Cultural Diversity: Celebrating Easter Around the Globe
The world is home to a variety of cultures, each rich with traditions, festivals and holidays that are celebrated throughout the year. When a festival is specific to a particular region, as in the cases of Brazil’s Carnival or China’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival, every aspect of the event is a unique expression of that area’s culture. When a holiday is celebrated worldwide, common origins are usually flavored by each area’s culture, geography and history, resulting in unique traditions that vary from country to country. The variations are colorful, delicious and, often, intriguing. If you’re lucky enough to be traveling to or living in an area other than your native country this April, you may even be lucky enough to experience a few.
Though Easter is one of the most important religious festivals in the Christian calendar, there are a variety of non-religious/secular traditions that have been incorporated into its celebration. In some corners of the world, for example, Easter calls images of the Easter Bunny to mind, along with brightly decorated eggs, a symbol of new life that originated during pagan times. In parts of Northwestern Europe, communities light Easter fires, a tradition that likely started during Saxon times when bonfires were used to usher out the darkness of winter and welcome spring. In Australia, the holiday marks the last of the country’s warm days before winter arrives – a time of year that’s just about as far away from spring as you can get.
All around the world, people celebrate Easter in unique ways. Below, you’ll find a few that we found particularly interesting.
Because Australia is located in the southern hemisphere, Easter arrives during its fall season, which coincides with children’s school holidays and ideal weather. Because of this, Australians usually enjoy pursuing outdoor activities and festivals. Well-known cultural events during the holiday include the Blessing of the Fleet Festival in Ulladulla, the National Folk Festival in Canberra, and the Australian Gospel Music Festival in Toowoomba. Another popular favorite is the Sydney Royal Easter Show in Sydney, which showcases farming communities, their crops and livestock, and the Sydney Royal Rodeo.
However Australians choose to spend the holiday, they typically do so with family and friends. Popular traditions include gifting chocolate Easter Bunnies and pajamas to children, and eating hot cross buns throughout the season but, particularly, on Good Friday, the Friday preceding Easter Sunday.
In Brazil, the holy week of Easter is celebrated with rituals such as processions on intricate tapete (carpets) made of brightly colored flowers or wood shavings and the blessing of Macela flowers, which only bloom during Lent (a 40-day period of fasting or sacrifice preceding Easter). Forty days before Easter, Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo celebrate Carnaval, a world-renowned, extravagant festival that marks the start of Lent. Smaller groups of people or bands known as ‘blocos’ or ‘bandas’ also get in on the fun, happily strolling throughout their local towns, singing and dancing to celebrate.
In Bulgaria, dying Easter eggs is a tradition, just as it is in many parts of the world. However, one endearing extension of that custom is unique: in Bulgaria, it’s customary for the oldest woman in the family to rub the faces of her children with the first red egg she has dyed, symbolizing her wish that they have rosy cheeks, strength and good health.
In Britain, Easter occurs at a different time each year, as it’s celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the first day of spring. It can, therefore, occur on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25.
Enjoying a diverse and multicultural society, Easter is celebrated in a variety of ways in England, including many of the traditions attributed to other countries in this post. This is particularly true in London, the country’s capital. Easter egg hunts take place in schools and churches throughout the country, in which children scurry across lawns and playgrounds, filling their bags and Easter baskets with decorated eggs and treats that have been carefully hidden.
County Durham hosts one entertaining Easter tradition that’s been around for about 30 years: its annual egg jarping championship. Annually, competitors gather to play the game. Each taps the hard-boiled egg of another participant, attempting to break the other's while leaving his or her own intact. Pairs are pared down until there is just one winner, who takes home an egg-shaped trophy and the title of champion.
French children don’t receive treats from a furry animal, they receive them from the Easter bells. A predominantly Christian country, France halts the ringing of church bells between Holy Thursday and Easter. Children are told that the bells don’t ring during this period so they can sprout wings and fly to Rome to be blessed by the Pope. When the bells return to France, they arrive full of eggs and treats that are spread in the gardens all over France and distributed to the children.
One particular French town called Haux is particularly fond of the egg as a symbol of Easter. In fact, each year they create a giant omelet that uses thousands of them to feed a thousand people. According to legend, the tradition was inspired when Napoleon and his army were traveling through the south of France and stopped in a small town where they were given omelets for a meal. Apparently, Napoleon liked his omelet so much that he ordered the townspeople to gather more eggs and make a giant one for his army the very next day. The people of Haux now carry on the tradition; so does the nearby town of Bessieres.
While Easter eggs are usually hidden for children to find in Germany, they’re also displayed prominently on small trees, bushes, and houseplants, known as Ostereierbaum. The tradition of decorating trees and plants with eggs is believed to have started as far back as ancient Celtic and Germanic times, when these groups valued trees and forests as sacred symbols of life and fertility. They often decorated bushes and trees to honor nature, celebrate the arrival of spring and to show their gratitude for surviving long, cold winters.
Greek Orthodox Easter usually falls one week after the Western Easter. Unlike other areas that observe the Gregorian calendar, Greek Orthodox Easter is based on the Julian calendar.
On the island of Corfu, Greeks follow an age-old tradition referred to as ‘the botides,’ in which pots, pans and other earthenware are filled with water and thrown out of their windows, crashing to the street below. Islanders believe that the custom wards off bad spirits, and spectators often take pieces of the smashed pots home as good luck charms.. While it’s not exactly certain where the custom came from, some believe that it was derived from the Venetians who ruled Corfu between the 14th and 18th centuries. Venetians often threw away their old belongings to encourage a fresh start during a new year. Today, many believe that smashing clay pottery symbolizes making room for new pots that will carry the new crops and pursuits of the coming year.
What started out as a way for young men to flirt with girls they wanted to marry has now been adopted as an Easter staple. In Hungary, men used to sprinkle a woman’s hair with perfume or water in the hopes of winning her affection. Today the act, known as sprinkling, is done in exchange for a treat or decorated egg. The tradition has expanded to include women of all ages who are friends, neighbors or relatives. In some playfully intended cases, it may also include being doused by buckets full of water.
While Christians only make up a small percentage of India’s population, they do celebrate with lavish Easter festivities, complete with carnivals, street plays, music and dancing that last 3 days. Celebrations take place mostly in Goa, where the Christian population is strongest. In addition to exchanging chocolates and flowers, people also exchange colorful lanterns and Easter eggs as gifts.
Traditional foods enjoyed during the Indian Easter season – both at home and at the festival – include Simnel cakes, fruit cakes with two layers of almond paste which are traditionally served on Easter Sunday. Sorpotel, prepared with pork liver, heart and kidney in a thick and spicy sauce, is another favorite. It’s a fusion of Goan and Portuguese cuisines, inspired by a Portuguese dish called sarabulho.
In addition to the various sweets and savory treats that can only be found in Italy during the Easter season, towns and cities throughout the country have their own special ways of celebrating this annual holiday. In Florence, for example, residents gather annually to celebrate a centuries-old tradition called scoppio del carro, which translates to ‘explosion of the cart.’ The cart, also centuries old, is outfitted with fireworks, placed in front of the Duomo and lit by the Cardinal with a flame from the previous night’s Easter fire. Spectators gather to watch the festivities, which are intended to be a sign of peace and a wish for a good year ahead.
The day after Easter, known as la Pasquetta, in a town called Panicale, residents gather for a local competition called the Ruzzolone, a 3,000-year-old-competition in which locals roll cheese wheels around the perimeter of the village. The object of the game is to be the player who manages to navigate the course of curvy streets with the fewest number of strokes. The winner gets to bring home the wheel of cheese with bragging rights, but everyone meets at the village square for a festival of music and free hard-boiled eggs and wine.
In Poland, Lent isn’t over until a priest blesses a basket that has been filled with colored eggs, sausages and bread. The basket typically serves as a centerpiece on the family’s Easter table, where they will enjoy a soup made of soured rye flour and meat – usually boiled pork sausage or pieces of smoked sausage, bacon or ham – and hard-boiled egg. For dessert, popular choices include babka, cheesecake and Mazurek, a tasty pastry with a generous layer of chocolate or dulce de leche icing that is decorated with dried fruit and nuts.
Things get entertaining the day after Easter with Śmigus Dyngus, or ‘Wet Monday.’ On Wet Monday, people splash each other with water, both relatives and strangers alike. It’s all in good fun, but legend also has it that girls who get soaked will marry within the year. The tradition sprang from pagan customs that were related to the awakening of nature and the spring cleansing of dirt and illness.
In Romania, a traditional Easter meal often includes a sour soup called ciorbă, salad, pickles, roasted lamb, a meat pie made of lamb liver and plenty of fresh parsley called drob. A traditional Easter cake called Pască, is also commonly found on Romanian Easter tables, along with a bread called cozonac.
When it comes to eggs, Romanians are well known for their tradition of elaborately painting them. Hard-boiled versions are only eaten following the tradition of two people tapping them together along with a greeting and response. It’s believed that people who knock eggs on the first day of Easter will see each other after death. On Easter morning, family members traditionally wash their faces with water in which an egg (painted red) and a silver coin have been placed. The red egg symbolizes health and the silver, purity.
Foods that are unique to the Easter holiday are prevalent in Spain. On Easter Sunday, for example, godfathers typically present their godchildren with a cake known as La Mona de Pascua, a delicious end to the abstinence of favorite foods that’s associated with Lent. Another popular treat is torrijas, which consists of slices of bread that are soaked in milk, sugar and egg, then fried in olive oil. Typically, torrijas is served with wine, syrup, honey, sugar or cinnamon for just a bit more decadence.
Individual towns and cities have their own traditions, and the northeastern town of Verges is no exception. Citizens of Verges commemorate the Thursday before Easter with a Dansa de la Mort, or ‘Death Dance.’ In this nighttime procession, participants dress as skeletons and reenact scenes from the Passion, a significant moment in the religious context of Easter. There can be 2,400 participants at a time and it’s one of the oldest processions in the country. The tradition symbolizes the final judgement of of the soul, after death, to decide if it will go to heaven, to purgatory, or to hell.
In Sweden, children dress up as Easter witches, with long skirts, colorful scarves and painted faces before going from door to door to trade paintings and drawings in exchange for sweets. Adults, on the other hand, are busy decorating their homes with willow and birch twigs before preparing a smörgåsbord, an expansive buffet-style meal that includes items such as herring, salmon, potatoes, eggs, meatballs and sausages.
The custom of bringing birch twigs inside and decorating homes with them dates back to the 1880s. Additional older customs in Sweden used to include firing shotguns, lighting fires and shouting to scare away witches.
A Global Holiday with Regional Diversity
It’s clear that people celebrate Easter differently all around the world. Still, commonalities can often be found, from egg-rolling contests in the United States that mirror the cheese-rolling variation in Italy – to the significance of red eggs in both Romania and Bulgaria. Both the similarities and the differences are an intriguing reminder that we live together on a diverse planet that’s rich in beautiful traditions. Whether you celebrate Easter or are simply looking forward to welcoming new seasonal weather, we hope you enjoy a rich cultural experience in the process.