Twelve Easter traditions from around the world
Easter is a religious period that is celebrated throughout the Christian world in a wide variety of ways. In Jerusalem and Rome there are emotionally-charged religious ceremonies. There are also Easter parades that are influenced by pagan rituals, like the one in the Sicilian town of Prizzi. In many places, eggs are an essential part of this festival, ranging from hidden eggs in the United States to the hand-crafted ‘pysanka’, the typical painted eggs from Ukraine. But in this religion-based festival, there are also some pre-Christian traditions, like the fertility rituals performed in many Eastern European countries. And lastly, there are also some new traditions, such as reading thrillers in Norway, and some others of uncertain origin, like smashing ceramic objects in the Greek island of Corfu.
The Easter Bunny in the United States is from Germany. A man dressed up as the Easter Bunny, handing out wicker baskets to children and encouraging them to find hidden eggs in a park or garden. This is a really common sight at Easter in the United States, but the custom was imported from Germany. It arrived in America in the 18th century along with the first German immigrants. But that’s not all: since 1878, the White House has opened its garden for a children’s egg-rolling competition, a game where the kids have to roll an egg along the lawn of the presidential residence.
The Scandinavian version of the ‘caramelles’ singers. In Finland and Sweden, the children dress up as witches, with painted faces and handkerchiefs on their heads. They go from house to house asking for eggs and sweets. In return, they sing songs. Witches are a common feature of Easter in the Scandinavian peninsula, because in various locations they light bonfires on Good Friday, with the aim of driving out the witches that fly around looking for spirits to ensnare.
A wet Easter in Poland. Easter Monday is a wet day in Poland, because they hold the ‘smingus-dyngus’ festival. Groups of young people have water pistol fights in the street, and some even use hose pipes. The main targets are the girls, because there is a belief that if they get completely soaked, they will be married within a year. In principle, the festival recalls the baptism of the Polish prince Mieszko on Easter Monday 966, but there are also many echoes of pre-Christian fertility rituals.
Smashing in Corfu. On Easter Sunday in Corfu, you have to take care on the street, because there is a tradition of breaking ceramic objects by throwing them out of the window. The locals smash casserole dishes, flowerpots, jugs… And they even make special oversized versions of these things. The origin of this ritual is uncertain:some believe that it symbolises the start of spring, while others think that it is to do with the custom of cleaning out for the liturgical new year. Some people also link it to the Good Friday hubbub that occurs in other places as a sign of mourning for the death of Jesus.
Spending Easter reading a thriller in Norway. One of the strangest Easter customs is to be found in Norway, where publishers bring out special editions of crime stories for the festival. This custom, known as ‘paaskekrimmen’, has no religious or pagan connections. It began in 1923, after an advert was placed in the press for a novel. It seems that the publicity was so real that many readers thought that it was authentic news.
Easter, there’s no place like Rome. Rome is one of the nerve centres of the Christian faith, and so the Vatican’s Easter celebrations are really spectacular. It all begins on Good Friday with a evening Stations of the Cross procession around the Colosseum, and it finishes on Easter Sunday with the Pope officiating a mass blessing in St Peter’s Square. It is performed from the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica, and it is known as ‘urbi et orbi’ [‘the city (Rome) and the world’].
Willow, a fertility symbol in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Prior to Christianity, there were an abundance of fertility rituals celebrated during the Easter period that were linked to the rebirth of nature. In some countries, these customs still survive. This is the case in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where the women are struck with bunches of willow branches. Willow is used because it is one of the first trees to flower in spring, and so has greater powers of fertility.
In Hungary, fertility is sought through nice smells.In Hungary, there is an Easter fertility ritual where perfumed water is poured on young girls. In the past, they were completely soaked with water scented with flowers, but nowadays they wet their foreheads with cologne or perfume.
Following the last footsteps of Jesus in Jerusalem. One of the best places to see a more religious version of Easter is in Jerusalem, where Jesus spent his final days. His journey, well documented in the sacred scriptures, passed through many locations that still exist today. For this reason, from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday, thousands of believers relive the last moments of Jesus’ life by following his footsteps. On Good Friday, they follow the path that led Jesus to his crucifixion, with many people bearing a cross. They also attend mass at the church of the Holy Sepulchre, where people believe Jesus was buried and then rose again.
The ‘Abballu Di Li Diavuli’, the Sicilian devils that tempt souls. There are many Easter processions throughout southern Italy. But the one in the Sicilian town of Pizzi has a series of features that make it unique. On the morning of Easter Sunday, three devils wearing zinc masks run through the town, tempting people with sweets, with the aim of taking their souls. They carry on until the afternoon, when they come up against the procession carrying the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. Their presence scares the devils and, after performing a dance reminiscent of medieval times, they disappear.
Real pain at Easter in the Philippines. The Philippines archipelago was part of the Spanish Empire for a number of years and although the language has largely been lost, the religion is still there. This means that some Catholic traditions, such as Easter processions and recreations of the last days of Jesus’ life, have become established there. The difference lies in the literal way they experience Easter, a period of pain. In the Philippines, that pain is real, because there is an abundance of physical penances, including flagellations and people being really nailed to crosses.
The prettiest Easter eggs, known as ‘pysanka’, are Ukrainian. Eggs are one of the main distinguishing features of Easter celebrations around the world. But there is one place where they are especially famous, because they are so exquisite. The ‘pysanka’ are Ukraine’s traditional decorated Easter eggs. In order to work on them properly, they are coated in wax, which makes them more durable. This means they can be engraved with all kinds of delicate artwork. The most traditional designs are geometrical drawings or religious allegories.