If you were to ask the typical American to identify the symbols used to celebrate Easter, the likely responses would include bunnies, eggs, plastic grass, chicks, ham ... and don't forget candy! Some responses might include lambs, crosses, palm branches, candles, and flowers, but the focus in American culture is typically on that magical bunny that lays eggs in plastic grass in the wee hours of the morning. If Easter is supposed to be a celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, how did all these trappings get added to the fasting and feasting that marked the earliest celebrations within the church? The answers are complex and involve regional influences. I do not intend to examine every tradition but to focus on a few of the more popular symbols and examine them from a biblical perspective. Ultimately, each person must consider these practices in light of Scripture and his own convictions about worshipping the Savior regarding the Resurrection.
There is no question that a majority of these practices have their origins in pagan customs. These customs were assimilated into Christian practices throughout the early centuries of the church. Alexander Hislop and Ralph Woodrow1 chronicled the insertion of these practices into the life of the church, especially appearing in the modern rituals of the Roman Catholic and other churches. The celebrations linked to the Catholic Church calendar are admittedly tied to pagan celebrations. Though there are problems with the reasoning in the writings of Hislop and Woodrow, many of their ideas regarding the symbols attached to Easter are confirmed, even by the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Under the discussion of Easter in the Catholic Encyclopedia, we find statements like the following:
The [use of Easter eggs] may have its origin in paganism, for a great many pagan customs, celebrating the return of spring, gravitated to Easter. The egg is the emblem of the germinating life of early spring. (emphasis added)
The rabbit is a pagan symbol and has always been an emblem of fertility. The Easter fire . . . is a custom of pagan origin in vogue all over Europe, signifying the victory of spring over winter.... The Church adopted the observance into the Easter ceremonies, referring it to the fiery column in the desert and to the Resurrection of Christ.