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Article: The Amazing Easter Traditions of Europe

The Amazing Easter Traditions of Europe

Where in the world did Australia get its Easter traditions?

Trees, flying bells, witches, bilbies and eggs. Easter traditions across Europe sure are wild and wonderful! We take a look at some of them to discover where in the world Australia may have evolved its own traditions.

We begin with Australia and then turn to Europe, providing insights into how their traditions have (and haven’t) influenced our Easter customs. Because people experience this season in so many different ways, we look not only to the traditions themselves, but also to a number of people to relate their own personal experiences. Read on to discover more!

european easter traditions

(Note that we focus here on cultural traditions, while respecting the deep spiritual significance that this festival holds for Christians.)

Australian Easter Traditions

Soon after Christmas, hot cross buns start appearing on supermarket shelves. These yeasted sweet buns, traditionally made with spices and dried fruit, now come in a variety of flavours, such as chocolate, butterscotch and vegemite. Chocolate Easter eggs and bunnies are also abundant, with many kept in reserve until Easter Sunday for the arrival of the Easter Bunny. In families where this tradition is upheld, children look forward to hunting for Easter eggs, which the Easter Bunny has strategically hidden throughout the garden or in rooms of the house.

The Easter Bilby

Easter eggs and other chocolates are not just for children. They’re widely exchanged in families, among friends and in some workplaces. For a while, the Easter Bilby (in real life, an endangered Australian marsupial) was also popular. Promoted by the environmental Foundation Rabbit-Free Australia to raise awareness about the damage caused by feral rabbits, the chocolate Bilby was a strong contender as an alternative to the Bunny from the late 1990s. However, due to declining sales, the chocolate manufacturer Cadbury ceased their production in 2018 and major supermarkets no longer stock them. RIP Easter Bilby.

Typically, families come together at Easter, enjoying a long weekend of reflection and celebration. A traditional Easter Sunday meal is roast lamb and all the trimmings.

Roast Lamb – a traditional Easter Sunday meal

United Kingdom Easter Traditions

The resurgence of the Easter cracker

Unsurprisingly, we share a number of traditions with the people of the UK. Hot cross buns and chocolate eggs are commonplace and roast lamb is a traditional Easter Sunday meal. Easter egg hunts are also popular although the Easter Bunny seems to have made a relatively recent entrance (see below). Egg painting and egg rolling contests (in the north of England) are enduring traditions, as is Morris Dancing in some areas.

And - good news! - crackers are reported as becoming increasingly popular, with sales escalating rapidly over the past decade.

And now for an insider’s perspective:

“Chocolate Easter Eggs are certainly a thing, plus hot cross buns and simnel cake. I have heard of cheese rolling - not so sure about egg rolling!

Increasingly we are becoming Americanised with traditions such as the visit of the Easter Bunny, which was not a thing when I was a kid. Easter egg hunts in the garden at parties for kids - I do remember doing with mine when they were little, hiding chocolate eggs in easy to find places ...

Children are encouraged to decorate eggs, which might mean blowing the contents out of raw eggs first and painting the shells, or boiling them in coloured water.

It's a family time because both Good Friday and Easter Monday are of course bank holidays so it’s a long weekend. The traditional meal is roast lamb, sometimes after a visit to a car boot sale ...

Morris Dancing is a peculiar tradition, not specifically for Easter but Spring for sure. Based around ancient fertility dancers …

What you call bonbons are indeed what we call crackers. Except we have them at Christmas, not at Easter, as far as I had ever seen. But since you mentioned it, I have googled it and seems I am WAY behind the times! Who knew ...”

- Kay, Worcester, UK

Easter Crackers

German Easter Traditions

Origin of the Easter Bunny

There are different origin stories about the Easter Bunny, but most agree that he made his first appearance in Germany, right back before the 17th century. The Reader’s Digest  provides an engaging account of how the Germanic people first introduced the ‘Osterhase’ - a rabbit bearing gifts for children at Easter time. The tradition was then transported to America in the 1700s when German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania. Fortunately, the Bunny’s good work did not go unrewarded, with children commonly leaving out carrots as well-earned refreshment.

Easter Bunny Postcard 1907

The Easter Bunny still thrives in Germany, and, of course, there is so much more to tell. Over to Ursula:

“People paint hard boiled eggs and put them into “Easternests”, together with chocolate eggs and chocolate Easter bunnies. These Easternests are hidden in the garden on Easter Sunday. Children are told that the Easter Bunny paints them, takes them in a basket and hides them on Easter Sunday, together with small presents for them in the garden.

There are also blown eggs, painted and hung on trees or branches for decoration, the so-called Easter trees or Easter fountains in towns. Easter bonfires are burnt the night before Easter Sunday. They should help to send the winter away and wake up the sun/Spring. For Christians, the light demonstrates the end of the period of fasting.

Another tradition is the Easter lamb. You eat it as a cake for breakfast on Easter Sunday and/or roasted lamb for dinner. For Christians, the lamb stands for the victory over the death.”

- Ursula, Großsachsenheim, Germany

And Antoine:

“The main thing for me, that I still do each year is cook lamb roast with potatoes for Easter Sunday. I think this is fairly traditional, but not all Germans do it.

Then "Easter Bread" I'm also very familiar with. My mom used to do this in the shape of a rabbit, but I think that was just us. But this description is accurate: "A nationwide tradition is serving a braided, enriched sweet bread for breakfast on Easter weekend. A yeasted dough is enriched with plenty of butter, milk, and eggs, and studded with raisins or bits of candied peel.”

The "Easter Trees" I am personally very familiar with, and are super typical. Here's a description: “… a bouquet of budding fruit tree boughs clustered together in a big vase and hung with colourful painted Easter eggs. Sometimes the eggs are interspersed with little handcrafted wooden ornaments in the shapes of bunnies or smaller birds’ eggs. Depending on how far along the boughs were in their development before being cut, sometimes little blossoms will pop out over the course of the run-up to Easter.”

- Antoine, expat German, California, USA

Easter Tree
Easter Tree (supplied)

Interestingly, Antoine also recalls Easter as a time for spring cleaning (this being the Northern Hemisphere and all). A similar practice of clearing away Winter and ushering in the new season is adopted in parts of Spain, but with a twist: an updated wardrobe! (Read on!)

Spanish Easter Traditions

Time to refresh the wardrobe!

The focus in Spain at Easter is on religion and family. Easter Week is referred to as the most traditional celebration in Spain, with fiestas, street parades and floats, and religious music festivals taking place throughout all regions of the country.

Here are some first-hand insights from the Galicia region:

“The traditions change depending on the region of Spain. In Ourense, the main facts in Easter are quite similar to the rest of the Galicia region. During Easter, meat is avoided, so fish and seafood dishes are most popular, especially cod.

There are some special desserts and sweets for these days, for example, roscón de Pascua (usually a gift given to children from godfathers/godmothers), buñuelos, huesos de santo, and torrijas. In Ourense, rosquillas and nuts are popular on Saint Lazarus Day (the previous Sunday before Palm Sunday). On that day, some paper dolls (called Madamitas) are burnt in the main square.

Currently chocolate eggs/figures are very popular, too, but we do not have any Easter trees or egg hunts.

On Palm Sunday, people, especially children, take part in street festivals with a laurel or dry palm branch (usually very decorated).

Also, it is traditional to wear new clothes on Palm Sunday, as it is said:

Quien no estrena en Ramos, no estrena en todo el año

(No new clothes on Palm Sunday, no new clothes for the whole year)”

- Oficina Municipal de Turismo de Ourense, Ourense, Spain

Roscón de Pascua (Easter Cake)

Italian Easter Traditions

Egg tapping, anyone?

Crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Italy, it comes as no surprise to find an abundance of Easter traditions, with roughly 80% of Italians identifying with Christianity. As elsewhere in Europe, traditions and customs vary according to geographical areas and there are notable differences between the north and south of the country. One interesting custom is the medieval game of egg tapping, which, while practised in other parts of Europe, has (to our knowledge) yet to catch on in Australia!

Let’s hear from Bolzano, the capital city of the South Tyrol province in northern Italy:

“On Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, Christians commemorate Jesus Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. As the procession enters the church, children hold up colourful bundles of branches comprising olive, willow, box tree twigs, along with heather and other spring flowers, all decorated with brightly-coloured ribbons, tied to sticks and sometimes long poles. These bunches of twigs symbolise the palm branches with which Jesus was greeted in honour by the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Easter eggs are traditionally painted on Maundy Thursday, in some cases by old, natural methods using onion skins. On Easter Sunday, the eggs are placed in a basket together with ham and pastries and consecrated in the church. Afterwards, people gather in front of the church to play “Hecken” or “Guffen”: two hard-boiled eggs are taken by the “opponents” who bash the ends against each other. The player whose egg hasn’t cracked is the winner, and he or she gets to eat the losing egg as a trophy.

In South Tyrol, children receive presents from their godparents on Easter Sunday and on the Fest of All Saints. They are also given a “Fochaz”, a kind of shaped cake. At Easter it takes the form of a rabbit, a hen or a ring cake. It is made with sweet yeast dough and, in some places, it is offered by bakeries.”

 Tourist Office, Bolzano / Bozen, Italy

The Traditional Easter Game of Egg Tapping

Sweden Easter Traditions

Easter witches

Changing things up, we head north to discover some quite distinctively Scandinavian customs. ScandiKitchen reports on Swedish children dressing up as little Easter witches on Easter Sunday and (along the lines of Halloween) going door to door in search of sweets and treats.

Norwegians can’t get enough of who-dunnit-crime novels at Easter, with sales tripling all over Norway in the run up to the holidays. And if you’re looking for a roast lamb Easter lunch, you’re probably out of luck. Smorgasbords dominate the Easter Sunday food scene – think pickled herring, sandwich toppings galore and lots of egg dishes.

On more familiar terrain, the Easter egg and Easter tree are also popular, as we learn from Lovisa of Sweden:

“We have I guess what you can call an Easter tree, which is a branch we put in a vase and dress in feathers. We also have an egg hunt, looking for eggs filled with lollies.

Then we have a ‘smörgåsbord’ with typical Easter food. Many people also paint eggs.

Oh! And kids also dress up as "Easter ladies" and go around knocking on doors asking for candy.”

- Lovisa, Kvicksund, Sweden

Easter Witches in 2008 and 1958

French Easter Traditions

Flying Easter bells

And on we move to la belle France! Alas, the Easter Bunny has never really made it here, but they do have Easter egg hunts. Tradition has it that the eggs are dropped by the “cloches de Pâques” (Easter bells) as they fly back from Rome to their respective churches. Once hard-boiled and decorated, the eggs now tend to be the small chocolate variety.

Easter fare includes roast lamb on Sunday, and chocolate eggs, bunnies and bells abound. Chocolatiers create lavish works of culinary art for display in shop windows and Mouna, a type of brioche flavoured with orange blossom and anise, is popular.

Les Cloches de Pâques (Easter Bells)

Over to Anne Laure for some final words:

“For the children at Easter, we always hide the eggs in the garden on the Sunday before Easter Monday. The tradition is also to eat a leg of lamb for those who like it.

In France, rather than the Easter Bunny, it is the Easter bells returning from Rome, which bring the eggs, but that has a religious connotation and for those who don't like this, you sometimes hear about the Easter Bunny, but much less than the bells, all the same.”

- Anne Laure, Bordeaux, France

And so ends our European tour of discovery of such a wealth of Easter traditions, some most likely familiar to many Australians, many quite probably not.

However and wherever you celebrate this year, we wish you a Happy Easter, Frohe Ostern, Felices Pascuas, Buona Pasqua, Glad Påsk and Joyeuses Pâques!

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