Easter Word Origins
Wearing a new hat to church on Easter Sunday has been a common practice in the U.S., especially when hats were in vogue. The Easter bonnet was celebrated as a custom in Irving Berlin's song "Easter Parade," written in 1933 and the wearing of a new hat and outfit on Easter Sunday symbolized spiritual rebirth. Now the Easter bonnet is seen more in the form of baskets or wreaths of flowers decorating the home. Bonnet goes back through Scottish to French chapel de bonet, "hat or cap of bonet (a fabric for hats)." Before that, boneta / bonetus was a Latin term for "material for hats."
Rabbits were part of pre-Christian fertility lore and symbolized the abundance of new life associated with Spring. The ancient German goddess Ostara (called Eostre in Anglo-Saxon) was accompanied by a hare, which may have been the precursor of the modern Easter Bunny. (Hares are the European cousins of rabbits and have shorter ears and longer hind legs than rabbits.) In Germany, the Easter Bunny lays red eggs on Maundy Thursday and eggs of other colors on Easter Eve. The Easter Bunny came to America from German settlers who called him "Oschter Haws." The Pennsylvania Dutch prepared nests for the creature and on Easter Eve, the rabbit would lay colored eggs in these nests or in caps or bonnets left out for him. No one has come up with a good explanation of why a rabbit would lay eggs, though. The word bunny was first a term of endearment for a child or woman, perhaps formed from Scottish bun, "tail of a hare."
Easter eggs are a symbol of fertility and immortality and the egg is an important part of mythology, from the ancient Egyptians onward. In Christianity, the egg is associated with the rock tomb from which Christ emerged to begin His new life. Because the celebration of Easter is preceded by the 40 days of Lent, during which eggs and other dairy products are forbidden among Orthodox Christians, it is traditional to begin the Easter meal in Russia and eastern Europe by cutting up an egg that has been blessed and distributing it to each family member and guest. The custom of dyeing Easter eggs probably began with medieval travelers to Egypt and Persia, where people colored eggs for their Spring festivals. According to German folklore, the Easter Bunny lays the eggs and hides them in the garden — although other creatures have also been given credit for the laying of the Easter eggs. The term Easter egg came into English c 1825 and was earlier called pace egg or paste-egg. Chocolate Easter eggs were introduced around 1880.
Easter celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus. That morning, according to the Gospel of Luke, Mary Magdalene and some companions visited the cave where He was buried, but they found the tomb empty. An Angel of the Lord appeared and told them that Jesus had risen. In the following days, Jesus appeared to His disciples and explained the meaning of His death (for the sins of mankind) and His victory over death, which offered the promise of rebirth for those who believe in Him. The word Easter may come from Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon name of a Teutonic goddess of Spring and fertility, whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox.
Shrove Tuesday is a time for confession and absolution, Ash Wednesday derives its name from the custom of marking the foreheads of penitents with ashes on that day, and Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday) developed from maunde, Christ's injunction to love one another and the day celebrates the Last Supper and the ceremony of the washing of the feet. Good Friday illustrates good in the sense of "holy; observed as a holy day" and may be the oldest Christian celebration, its name possibly a corruption of "God's Friday." Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus's triumphant entry into Jerusalem where he was covered with palms by the multitudes.
Self-denial during a period of religious devotion is a long-standing tradition in both Eastern and Western churches. The season of Lent was fixed at 40 days during the ninth century (with Sundays omitted). Lent comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "spring" or "lengthening days." It is a period of preparation for Easter and a time to strengthen one's faith through repentance and prayer. Lent has been observed with periods of fasting, abstinence from meat, dairy products, wine, etc.; and other penitential activities. It is a modern custom for Christians to "give up something for Lent" such as a favorite food, pleasure, or activity.
The flower called the Easter lily was brought to the U.S. in the 1880s from Bermuda. It was so called because it flowered around Easter each year. Lilies were a symbol of purity in medieval iconography and the Bible mentions them as symbols of beauty, goodness, and perfection. The lily grows from a bulb that is buried and is then "reborn," like Christ. Its trumpet-shaped blooms suggest the angel Gabriel's horn and herald the coming of Spring and the celebration of Easter.
Hot cross buns are yeast buns traditionally eaten in the U.S. during Lent, especially for breakfast on Good Friday. The buns are flavored with nutmeg and currants and, as the name implies, have a cross on top, made by cutting the buns with scissors before setting them to rise. Each cross is frosted on the buns after baking. The practice of eating these small buns seems to date back to at least the ancient Greeks. In England, the custom started during Tudor times and they were first called cross buns. By the 19th century, hot was incorporated into the name.