The Origins of 11 Easter Traditions

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iStock

Come Sunday, many people will find themselves scouring their yards for plastic eggs and gnawing the ears off of chocolate rabbits. What possesses us to do such strange things? Pagan rituals and old superstitions, mostly. Here are the reasons behind 11 of our favorite Easter traditions.

1. DYEING EASTER EGGS

The tradition of decorating eggs of all kinds—even ostrich eggs—may go all the way back to the ancient pagans. It’s easy to see why eggs represent rebirth and life, so associating them with spring and new growth isn’t much of a stretch. To celebrate the new season, it’s said that people colored eggs and gave them to friends and family as gifts.

When Christians came along, they likely incorporated the tradition into their celebrations. According to some legends, Mary or Mary Magdalene could be responsible for our annual trek to the store to buy vinegar and dye tablets. As the story goes, Mary brought eggs with her to Jesus’ crucifixion, and blood from his wounds fell on the eggs, coloring them red. Another tells us that Mary Magdalene brought a basket of cooked eggs to share with other women at Jesus’ tomb three days after his death. When they rolled back the stone and found the tomb empty, the eggs turned red.

2. THE EASTER BUNNY

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine what a giant rabbit has to do with any type of religious holiday. But according to Time, the tradition again dates back to the pagans. They celebrated a goddess of fertility named Eostre—and you may recall that fertility is exactly the trait rabbits are most famous for. It’s thought that German immigrants brought their tradition of an egg-laying hare called "Osterhase" to the U.S. in the 1700s.

3. HOLLOW CHOCOLATE BUNNIES

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Now that we know why Easter is associated with rabbits, little chocolate leporidae actually make sense. But why are so many of them hollow inside? As it turns out, it’s not just to get kids used to disappointment at a young age. According to the R.M. Palmer company, one of the oldest makers of chocolate bunnies in the U.S., the empty insides are really just in consideration of your teeth. "If you had a larger-size bunny and it was solid chocolate, it would be like a brick; you’d be breaking teeth," Mark Schlott, executive vice-president of operations, told Smithsonian.

Of course, there’s also the "wow" factor—confectioners can make a larger, more impressive-looking bunny for a reasonable price if there’s nothing inside of it.

4. EASTER BASKETS

If you squint at an Easter basket, especially one stuffed with faux shredded grass, you can totally see its origins as a nest. Remember the German Osterhase tradition? Well, there was more to it—to encourage this mythical bunny to stop by their houses, children would fashion nests for it to come and lay its colored eggs. Over time (and maybe to contain the mess), the nests evolved into baskets.

5. HOT CROSS BUNS

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Like the bunny and the eggs, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when people started making hot cross buns—sweet rolls studded with raisins or currants and marked with a cross on top—during the week leading up to Easter Sunday. It’s said the tradition started in the 12th century with a monk who was inspired to mark his rolls to celebrate Good Friday.

The first written record we have of them dates back to an issue of Poor Robin’s Almanac from the 1730s: "Good Friday comes this Month, the old woman runs, With one or two a Penny, hot cross Bunns [sic]."

6. EASTER FASHION PARADES

There’s an old superstition that wearing new clothes on Easter means good luck for the rest of the year. You could say it has something to do with rebirth and renewal, but mostly, it sounds like an excuse to go shopping. Either way, fancy new finery deserves to be seen for more than 60 minutes during Easter services, so in the mid-1800s, parishioners in New York arranged themselves into a little post-church fashion show as they left their Fifth Avenue churches. The tradition continues today, though the term "finery" seems to be a bit broader now.

7. SUNRISE SERVICES

As the story goes, Mary opened Jesus’s tomb at dawn on Easter morning to find it empty. In honor of the occasion, many churches hold services at sunrise so parishioners can experience the event similar to how it happened. The first one on record was held in 1732 in Saxony, Germany, by a group of young men. The next year, the entire congregation attended the early-morning ceremony, and soon, the sunrise service had caught on across the country. By 1773, sunrise services had spread to the U.S.—the first was held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

8. EASTER HAM

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Believe it or not, even that juicy ham on your dining room table dates back to pagan rituals honoring spring and the goddess Eostre. The tradition goes back to at least 6th-century Germany, according to Bruce Kraig, the founder of the Culinary Historians of Chicago. Hunters often slaughtered hogs in the forest in the fall, then left them to cure all winter. By spring, pork was one of the only meats ready to go for spring celebrations. As with other pagan rituals, Christianity adapted the tradition for their own needs as the religion spread.

9. GOOD FRIDAY KITES

If you happen to find yourself in Bermuda on Good Friday, you may be surprised to see legions of kites dotting the sky. According to local legend, a teacher once used a kite to give her students a visual of how Jesus ascended into heaven. The analogy quickly caught on, and today, flying a simple kite made of tissue paper and sticks is still a colorful pastime.

10. EGG KNOCKING

Also known as egg tapping or egg jarping, egg knocking is a sport where two competitors tap the pointed ends of their eggs against each other to see which one cracks and which one "survives." The game apparently goes back to medieval Europe, but when it comes to modern-day egg knocking, Marksville, Louisiana, is uncrackable. Since 1956, local families have gathered at the courthouse square on Easter Sunday to battle their eggs. Some families even prepare months in advance, giving their chickens special feed in hopes of producing stronger eggs.

11. OSTERBRUNNEN

Immanuel Giel, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The German tradition of Osterbrunnen—decorating public wells and fountains with elaborate greenery and Easter egg décor—only began about a century ago. It’s said that German villagers wanted to honor both Easter and the gift of water, which also represents life and renewal. Neighboring villages began to compete to see which of them could create the most fanciful fountains, and by 1980, approximately 200 villages were participating in the event. It’s even spread stateside—the town of Frankenmuth, a Bavarian-style village in Michigan, has adopted the Osterbrunnen tradition in the month surrounding Easter.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

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10 Surprising Facts About Richard Pryor

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Richard Pryor, who was born on December 1, 1940, is considered by many to be the greatest stand-up comedian of all time. Jerry Seinfeld referred to him as “the Picasso of our profession.” Chris Rock has called him comedy’s Rosa Parks. Yet the indelible mark Pryor made on the world of comedy only tells part of his story.

Like his career in the spotlight, Pryor’s world offstage was also highly compelling and full of shocking turns. He’s one of those people whose real life was so off-the-wall at times that it becomes tough to separate fact from fiction. Here are just a few stories about the brilliant and chaotic life of the great Richard Pryor.

1. Richard Pryor had a tragic childhood.

Richard Pryor had a tragic early life, experiencing things that no child should have to endure: Born to a prostitute named Gertrude on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor’s father was a notoriously violent pimp named LeRoy Pryor. For much of his childhood, Pryor was raised in the actual brothel where his mother worked, which was owned by his own no-nonsense grandmother, Marie Carter. With his mother periodically dropping out of his life for long stretches, it was Marie who served as Pryor’s central guardian and caretaker.

In 2015, The New Yorker published an article to mark the 10th anniversary of Pryor’s passing, which offered further details on his turbulent early life, noting:

Pryor said that one of the reasons he adored movies as a boy was that you were never in doubt as to why the women in them were screaming. As for the sounds that Richard heard in the middle of the night in his room on the top floor of one of Marie’s businesses, he had no idea what was happening to those girls. A number of times, he saw his mother, Gertrude, one of the women in Marie’s employ, nearly beaten to death by his father. Gertrude left when Richard was five. He later registered no resentment over this. “At least Gertrude didn’t flush me down the toilet,” he said. (This was not a joke. As a child, Pryor opened a shoebox and found a dead baby inside.)

2. Richard Pryor walked away from a successful career.

Early in his career Pryor found success by modeling his comedy largely on the work on Bill Cosby, which led to many comparisons being drawn between the two—a fact that Cosby reportedly grew to dislike.

There are conflicting tales of just how Pryor made the 180-degree change in style that led to him becoming a comedic legend. One of the most well traveled tales, and one that Pryor himself confirmed on more than one occasion, states that Pryor was performing his clean-cut act in Las Vegas one night when he looked out into the audience and saw Dean Martin among the crowd. If you believe the story, seeing the legendarily cool Rat Packer’s face made Pryor question what exactly he was doing and caused him to abruptly leave the stage mid-performance. Around this time Pryor moved to the San Francisco Bay area, dropped out of the comedy limelight for several years, and later reemerged with the more pointed, in-your-face style that made him an icon.

3. Richard Pryor won an Emmy for writing.

Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, and Richard Pryor in Tomlin's 1973 TV special, Lily.CBS Television, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Though Pryor was better known for his work in front of the camera than behind it, the only Emmy he ever won was for writing. In 1974, Pryor won the Emmy for Best Writing in Comedy for Lily, a comedy special starring Lily Tomlin (in which he also appeared). He earned a total of four nominations throughout his career, two of them as an actor and the other two as a writer.

4. Richard Pryor made Lorne Michaels quit Saturday Night Live.

Back in 1975, Saturday Night Live was brand new, so at the time the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, wasn’t yet a powerful TV icon. Therefore, when Michaels stuck his neck out and demanded the right to have Pryor on as a guest host, he was really risking a lot. It took Michaels handing in a fake resignation to convince NBC executives to allow the famously foulmouthed comic to appear. Michaels himself had to implement a secret five-second delay for that night’s episode to be sure that any off-the-cuff, unscripted choice language didn’t make its way out over the airwaves. The delay was kept from Pryor who, upon later finding out, confirmed that he would have refused to do the show had he known about it

The episode, the seventh one of SNL’s premiere season, contained one of the most memorable and edgy sketches ever to appear on the show: (the NSFW) Word Association. Chevy Chase and Pryor’s personal writer, Paul Mooney, have each claimed to have written the sketch.

5. Richard Pryor lost the starring role in Blazing Saddles.

Pryor and Gene Wilder made four films together (Silver Streak; Stir Crazy; See No Evil, Hear No Evil; and Another You), but there could have been at least one more. Pryor was one of the credited writers on Mel Brooks’s classic Blazing Saddles and the plan for a time was that he would also co-star in the film, playing Sheriff Bart alongside Wilder as the Waco Kid. In the clip above, Wilder explained how Pryor’s infamous drug use caused him to end up in a remote city and subsequently lose the starring role to Cleavon Little.

6. It wasn’t a drug mishap that caused Richard Pryor to set himself on fire.

One of the most retold stories about Pryor centers around the incident on June 9, 1980 where he set himself on fire and took off running down a Los Angeles street fully engulfed in flames. Though he wasn’t expected to survive the episode, he eventually pulled through and spent the next six weeks recuperating in the hospital. At the time it was often reported that the cause of the accident was Pryor freebasing cocaine. Pryor later admitted that in a drug-fueled psychosis he had actually attempted to kill himself by dousing his body in 151-proof rum and setting himself ablaze. A friend of Pryor’s at the time has gone on record as saying that the idea for the act likely came about that evening after the two of them watched footage of Thích Quảng Đức, the Vietnamese monk who famously burned himself to death in 1963 as an act of protest.

7. Richard Pryor was married seven times.

Pryor was married seven times—to five different women. In the 2013 documentary Omit the Logic, a friend of Pryor’s—who served as the best man at one of his weddings—recounts how Pryor showed up at his hotel room door just a few hours after marrying Jennifer Lee, insisting that he already wanted a divorce. Pryor would get divorced from Lee the next year, only to remarry her 19 years later; the two were still together when Pryor passed away in 2005.

8. Richard Pryor had a soft spot for animals.

In 1986 Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a central nervous system disease that ultimately left him confined to a wheelchair. Pryor was such an avid supporter of animal rights, however, that he actively spoke out against animal testing of any kind—even when that testing meant getting closer to a cure for his own condition. The biography on RichardPryor.com provides more insight into this part of his private life:

He's been honored by PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for saving baby elephants in Botswana targeted for circuses. In 2000, as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was preparing to open at Madison Square Garden, Pryor gave the Big Top's first African-American ringmaster, Jonathan Lee Iverson, something to think about when he wrote him a letter in which he stated: “While I am hardly one to complain about a young African American making an honest living, I urge you to ask yourself just how honorable it is to preside over the abuse and suffering of animals."

9. Richard Pryor won the first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Beginning in 1998, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts began awarding its annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which "recognizes individuals who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th-century novelist and essayist Samuel Clemens, best known as Mark Twain." Pryor was chosen as their very first recipient. In the more than 20 years since, he has been joined by an illustrious group of comedy legends, including Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Carol Burnett, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Dave Chappelle.

10. Despite his deteriorating health, Richard Pryor never stopped performing.

Even while MS continued to rob him of his mobility, Pryor’s comedic mind continued cranking. Throughout the early 1990s Pryor would often show up at Los Angeles’s famous standup club The Comedy Store to take to the stage in his wheelchair. In the above clip from The Joe Rogan Experience, a few comics discuss what it was like to watch the all-time great perform in his diminished state.

This story has been updated for 2020.