Learn the history of 10 symbols of Easter

Charita M. Goshay
The Repository
  • Easter symbols have ancient roots
  • Early church adapted some non-Christian traditions
  • The world's Christian population stands at 2.3 billion

Easter, the single-most important day in the Christian faith, is rich with symbolism. Embraced for centuries, the symbols also include adaptations of non-Christian traditions and practices. Here are a few:

Easter Bunny: Because of their capacity to easily reproduce, rabbits were a pagan symbol of fertility. German immigrants introduced "Oschter Haws," an egg-laying hare, to Pennsylvania in the 1700s. Children left out carrots and made nests for the hare to lay colored eggs.

Easter eggs: The egg has long been a symbol of life in many cultures and religions. In modern times, making Easter eggs has become more of a commercial exercise, but that does not diminish its Christian symbolism.

On Easter, breaking the eggshell represents the opening of the tomb. The hardboiled egg white symbolizes Jesus' burial shroud, and the yolk it encases represents Jesus, the source of life itself.

No coloring needed Don't adjust your eyes. These 'Easter Egger' chickens lay colored eggs

Easter eggs have been traced back to the 13th century. Because eggs were prohibited during Lent, Christians colored and decorated eggs to celebrate the end of Lent.

In Christian Orthodoxy, Easter eggs are dyed red to represent the blood of Christ. According to Greek Orthodox tradition, some people believe the practice references a story about Mary Magdalene in which she brought eggs to share with others during a vigil at Jesus' tomb, but the eggs turned red when they learned he had risen from the dead.

Egg-shaped jelly beans were introduced in the 1930s. According the the National Confectioneers Association, an estimated 16 billion are produced each year.

Jelly beans enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan kept a jar on his desk.

Brynleigh Habib collects eggs during the North Canton Jaycees' annual Easter Egg Hunt in North Canton in 2022.

Holy Trinity gets a historic marker Holy Trinity Orthodox to get historic marker Sept. 17

The Dogwood Tree: The white petals of the dogwood tree contain five red spots, symbolic of the five wounds Jesus suffered on the cross. According to legend, after Jesus was crucified, the dogwood was cursed, never again to grow large enough to be used for another cross.

The Crucifix : The singular most recognizable sign of the Christian faith, the Persians are credited for creating this form of lengthy and cruel public execution during the fifth century B.C.

During a crucifixion, a person suffers from slow suffocation and a loss of blood. The crucified often were left on their crosses for days after their deaths as a way of discouraging others tempted to rebel or commit crimes.

Alexander the Great brought it back from the Middle East in 400 BC.

The Romans adopted it from the Phoenicians in 300 B.C.

Throughout the centuries, various people claimed to have found fragments of the cross on which Jesus was executed, including St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine I, who embarked on a pilgrimage in the Holy Land in the second century. Her son, Constantine, adopted the cross as a sign of the church, ordering his troops to carry it into battle.

According to historians, veneration of the cross took hold in earnest during the fourth century.

The style of crosses varies. Protestant churches display an empty cross, denoting that Jesus is no longer dead. Crosses in Catholic churches include the body of Jesus as a visual reminder of his suffering and sacrifice. The Orthodox Christian cross includes a slanted footrest symbolizing the two thieves who flanked Jesus at the time of his crucifixion. The side tilted upward represents the thief who asked Jesus to have mercy on him. The downward slant represent the one who rejected Jesus even as they were dying.

From left, brothers Matthew and Andrew Evangelisti hold candles while Bubba McArthur carries a crucifix as they prepare for the opening processional prior to an annual Easter Sunrise Mass at historic Calvary Cemetery on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, Tenn.
(Photo: The Commercial Appeal files)

The Holy Lance: Many myths and stories swirl around the Roman spear used to pierce Jesus' side while he was hanging on the cross according to the Gospel of John.

Also known as the" Spear of Destiny" and the "Lance of St. Maurice," there are reportedly three relics of the lance, none of which have been authenticated. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, one piece is located in St. Peter's Basilica, given to Pope Innocent VIII after the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1492. Other pieces of are located in Vienna and Romania.

It also is known as the "Lance of Longinus," named after the Roman centurion who speared Jesus. According to the story, Longinus, who was nearly blind, had his eyesight restored when blood and water from Jesus' pierced side sprayed him in the face. He converted to Christianity and was later martyred, becoming the Catholic patron saint of the blind.

Nine-Inch Nails: Symbolic of the cruelty inflicted on Jesus by the Romans who used nails to impale his body to the cross.

Lily of the Valley: Jesus described himself as this spring perennial, which represents innocence and perpetual life.

Easter Baskets: The ancient tradition actually precedes the church. It is believed Christians incorporated the practice from the pagans, who brought seeds and eggs as an offering to Eostre, the goddess of fertility whose symbol was a rabbit, and whose name is the root of "Easter." The Blessing of the Easter Food Baskets, a tradition that originated in eastern Europe, is still practiced mainly by Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Baskets containing food for the Easter dinner are blessed by a priest on Holy Saturday.

A lamb in a field at sunset.

The Lamb: In religion, lambs are the embodiment of innocence and sacrifice. Lambs were roasted and eaten during the first night of Passover. Their blood marked the doors of the Hebrew slaves so they would be spared from the curse of death which struck their Egyptian slave masters, precipitating their release. During Passover, a lamb shank or bone is displayed on the Seder plate. In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist announced that Jesus was "The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world."

Today, leg of lamb is a popular Easter dish.

Hot Cross Buns: According to Gourmet Traveler Magazine, hot-cross buns predate the church. Ancient Saxons ate them in honor of Oestre, the goddess of spring and fertility. Other cultures also made them to honor their gods. The church adopted them to commemorate Jesus' death, the spices representing those used to prepare his body for burial.

Because they were considered holy, Queen Elizabeth I forbade the making of hot cross buns except during Easter and Christmas. Anyone caught with them any other time of the year was forced by law to give their batch to the poor.

Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or .

On Twitter: @cgoshayREP