Bunnies, baskets and bonnets are harbingers of the secular celebration of Easter.

But some of those traditions actually have religious undertones.

We've hunted down the origins and meanings of Easter's common symbols and traditions.

Bunnies and baskets

The rabbit's penchant for procreation established it as a springtime and Easter icon.

Just like eggs, rabbits and hares symbolize fertility. Rabbits are able to breed at a young age and have large litters and a short gestation, which allows them to reproduce rapidly. Hares are able to conceive a second litter while pregnant with the first.

Hares were sacred to the Saxon goddess of spring and had a prominent place in the vernal equinox festivities.

Early Christians seeking converts merged holy days with pre-existing cultural celebrations, and the hare became part of the Easter festivities.

Because the rabbit is more common in the United States, the hare lost the top spot to his smaller cousin here, says Hester E. Oberman, who teaches psychology of religion at the UA.

The Easter Bunny legend of an egg-laying rabbit that hid eggs in a garden was first documented in the 1500s, says Discovery News. The Easter Bunny and peripheral tales came to the United States with German immigrants in the 1700s.

Every bunny needs a nest, so the practice of preparing nests for the eggs followed the legend, says Discovery News. The basket, which also can be a symbol for a tomb, represents the nest, says Jeanne Carrigan, a nun with the Sisters of St. Francis.


After 40 sugar-free days, who wouldn't want something sweet?

Easter breaks the Lenten fast and abstinence from sugar and chocolate, says Hester E. Oberman, who teaches psychology of religion at the UA. It's become a candy-coated holiday of chocolate bunnies and eggs, marshmallow Peeps and jelly beans, making it the second-biggest holiday for candy sales after Hallow-een, the National Confec-tioners Association says.

Chocolate eggs and hares first appeared in Germany in the 19th century, Oberman says.

Jelly beans joined the candy aisle in the 1930s, and their egglike shape gave them a natural association with Easter.

The confectioners' website reports that chocolate eggs are the most popular treats. Here are a few fun facts from the association:

• 90 million chocolate bunnies are made for Easter each year.

• 76 percent of people first eat the ears of chocolate bunnies.

• 16 billion jelly beans are made for Easter.

Hats and parades

The old church baptized only at Easter. The newly baptized wore white to symbolize purity and their new life, says the UA's Hester E. Oberman. Those already baptized wore new clothes to share in the spirit of fresh beginnings.

Hats show respect and honor, especially in Europe, Oberman says. Thus, frilly frocks in spring pastels and festive hats became part of the Easter tradition.

Easter processions and parades are intrinsic to the holiday's origin. Jesus was greeted by a parade and palm branches when he entered Jerusalem on what would become Palm Sunday, the week before Easter. Jesus carrying a cross to the crucifixion site, Calvary, was a procession.

The Easter-parade tradition began when early Christians wore their white robes when they left church and took to the streets in celebration. In medieval Europe, worshippers followed a crucifix down the road after worship.

The parade mentioned in Irving Berlin's song "Easter Parade" -

"In your Easter bonnet with all the frills upon it,

"You'll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade"

- refers to the one in New York City, which began in the mid-19th century when folks left Easter services and strolled down Fifth Avenue, says History.com

Berlin's music was from the 1948 film "Easter Parade" with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland.

The egg

Eggs symbolize immortality, according to "A Dictionary of Symbols" by J.E. Cirlot.

Some civilizations believed the world began with an enormous egg, and others saw the universe as a cosmic egg.

The Chinese believed the first man sprang from an egg that the deity Tian dropped from heaven to float upon the primordial waters, Cirlot writes.

Eggs, also a symbol of fertility, had a starring role in spring rites and festivals in ancient Egypt, Persia and Rome. They may have been painted to represent the bright colors and sunlight of spring and were given as gifts.

From a Christian perspective, the egg represents Jesus' emergence from the tomb and the resurrection, says History.com

From a practical standpoint, eggs were not eaten during Lent - the 40-day period of penance before Easter - but the hens kept laying, says Hester E. Oberman, who teaches psychology of religion in the UA religious studies program. The eggs were hard-boiled and preserved, and Easter was the first chance to eat those that had accumulated.

The story of Mary Magdalene with a red egg may contribute to the practice of coloring eggs, says Jeanne Carrigan, a nun with the Sisters of St. Francis and an art therapist and educator who retired last year as an assistant professor at the University of Arizona.

Mary Magdalene found Jesus' tomb empty and was the first person to see Jesus after the resurrection, according to the Gospel.

Afterward, she visited the Emperor Tiberius in Rome and greeted him with: "Christ has risen." Tiberius pointed to an egg on his table and snarled, "Christ has no more risen than that egg is red." The egg is supposed to have immediately turned bright blood-red.

The Easter Feast

If lamb or ham is the centerpiece of your holiday meal today, thank your forebears.

Eating and sacrificing lambs in spring - when the lambs are born - is a centuries-old tradition, says the UA's Hester E. Oberman .

Likewise, eating lamb on Easter coincides with the the Jewish holiday Passover, the celebration of God's rescue of the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt, Oberman says. By God's instruction, homes with door posts marked with the blood of an unblemished male lamb were "passed over" by a plague that would kill the firstborns of Egypt.

From a Christian perspective, in the Gospel of John, he saw Jesus coming and said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world."

In this subtext, eating lamb can be interpreted as a continuation of Holy Communion, where the body and blood of Christ are shared, Sister Jeanne Carrigan says.

Ham as an Easter-feast food dates to the days before refrigerators and freezers. Hogs were slaughtered in the fall. The pork not eaten was cured and was first available at Easter, just in time for a celebratory dinner.

Eating ham may also have percolated from the Christian desire to break away from Jewish customs and traditions, such as the dietary restriction of not eating pork, Carrigan says.

Hot cross buns

"Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!

"One a penny two a penny - Hot cross buns

"If you have no daughters, give them to your sons

"One a penny two a penny - Hot cross buns."

Small, spicy yeast rolls decorated with a cross are a Good Friday tradition.

The treat is surrounded by folklore, superstition and mystique, such as:

• Buns baked and served on Good Friday won't spoil, and when taken to sea they ward off shipwreck.

• Share with a pal and ensure another year of friendship.

• Healing and fire-protecting properties and the ability to ward off evil are also attributed to the buns.

Even though the mark of the cross is symbolic of the Crucifixion, there may be links to ancient peoples, too. The goddess of spring may have been honored with bread marked to represent the four quarters of the moon. Roman, Greek, Mexican and Peruvian are among the cultures with similar customs of marking bread for sacrifice.


Easter is one of Christianity's "movable feasts" - one not attached to a specific date.

"Easter falls on the first Sunday after the full moon after the vernal equinox," says Hester E. Oberman, who teaches psychology of religion in the UA religious studies program. Easter can occur only between March 22 and April 25.

OK, so let's figure out when Easter will be next year:

The 2013 vernal equinox, or the first day of spring, is Wednesday, March 20. The full moon is the following Wednesday, March 27, which puts Easter 2013 on March 31.

It's much easier to find the date of Easter by checking the calendar. The calendar on your wall, computer or handheld device is a Gregorian calendar, the generally accepted calendar named for Pope Gregory XIII, who established it in 1582.

Eastern Orthodox churches follow the Julian calendar, predecessor to the Gregorian calendar. Thus, many Eastern celebration dates vary from Western holidays.

And while we're talking dates, let's clear up the meaning of "A.D." The initials stand for anno Domini - Latin for "in the year of the Lord" - a label on the Julian and Gregorian calendars that denotes the time period after Jesus' birth. "B.C." - before Christ - designates the epoch before the Christian era.

Let's also debunk a popular misconception: If "A.D." meant "after death," there would be about 33 years of unaccounted, unlabeled time when Jesus lived.

Abbreviations "C.E." (of the Common Era) and "B.C.E." (before the Common Era) replace "B.C." and "A.D." on some calendars to be more secular.

The Christian celebration

Easter is Christianity's "most important feast day," says Jeanne Carrigan, a nun with the Sisters of St. Francis and a former University of Arizona assistant professor. It commemorates the day "Jesus rose from the dead and is living with us in the present," she says.

The New Testament's Gospels describe the resurrection of Jesus after being crucified outside of Jerusalem by Roman authorities.

The Christian celebration embraces some customs and practices of ancient peoples as well as some from Judaism, says Hester E. Oberman, who teaches psychology of religion in the UA religious studies program.

Springtime rituals near the vernal equinox - the first day of spring - have for centuries celebrated the longer days, brighter sunlight, beginning of the growing season and rebirth, Oberman says.

For example, the word "Easter" is likely derived from the name of the Germanic goddess of spring, "Eostre," "Ostara" or "Eastre," she says.

In addition, Jesus and his followers were Jewish, and the Crucifixion was at the beginning of Passover, one of Judaism's most sacred holidays.

"Christianity beautifully applies the thoughts of Jesus into ancient man's understanding of how the universe works," Carrigan says.

Some Christian branches reject the pagan symbols and do not celebrate the trappings of Easter. Many churches carefully separate the sacred from the secular by holding ancillary activities such as egg hunts away from worship services.

While specific to a culture and a time period, symbols create a thread of sameness from ancient peoples to the present, says Carrigan, who has taught classes in symbolism.

"The use of rituals is universal and fundamental," Oberman says. The rituals and traditions give structure to lives and connections with the past.

"Holidays mark time and transition," she says. "People need to celebrate transition."

On StarNet: Read more about Easter's symbols and traditions at azstarnet.com/lifestyles

90 million

chocolate bunnies are made for Easter each year.

76 percent

of people first eat the ears of their chocolate bunnies.

16 billion

jelly beans are made for Easter. Red jelly beans are kids' favorite.

Fun facts from the National Confectioners Association

Contact Ann Brown at abrown@azstarnet.com Child's nursery rhyme