Easter Basket History

By: Anne Harvester

It's hard to imagine Easter without Easter baskets. Traditionally, these are filled with candy treats such as chocolates and jelly beans, usually in the shape of an egg. There may also be hollow plastic eggs with coins or other treats inside. But did you ever wonder where the whole idea of baskets on Easter came from in the first place?



Like the Easter holiday itself, the basket is the result of the confluence of several traditions from different cultures. Some of these stem from the Judeo-Christian tradition; others date back to pagan customs.

In ancient Europe, the vernal or spring equinox was a significant time. In the original home of the Indo-Aryan peoples - ancestors of most of the ethnic and linguistic groups of Europe as well as Armenia, Kurdistan, Iran, Afghanistan and India - winters were long and bitter. Spring was considered a time of renewal and rebirth.

Among Semitic-speaking peoples of the ancient Middle East - who include the Hebrews, Arabs, Babylonians, Assyrians and others - it was a tradition to bring the first seedlings of the growing season to the temples in order to insure a successful harvest. This connection to agriculture is also reflected in the holiday's relationship to the cycles of the moon; it is always held on the Sunday (day of Sol Invictus, or the "Unconquerable Sun") following the first full moon after the spring equinox. To early farmers, the phase of the moon was always significant in determining when to plant seeds.

The tradition of Easter gift basketsis really most closely connected to Western Christianity, however. In the Roman Catholic Church, Easter is only part of an entire season of rituals and observances that begin forty-six days prior to Easter itself. Many who have experienced the revelry of Mardi Gras or Carnivale don't realize that the "Fat Tuesday" celebration represents a last chance to party before entering that period called Lent - when the devout are expected to fast and give up meat, eggs and dairy. Lent ends on Easter, hence the tradition of a large, sumptuous family meal. At one time, it was a tradition for Roman Catholic families to carry the food for Easter dinner to Mass in a basket, where it could be blessed by the priest - harking back to the ancient tradition of bringing first crops and seedlings to the temple.

German immigrants to the U.S. contributed their own customs. "Pennsylvania Dutch" children eagerly awaited the Osterhase to deliver eggs on Easter Sunday, which he would deposit on his "rabbit's nest" - hence the tradition of lining Easter gift baskets with grass (or more commonly today, artificial decorative grass).

Although considered a religious holiday, Easter is really a universal expression of renewal and new beginnings.

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