Easter is generally thought of as the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, a Christian holiday period that encompasses Lent, Holy Week, and, finally, Easter Sunday. However, like Christmas and Halloween, the celebration of Easter today merges Christian rituals with pagan and secular traditions.
Since the earliest human civilizations, people have celebrated the Spring Equinox or nature’s rebirth following the winter with rituals that were rife with symbols of fertility and new life, like children, rabbits, budding flowers, and, of course, eggs.
The Ancient Greeks believed their god Phanes, the deity of procreation, hatched from a cosmic egg. In the Jewish tradition of Passover, a hard-boiled egg dipped in salt water stands for the potential of new life. Persians have long decorated eggs for their New Year celebration, known as Nowruz, which falls on the Spring Equinox.
Easter traditions in Europe were strongly influenced by linguist and folklorist Jakob Grimm’s questionable accounts of historic rituals. Grimm posited that the word “Easter” was a descendant of the name Eostre or Ostara, a pagan goddess of Spring whose only surviving mention is in the writings of the 7th-century scholar Bede. These names are also linguistically connected to an earlier Proto-Germanic goddess of the dawn called Austro.
European immigrants brought their traditions to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, including the concept of an egg-laying rabbit. By the late 1800s, the tradition of children hunting for hidden Easter eggs had taken root—President Rutherford B. Hayes hosted the first official White House egg roll in 1878—and American companies made all kinds of Easter keepsakes to profit from the holiday.
Items like Easter postcards, vases, plates, candy containers, toys, baskets, puzzles, and decorative eggs typically featured children, rabbits, chicks, flowers, and other themes of springtime. The objects often depicted animals celebrating the holiday as any middle-class American might—shopping for eggs, eating a hearty meal, or sending packages to their loved ones.