple Easter egg games from around the world that you can play with your children. Perhaps they’ll become part of your own family’s Easter traditions!

Zwänzgerle (Switzerland): Have your child challenge you to break his painted Easter eggs with a coin. Throw the coin at an egg from a “fair” distance. If you miss and the egg stays intact, your child gets to keep the coin. If you succeed, the coin and egg are yours. This is an old Swiss tradition meant as a way for children to make a little bit of pocket money.

Easter egg peck (Germany and Austria): You and your child each hold a painted hard-boiled egg and stand facing one another. Tap the tips of your eggs against each other until one egg finally cracks. The winner is the one with the undamaged egg.

Easter egg roll (United States): This works best with multiple players. Each player needs a decorated hard-boiled egg and a long stick of some sort (a bat or golf club works fine). Line up the eggs in a row and have each player stand by her egg. On “Go!” players start rolling their eggs toward the finish line. The first one to reach it is the winner. This game is the highlight of the annual Easter festivities held on the White House lawn in the United States.