In many countries, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere where Easter is synonymous with spring and rebirth, there are some fascinating traditions that have grown up around the holiday – some may have been adapted from pagan rituals; others are more recent. In Australia, we celebrate with a very long weekend and copious Cadbury Crème Eggs; in other countries there are equally enjoyable customs – it’s traditionally a time for feasting, meaning there are special Easter foods (we’re looking at you, hot cross buns), family gatherings and festivals to enjoy. We’ve looked past our own chocolate egg and show-bag obsession to find out how other countries around the world do Easter – and we’re thinking we’ll adopt some of their traditions.
As in many other Eastern European countries, Bulgarians participate in the decoration of Easter eggs. They go one further, though: pairs will tap their eggs against each other with the winning egg (i.e., the ones that didn’t crack) taking pride of place on the dinner table for the Easter feast. The repast includes roasted lamb, Easter salad (lettuce and cucumbers – perhaps to appeal to the bunny?) and a sweet bread dotted with raisins or swirled with ground walnuts and poppy seeds called kozunak..
In the east of the country, large bonfires called Osterfeuer (Easter fires) are lit at sunset on the Saturday after Good Friday. The fire symbolises the ushering out of darkness and the advent of springtime and Jesus’ resurrection. The fires often burn into the early hours of the morning.
An Osterfeuer ready to be lit.
Easter bread (Osterbrot) is also popular during the weeks before Easter. It’s served sliced and buttered; coffee is a popular accompaniment.
No Greek Easter table is complete without bright red-dyed eggs. They’re prepared on the Thursday before Easter, along with the tsoureki, a sweet Easter bread. The eggs symbolise the blood Jesus shed and, when cracked, his resurrection. Before the meal, Greeks compete in a very fierce egg-tapping competition, similar to that in Bulgaria. The words, “Christos anesti!” (“Christ has risen!”) are uttered by the person cracking their egg upon the other’s, who responds, “Alithos anesti!” (“Indeed he has!). The owner of the winning egg (i.e., the one that remains uncracked) is said to have good luck for the next year.
4. The United States
In the US, Easter is largely ignored – in fact, it’s not even a holiday there – but there are some parts of America in which Easter traditions are observed. In Louisiana, “egg-knocking” is a longstanding Easter custom. In a similar custom to other countries such as Greece and Bulgaria, Louisiana natives tap boiled, dyed eggs against each other until one cracks. The person with the unbroken egg then moves on to compete against another unbroken egg, until there is just one egg-tapper with an uncracked egg left standing.
In Bermuda, Good Friday is celebrated by flying homemade kites. It makes for quite a spectacle – the blue sky dotted with brightly coloured kites set aloft by enthusiastic children. But why do they do it? The tradition is said to have begun when a Sunday school teacher had difficulty explaining Christ’s ascension to heaven. He allegedly constructed a kite, took it to a hill and set it into the air before cutting the string as his pupils watched the kite sailing heavenward. Kite festivals take place, such as that at Horseshoe Bay, where prizes are awarded for the highest-flying kite, the most innovative design and even the ugliest kite. Like Australians, Bermudans are big fans of the hot cross bun, either homemade or bought from the local bakery.
At Easter, the skies above Horseshoe Bay are studded with kites.
6. The Czech Republic and Slovakia
This is an odd one. On Easter Monday, women and girls are the subject of a curious custom: being lightly whipped or doused in icy water – or both – by men and boys. A special handmade whip made of willow rods and decorated with colourful ribbons is used and sometimes a woman might have a bucket of water poured over her head or even be submerged in a bath. The custom purports to ensure the youth, health and beauty of women for the upcoming spring and often boys will arrive, whips in hand, at the doorstep of the girl they fancy. As if women don’t have enough to put up with.
Jamaicans don’t care for life-sized bunnies delivering the eggs of another, more avian and chocolate-y creature. They do, however, wholeheartedly approve of the hot cross bun – only they’re a little different to Australia’s slightly sweet, spiced buns. In Jamaica, they’re made with molasses, which gives them a sweeter flavour and a darker colour; they sometimes come in loaf form; and they’re served not with lashings of butter but a slice of cheese. Perhaps it’s worth a try with our own beloved buns?
It’s not a rabbit delivering the Easter eggs, French parents tell their enfants; it’s actually flying church bells (cloche volant). Let us explain. From Good Friday, church bells are silent in France (despite their enthusiastic chiming on all other occasions). The story is that they’ve flown their steeples for the Vatican, carrying with them the grief of those who mourn Jesus' crucifixion. Upon their return, the bells bring with them Easter eggs and other treats so kids know when they hear the church bells ringing on Easter Sunday that it’s time to celebrate. A similar custom takes place in the Netherlands and Belgium, too.
An artist's impression of this phenomenon.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions occur throughout Spain in the final week of Lent. The Catholic celebrations have their origins in medieval times and involve floats depicting religious icons and robed participants carrying crosses or candles. The most dramatic of these processions can be seen in southern Spain’s Seville, where the festival culminates in lavish floats, marching bands and clamouring crowds gathering at Seville Cathedral and the Bishop’s Palace after many hours en route.
Finnish kids dress up in witch costumes and go from house to house demanding Easter eggs in return for blessings, in a kind of Easter/Halloween mash-up. The custom is said to have originated as a way for children to make fun of an historic belief that witches roamed the villages at Easter. Children bring with them a willow twig and recite a rhyme wishing their neighbours luck and prosperity – in return for candy. Sounds fair.
The cutest little Finnish witch.
The country is known for its imagination-defying thrillers and macabre murder mysteries but Nordic noir at Easter? Easter is the peak time for fictional crime in Norway: crime novels, radio stories and TV dramas all get in on the action. There are even crime puzzles printed on milk cartons. What’s the link? It’s unclear how Påskekrims (“Easter crimes”) became a national custom but it’s been suggested it began with the Easter 1923 publication of a novel by Jonathan Jerv. Jerv’s publishers splashed ads around national newspapers trumpeting a terrible crime committed on a train – they were designed to look like editorial rather than an ad. The book sold out in hours.
The Italians serve up colomba Pasquale (Easter cake) and enjoy a three-day holiday filled with religious processions, feasting and traditions such as the Scoppio del Carro (explosion of the cart), a 350-year-old Florentine celebration with its origins back in the First Crusade. It features an enormous, ornate cart, built in 1622 and filled with fireworks, being pulled by white oxen festooned with garlands through the city to the Duomo (cathedral), accompanied by drummers and trumpeters in elaborate medieval costumes. Stone shards from the Holy Sepulchre are used to ignite a fire during the singing of the Gloria during mass. From the Duomo’s alter, the Archbishop lights a dove-shaped rocket that flies down a wire and collides with the cart, causing the fireworks to be set off. If all goes smoothly, it’s said to indicate a positive harvest for the coming year.
Fireworks go off from the 16th century cart in front of Florence's Duomo.