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The History Behind 13 Popular Easter Traditions

From coloring eggs to gifting baskets full of candy, here's the history behind your favorite Easter traditions.

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What are Easter traditions?

Eggs and Easter baskets and … a giant rabbit that sneaks into people’s homes? The spring holiday may be beloved by children and grown-ups alike, but many aren’t sure what Easter is really about, how the Easter bunny origin relates to the religious holiday, or why we celebrate with certain Easter traditions.

It’s best known as a Christian holiday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death, but much of our modern celebration has origins even earlier than Christianity. Indeed, Easter is also hugely popular in nonreligious circles. As for when Easter is, well, you can bet it’s on a Sunday. In 2022, it falls on April 17.

What does a family do for Easter?

Easter traditions—like dyeing eggs, giving baskets, handing out your favorite Easter candy, and eating a decadent feast—are a great way to bring loved ones together and celebrate the newness of spring. How your family celebrates will depend on whether you’re religious; if you are, you may go to church or otherwise recognize the holiday’s Christian origins.

Read on to learn all about these traditions, where they come from, and unique ways to celebrate Easter this year—like creating adult Easter baskets and Easter basket ideas for teens, or downloading free printable Easter cards and writing Easter wishes on them for all of your loved ones.

Overhead view on decorated Easter table with family aroundkajakiki/Getty Images

Celebrating Easter Sunday

The traditional day to celebrate Easter is Sunday. If you have to check your calendar every year, there’s a good reason why: Easter is a movable feast, its date changing based on a few variables. In the year 325, the council of Nicaea determined that Easter would occur on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox—unless that happened to interfere with Passover, in which case the holiday would be the Sunday after that. Yep, it’s confusing. In short, Easter can occur anytime between March 22 and April 25. Christians celebrate by going to church, then eating a big dinner with loved ones. Most celebrations also include candy and fun Easter games for kids.

happy easter bunny with eggsStefan Dinse/Getty Images

Getting a delivery from the Easter bunny

Easter is named after Eostre, the pagan goddess that symbolized fertility. Bunnies are well known for their fertility, so the rabbit became associated with the goddess and thereby the holiday. The traditional festival to celebrate Eostre typically occurred in the spring, and that’s also when rabbits typically breed. The cartoon version of the Easter bunny, which delivers chocolate and candy-filled Easter baskets to kids, is a fairly modern invention, popularized in marketing campaigns in the 20th century.

Close up of coloring easter eggs with colors and brush. Tools for painting eggs for easter, eggs box, plate, brushes and paints on the table, top view.Anastasiia Krivenok/Getty Images

Coloring Easter eggs

The star of Easter—painted or dyed, hard-boiled or blown empty—is the egg. Legends abound about this symbol, which represents the newness of life and birth and reminds people of Christ’s resurrection. Easter traditions around the world involve the humble egg. They’re brought to church, given as gifts, hidden for the benefit of children, and even rolled on the White House lawn. Make sure you check out these unique Easter egg designs and pick one (or a few!) to try this holiday.

Little boy carries a bucket and fills it with Easter eggs on an Easter egg hunt.Annie Otzen/Getty Images

Taking part in Easter egg hunts

Of all the Easter traditions, nothing quite beats an Easter egg hunt—for children or adults. Grown-ups hide the eggs, and the kids gleefully search for them. The tradition started with Martin Luther, the 15th-century theologian. The joy of the hunt was meant to symbolize the joy that Mary and Martha felt upon finding Christ’s tomb empty after he was resurrected. These days, the eggs are more likely to be made of hollow plastic and filled with Easter candy or toys—a much more fun surprise than a boiled egg that’s been sitting out in the sun for too long.

Traditional Easter chocolate bunny and eggs inside a wooden crateAND-ONE/Getty Images

Eating hollow chocolate bunnies

Love them or hate them, hollow chocolate bunnies will most likely be part of your Easter. (They make great Easter basket stuffers, after all.) Considering the underwhelming amount of chocolate they provide (compared to their solid counterparts), chowing down on hollow bunnies may seem like one of the more bizarre Easter traditions. But there’s a reason behind the candy’s popularity. In 1939, chocolate manufacturers wanted a way to make chocolate bunnies that could be large and decorative while still easy to eat. You’ll have no problem biting into a thin, hollow chocolate bunny, but bigger chunks of solid chocolate can be tough on your chompers. And let’s be honest: Making hollow bunnies was also a way for manufacturers to sell larger products at a cheaper price.

Pink and yellow marshmallow peeps on displayWilliam Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Buying candy Peeps

These brightly colored, sugar-coated, chick-shaped marshmallows were invented in 1953 and quickly became a staple in Easter baskets. Now they come in dozens of different shapes and colors for nearly every holiday. There are even six new Peeps flavors for 2022! Here’s a fun fact: It only takes six minutes to make a batch of Peeps. Talk about fast food.

Colorful Jelly BeansPhoto by Cathy Scola/Getty Images

Snacking on jelly beans

Perhaps the best-known candy in Easter traditions—and the most popular after chocolate—is the small jelly bean. The candies come in every flavor and color imaginable. In fact, their versatility (and deliciousness!) is what made eating them a beloved Easter tradition. Jelly beans originally started as a Christmas candy and don’t have a specific Easter-themed meaning, but they’ve become a popular choice for filling plastic Easter eggs before the big hunt. Running low? Grab a couple of bags before guests arrive; these stores are open on Easter Sunday.

Close-up of Easter basket with chocolate bunny, mini carrots, and candy eggs on white backgroundAmy Mitchell/Getty Images

Gifting Easter baskets

One of the most popular Easter traditions, filling a basket with eggs, comes from Germany and was inspired by the concepts of fertility and springtime. Children would make “nests” filled with grass in hopes that Peter Cottontail would fill the nest with eggs and other treats. The nests gradually evolved into baskets, which were less messy, easier to carry, and of course, bigger—like these premade Easter baskets.

Easter table waiting for guestsmediaphotos/Getty Images

Eating an Easter feast

Many Christians observe Lent, a 40-day period during which they vow to abstain from something—sugar, alcohol, meat, or pretty much any other vice—as a type of purification in preparation for Easter. It symbolizes the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, and culminates in a giant Easter feast, usually with family.

TraditionaTraditional Easter ham dinner. Top view table scene on a white wood background. Ham, scalloped potatoes, eggs, hot cross buns, carrot cake and vegetables.l Easter ham dinner. Top view table scene on a white wood background.jenifoto/Getty Images

Baking an Easter lamb or ham

Most traditional Easter dinners feature meat, and 67 percent of Americans serve ham, a symbol of good luck in many cultures. In terms of religious Easter traditions, lamb is the favorite. Jews use a lamb as a symbol of the promised Messiah, and Christians call Jesus the “Lamb of God.” So it’s not uncommon to see a rack of lamb in the center of the feast. Cook up either for this year’s Easter feast, or branch out with one of these delicious, nontraditional Easter dinner ideas. Not feeling the cooking this year? No worries. These restaurants are open on Easter.

A close-up aerial view of freshly baked hot cross buns on a wire rack with a wooden surface beneath.© Ian Laker Photography/Getty Images

Baking hot cross buns

Hot cross buns and other breads marked with the symbol of a cross aren’t just Easter traditions; they’re often eaten on Good Friday too. Different sweet breads are eaten all over the world on Easter Day, including choreg (Armenia), paska (Ukraine), babka (Poland), tsoureki (Greece), and Italian Easter Bread. These are conspicuously risen breads, which may also show a desire for Easter traditions to be different from Passover, which includes unleavened bread.

pocket bunny at Easter Parade in New York CityBo Zaunders/Getty Images

Watching Easter parades

The first Easter parades may have started at churches, but they were really about fashion. Beginning in the early 1800s, wealthy Christians in New York City would put on their finest clothing to attend Easter services and then take a long walk home in order to show off their fancy spring suits and dresses. The poorer folk would line up to watch. The tradition has been kept alive through Easter parades, but these are more about fun and celebration than fashion. If you’re not into the parade thing, you can celebrate with a different form of entertainment: Stream Easter movies on Netflix and watch Easter movies with the kids.

White Easter Lily Flowers in a Glass Vase with a Neutral Background for a Simple Cozy Valentine's Day at Home in 2021Crystal Bolin Photography/Getty Images

Decorating with Easter lilies

These elegant, trumpet-shaped flowers have become so associated with the holiday that they’ve been named Easter lilies. The white symbolizes purity, and the shape reminds worshippers of the trumpets that will announce Christ’s Second Coming. You can buy fresh-cut stems as holiday decor, or order some lily nail wraps and wear Easter nails instead.

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Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, BS, MS, has been covering health, fitness, parenting, and culture for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 15 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and also does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She has appeared in television news segments for CBS, FOX, and NBC.