bunny adjIn addition to its religious tenor, Easter time conjures up images of brightly colored eggs, jelly beans, marshmallow chicks and pastel foil-wrapped chocolate candy in baskets, delivered by the Easter Bunny. But before you bite off the head of that chocolate bunny, let’s take a moment to consider where our Easter and Lenten traditions originated.

Prior to the European Medieval period, Germanic Anglo-Saxon tribes celebrated the return of the light during the vernal equinox (March 20). Eastre (also Ostara), goddess of the radiant dawn, rebirth, fertility and spring and her companion hare, were worshiped during the annual festivals with joyful dance, while bonfires illuminated goddess-like maidens, dressed in white, and offerings of food and drink were presented.

Renowned for fertility, it is little wonder that Eastre’s companion would be a hare. Nocturnal for most of the year, the hare or jackrabbit springs to life when the March mating season begins. The hare, in contrast to cottontail rabbits which bear their young underground, typically delivers her large litter of fully-furred, wide-eyed leverets in a shallow nest of grass in the spring. According to legend, Eastre found a wounded bird during the late winter. She saved its life by changing it into a hare, however it still had the ability to lay eggs. The hare decorated the eggs and left them as gifts of appreciation for Eastre.

In order to win converts, early Christian missionaries were wise to pair the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ with the festival for Eastre. The Christians portrayed Eastre’s eggs as a symbol of Christ’s empty tomb and the resurrection. In 325 A.D., The First Council of Nicaea established that ‘Easter’ would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. Both of the spring celebrations, which symbolized rebirth and rejuvenation, occurred at a time when Mother Nature provided a lush backdrop of green meadows, dandelion, pussy willows, daffodils, lilies, tulips, hyacinths and forsythia. Christian Easter traditions are also calendrically and symbolically linked to the Jewish Passover, with Christ portrayed as a sacrificial lamb.

In the late 1600s, Lutheran Pennsylvania German settlers brought the Oschderhaas (Easter Hare) tradition with them to the New World. On the night before Easter, a child would use a bonnet or hat to make a nest that would be placed in a secluded spot in the garden, home or barn. If his or her behavior had been good, a reward of colored eggs (Oschdereier) would be found in the nest on Easter morning. The eggs’ colors were derived by boiling the eggs in water with onion skins, roots, indigo, wheat or various types of bark. Traditional designs such as hearts, tulips, butterflies and distelfinks were scratched on the colored shells. Some other early traditions included crafting egg trees and making saffron nests. Edible bunnies, made of pastry and sugar, didn’t appear on the scene until after the 1800s, and chocolate bunnies were produced around 1890, when those traditions began in Germany. In Western Christianity Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a period of forty days (excluding Sundays) before Easter. On Ash Wednesday in the Pennsylvania German villages, the last child to get out of bed was called, throughout the day, an escha-puddel or ash pile. On that day, ashes were also sprinkled on livestock to promote good health.

Palm Sunday was the day to hunt for tender dandelion shoots. Large leaves or plants with flowers were never chosen because they were deemed to be bitter. It was a laborious chore to soak and clean each of the leaves, but when the dandelion was smothered with hot bacon dressing on Maundy Thursday and Easter, the effort was well worth it.

Three days before Easter, on Maundy Thursday or Griener Dunnerschdawg (Green Thursday), greens like dandelion, endive, cabbage, alfalfa, clover or turnip tops were eaten to bring good health. If you didn’t, you risked developing “the itch” or a fever. Mowing grass on this day would ensure that it would grow well and if cabbage and clover seed were not planted, the harvest later in the year would be in jeopardy. It was also said that speckled chickens would be hatched from eggs laid on Griener Dunnerschdawg

The Pennsylvania Germans believed that it would always rain, even if only a few drops, on Karfreidawg (Good Friday). No baking was allowed, only primary chores could be performed and gardening was forbidden until after Easter. However, one important chore for the day, to prevent a lightning strike, was to place an egg in a crock in the attic. On Easter Sunday, an egg laid on Maundy Thursday was eaten to avoid a fever. Good health could be expected for the following year, if one drank water from the shell of an egg that was laid on Good Friday.

While some of these customs may seem like silly superstitions, ritual acts often provided a sense of security during difficult times, when the settlers were totally dependent on the weather, their soil and toil, and their faith. However the Pennsylvania Germans were very practical, as well. The Easter ham tradition, probably began with the bountiful feast and celebration of the end of the long, cold winter season, during which stored root vegetables and cured foods were eaten sparingly so that supplies would last. Easter would mark the beginning of a season that provided fresh game and nutritious, green plants.

Savory ham, served with potatoes, fresh dandelion with hot bacon dressing, asparagus and pickled red beet eggs, followed by homemade potato candy, chocolate-covered coconut and chocolate-covered peanut-butter eggs, makes a traditional meal that is still served for Easter dinner in many local kitchens, and is fitting for a goddess.

Sarajane Williams is president of the Lower Macungie Township Historical Society (LMTHistory.org). Free educational programs are on the calendar of Events page. Camp Olympic Barn, 3120 S. Cedar Crest Blvd., Emmaus. Sundays 1-4 or by appointment (excluding holidays) free.

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