by Francis Weiser (1952)

Easter Songs and Customs


Ancient • 

The Apostolic Creed contains the phrase "He descended into Hell" (descendit ad inferos). This means that the Soul of Christ, after His death, announced to the souls of the just the accomplished redemption which opened for them the gates of eternal bliss. Christian piety has adorned this historical fact with dramatic descriptions of the Lord's victory over Satan: He appears in the glory of His divine majesty, illuminating the kingdom of darkness and breaking down the gates of Hell. He binds Satan and releases the souls of the patriarchs from then-long imprisonment.1 A multitude of hymns and dramatic representations had this "Harrowing of Hell" as their subject. (The familiar pictures of the Risen Christ, holding aloft the banner of victory over death and the Devil, also were inspired by this article Of faith.) 2

Following this apostolic truth, the priest Melite- of Sardes (Asia Minor) praised the Resurrection as early as the second century:3

Trembling for joy cries all creation; What is this mystery, so great and new? The Lord has risen from among the dead, And Death itself He crushed with valiant foot. Behold the cruel tyrant hound and chained, And man made free by Him who rose!

From the fourth century date the magnificent Latin hymns of Easter praise (praeconium paschale) which used to be sung at the lighting of the Easter candle.4 The Exultet, still sung in all Catholic churches during the liturgy of the Easter Vigil, is a later formulation of such an ancient hymn. Its origin is unown, although it has often been ascribed to Saint Jerome or Saint Augustine. Here are a few lines:

This is the Night,

Which throughout the world

Frees all who believe in Christ

From the vices of their time-shackled existence,

From the lightless dungeon of sin,

And restores them to grace: unites them to holiness.

This is the Night

In which Christ broke the chains of death

And rose in radiant victory

From the pit of Hades.5

Another fourth-century poem is the Latin hymn of Saint Ambrose, expressing the "paradox of faith" as seen in the death and Resurrection of Christ:

O mystery great and glorious, That mortal flesh should conquer death, And all our human pains and wounds The Lord should heal by bearing them.

Behold how man, though crushed by death, Now does arise and live with Christ, While death, repelled and robbed of might, Dies from its own malignant sting.6

Early Christian hymns with similar thoughts were written by Saint Gregory of Nazianz and Bishop Synesios of Cyrene (about 414). Another hymn ascribed to Saint Ambrose is now used in the Lauds of Low Sunday: Claro paschali gaudio. An English translation may be found in the Protestant Episcopal hymnal of the United States ("That Easter day with joy was bright").7

Venantius Fortunatus wrote (about 580) a Latin hymn, Salve festa dies (Hail, festive day!), which was later translated into various languages and became a popular Easter song. The first English translation is mentioned in a letter of Archbishop Cran-mer to Zing Henry VIII in 1544.

An ancient hymn now recited at Vespers during Easter time is the poem Ad regias Agni dopes (The royal banquet of the lamb). The present version, based on the text of a sixth or seventh-century unknown author, was rearranged for the breviary under Pope Urban VIII (1644).

Saint John Damascene (eighth century) wrote a number of beautiful Greek poems in honor of the Resurrection, some of which are now used in the liturgical services of the Greek Church and have been translated into English and become popular Easter hymns: .

"Thou hallowed chosen morn of praise" (Ante he klete kai hagia hemera). It is sung in the Greek liturgy during Easter night. A free English translation was published by John M. Neale in 1862; the tune for the English text is taken from a German melody composed by Johann H. Schein in 1628.

"Sing all nations" (Aidomen parties laoi). An English adaptation ("Come Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain of Triumphant Gladness") was published by Neale in 1859. The tune was adopted from a German song by Johann Horn, printed in Niirnberg in 1544.

"The day of resurrection" (Anastaseos Hemera) is sung in its original Greek text at the midnight service of the Greek Church, when the faithful light their candles before going to Communion. A free translation into English was written by Neale. It is sung to the tune of an old German Madonna hymn (Ave Maria, klarer und liehter Morgenstern) which appeared in 1784.8

From a German interpolation between the lines of the Easter sequence (Victimae Taschali) originated the famous hymn Christus ist erstanden (Christ is risen), which is sung to a tune dating from the year 1531. This ancient song is. still the most popular Easter hymn in both Catholic and Protestant churches in Germany. It is intoned by the priest and sung by the people at the solemn service of Resurrection (Auferstehungsfeier). An English text was written by Isaac Watts (1748).

Later Middle Ages • 

Many beautiful Easter songs date from the later Middle Ages. A true carol is the Latin poem Alleluia! O filii and filiae (Alleluia, O sons and daughters), written by the Franciscan Jean Tisserand (1494) and first published in Paris in 1525.  The earliest English translation   ("Young men and maids, rejoice and sing") appeared 1748 in a Catholic manual in London. The tune, composed by an unknown musician, was written in Paris in 1623.

Another carol is the German song Wir wollen alle frohlich sein (Let us all be glad), which appeared in a songbook (Christ-lichs Gesangbuchlein) in 1568. Geoffry Shaw wrote an English text ("Now glad of heart be every one").

Inspired by Wipo's Victimae Paschali, Martin Luther (1546) wrote a dramatic Easter hymn which became a favorite church song among the German Lutherans and later in many other Protestant congregations:

It was a strange and wondrous war,

When death and Life did battle.

With royal might did Life prevail,

Made death His knave and chattle.

The sacred Booh foretold it all:

How death by death should come to fall.

Now death is laughed to scorn.9

In a songbook for students published by the Jesuit Fathers at Cologne in 1695 appeared a Latin Easter hymn (Finita sunt jam proelia) that has become a favorite in many countries. An Enghsh text was written by Francis Pott in 1861. The modern tune was adapted from Palestrina's Magnificat Tertii Toni by William H. Mock in 1861.

The strife is over, the battle done, The victory of life is won, The song of triumph has begun: Alleluia.

Modern • 

Finally, there is a wealth of newer hymns, written in the past few centuries. Charles Wesley (1788) gave us various Easter songs; here is the first stanza of his best-known hymn:

Christ the Lord is risen today, Sons of men, and angels say; Raise your joys and triumphs high! Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply!

Another well-known Easter song is "The world itself" by John M. Neale (1866). It first appeared in his book Carols for Easter" tide, in 1854:

The world itself keeps Easter Day,

And Easter larks are singing; And Easter flowrs are blooming gay, And Easter buds are springing. Alleluia, alleluia. The Lord of all things lives anew, And all His works are living too. AUeluia, alleluia.

The Episcopal dean Howard Chandler Bobbins wrote an Easter carol for children in 1929, "The Sabbath day was by," that has become a popular hymn in the United States. Another recent carol is the poem "O who shall roll away the stone?" written by Reverend Marion F. Ham, a Unitarian minister. The text was first published in the Boston Transcript in April 1936, and the tune composed by the American organist and choirmaster T. Tertius Noble in 1941.

Music • 

Of liturgical texts set to music, the best known are the Gradual for Easter, Haec Dies quam fecit Dominus (This is the day which the Lord has made). This text, both in the original Latin or in translations, has been set to music by several composers and sung in churches of all Christian denominations. This is also true of the Offertory in the Easter Sunday Mass, Terra tremuit (The earth trembled).

In Catholic churches the Regina Coeli Laetare (Queen of Heaven, rejoice) is prescribed as antLphon of the Blessed Virgin for Easter time. The text is a fourteenth-century Latin poem, and is sung both in Gregorian chant and various musical settings all through the Easter season. Another hymn often used in Catholic churches is Regina Coeli lubila (Queen of Heaven, rejoice). This Latin poem appeared first in 1600; the author is unknown.

Among the great oratorios that glorify the Resurrection of Christ, the earliest is Antonio Scandello's Auferstehungsgeschichte (Story of the Resurrection), composed about 1560. It was first performed in the Royal Court Chapel at Dresden.

The latter part of Handel's Messiah deals with the Easter story. Every year at its performance thousands are inspired by "I know that my redeemer liveth," and by the "Hallelujah Chorus, durmg which all audiences traditionally rise from their seats.

Charles Gounod's Redemption is another source of familiar Easter music. This work, once very popular, is now rarely performed, though in many churches Easter Day would not be complete without the resounding chorus "Unfold ye portals" Similar passages of Easter music are found in the famous choral works of Cesar Franck {Redemption) and A. R. Gaul (The Holy City).

Of the innumerable shorter works, special mention should be made of Johann Sebastian Bach's several cantatas on Easter texts There are, of course, also many short organ pieces inspired by the Resurrection.

Finally, countless popular Easter songs, as they exist among all nations, celebrate the great feast. Goethe (1832) indicates in the Osterlied of his famous poem Faust, with classic brevity and clarity of expression, the basic motif of all popular Easter songs:

Christ is arisen: Joy to all mortals Freed from the threatening Creeping and deadening Serpents of evil.


Easter Lamb • 

Among the popular Easter symbols, the lamb is by far the most significant of this great feast. The Easter lamb representing Christ, with the flag of victory, may be seen to pictures and images in the homes of every central and eastern European family.

The oldest prayer for the blessing of lambs can be found in the seventh-century Sacramentary of the Benedictine monastery Bobbio in Italy. Two hundred years later Rome had adopted it, and thereafter the main feature of the pope's Easter dinner for many centuries was roast lamb.10 After the tenth century, in place of the whole lamb, smaller pieces of meat were used. In some Benedictine monasteries, however, even today whole lambs are still blessed with the ancient prayers.

The ancient tradition of the Pasch lamb also inspired among the Christians the use of lamb meat as a popular food at Easter time, and at the present time it is eaten as the main meal on Easter Sunday in many parts of eastern Europe. Frequently, however, little figures of a lamb made of butter, pastry, or sugar have been substituted for the meat, forming Easter table centerpieces.11

In past centuries it was considered a lucky omen to meet a lamb, especially at Easter time. It was a popular superstition that the Devil, who could take the form of all other animals, was never allowed to appear in the shape of a lamb because of its religious symbolism.





Keith Hunt)

Easter Egg • 

The origin of the Easter egg is based on the fertility lore of the Indo-European races. To our pre-Christian ancestors it was a most startling event to see a new and live creature emerge from a seemingly dead object. The egg to them became a symbol of spring. Long ago in Persia people used to present each other with eggs at the spring equinox, which for them also marked the beginning of a new year.12

In Christian times the egg had bestowed upon it a religious interpretation, becoming a symbol of the rock tomb out of which Christ emerged to the new life of His resurrection. There was, in addition, a very practical reason for making the egg a special sign of Easter joy, since it used to be one of the foods that were forbidden in Lent. The faithful from early times painted Easter eggs in gay colors, had them blessed, ate them, and gave them to friends as Easter gifts.

The custom of using Easter eggs developed among the nations of northern Europe and Christian Asia soon after their conversion to Christianity. In countries of southern Europe, and consequently in South America, however, the tradition of Easter eggs never became popular.




RELIGION  -  Keith Hunt)

The Roman ritual has a special blessing for Easter eggs:13

We beseech thee, O Lord, to bestow thy benign blessing upon these eggs, to make them a wholesome food for thy faithful, who gratefully partake of them in honor of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.14

In medieval times eggs were traditionally given at Easter to all servants. It is reported that King Edward I of England (1307) had four hundred and fifty eggs boiled before Easter and dyed or covered with gold leaf, which he distributed to the members of the royal household on Easter Day.

The eggs were usually given to children as Easter presents along with other gifts. This practice was so firmly rooted in Germany that the eggs were called Dingeier (eggs that are "owed") .15 The children were not slow in demanding what was "owed" to them, and thus developed the many rhymes in France, Germany, Austria, and England wherein youngsters even today request Easter eggs for presents. In England this custom is called "pace-egging," the word "pace" being a corrupted form of Pasch.

In most countries the eggs are stained in plain vegetable-dye colors. Among the Chaldeans, Syrians, and Greeks, the faithful present each other with crimson eggs in honor of the blood of Christ.16 In parts of Germany and Austria, green eggs alone are used on Maundy Thursday, but various colors are the vogue at Easter. Some Slavic peoples make special patterns of gold and silver. In Austria artists design striking patterns by fastening ferns and tiny plants around the eggs, which show a white pattern after the eggs are boiled.17 The Poles and Ukrainians decorate eggs with plain colors or simple designs and call them krasanki. Also a number of their eggs are made every year in a most distinctive manner with unusual ornamentation. These eggs are called pysanki (from pysac: to write, to design); each is a masterpiece of patient labor, native skill, and exquisite workmanship. No two pysanki are identical. Although the same symbols are repeated, each egg is designed with great originality. The symbols used most are the sun (good fortune), rooster or hen (fulfillment of wishes), stag or deer (good health), flowers (love and charity). As decorative patterns the artists use rhombic and square checkerboards, dots, wave lines, and intersecting ribbons. The pysanki are mainly made by girls and women in painstaking work during the long evenings of Lent. At Easter they are first blessed by the priest and then distributed among relatives, friends, and benefactors. These special eggs are saved from year to year, like symbolic heirlooms, and can be seen seasonally in Ukrainian settlements and shops in this country.18

In Germany and other countries of central Europe eggs for cooking Easter foods are not broken but pierced with a needle on both ends, and the contents to be used are blown into a bowl. The empty eggshells are given to the children for various Easter games. In parts of Germany such hollow eggs are suspended from shrubs and trees during Easter Week, much like a Christmas tree. The Armenians decorate empty eggs with pictures of the Risen Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and other religious designs, to give to children as Easter presents.

Easter is the season for games with eggs all over Europe.19 The sport of egg-pecking is practiced in many forms, in Syria, Iraq, and Iran, as well. In Norway it is called knekke (knock). In Germany, Austria, and France, hard-boiled eggs are rolled against each other on the lawn or down a hill; the egg that remains uncracked to the end is called the "victory egg." This game has attained national fame in America through the annual egg-rolling party on the lawn of the White House in Washington.

Another universal custom among children is the egg hunting in house and garden on Easter Sunday morning. In France children are told that the Easter eggs are dropped by the church bells on their return from Rome. In Germany and Austria little nests containing eggs, pastry, and candy are placed in hidden spots, and the children believe that the Easter bunny, so popular in this country, too, has laid the eggs and brought the candy.

In Russia and among the Ukrainians and Poles people start their joyful Easter meals after the long Lenten fast with a blessed egg on Easter Sunday. Before sitting down to breakfast, the father solemnly distributes small pieces cut from an Easter egg to members of the family and guests, wishing them one and all a holy and happy feast. Not until they have eaten this morsel in silence, do they sit down to the first meal of the Easter season.20


Easter Lily • 

The Easter lily is larger than the more generally known Madonna lily. It was introduced in Bermuda, from Japan, at the middle of the last century. In 1882 the florist W. K. Harris brought it to the United States and spread its use here. Since it flowers first around Easter time in this part of the world, it soon came to be called "Easter lily." The American public immediately accepted the implied suggestion and made it a symbolic feature of the Easter celebration. Churches began using it as a decoration on Easter Day, and people adopted it as a favorite in their homes for the Easter solemnities.21

Although the Easter lily did not directly originate from religious symbolism, it has acquired that symbolism, and quite appropriately so. Its radiant whiteness, the delicate beauty of shape and form, its joyful and solemn aspect, certainly make it an eloquent herald of the Easter celebration. Besides, lilies have always been symbols of beauty, perfection and goodness. The Holy Scriptures, both of the Old and New Testaments, frequently make use of this symbolism.

Jesus once showed the Apostles some lilies and said: "Not even Solomon in all his glory.was arrayed like one of these" (Matthew 6: 28). Now, since the Lord Himself stated that lilies are more glorious than the greatest earthly splendor, it certainly is fitting that we use these beautiful flowers to glorify Him on the day of His resurrection.







  -  Keith Hunt)

Easter Bunny • 

The Easter bunny had its origin in pre-Christian fertility lore. Hare and rabbit were the most fertile animals our forefathers knew, serving as symbols of abundant new life in the spring season.22 The Easter bunny has never had religious symbolism bestowed on its festive usage, though its white meat is sometimes said to suggest purity and innocence. The Church has never performed special blessings for rabbits or hares, and neither in the liturgy nor in folklore do we find these animals linked with the spiritual meanings of the sacred season. However, the bunny has acquired a cherished role in the celebration of Easter as the legendary producer of Easter eggs for children in many countries. What seems to be the first mention of the Easter bunny and his eggs is a short admonition in a German book of 1572: "Do not worry if the bunny escapes you; should we miss his eggs, then we shall cook the nest." In a German book of the seventeenth century the story that the Easter bunny lays eggs and hides them in, the garden is called "an old fable."23

In many sections of Germany the Easter bunny was believed to lay red eggs on Maundy Thursday and eggs of other colors the night before Easter Sunday. The first Easter bunnies made of pastry and sugar were popular in southern Germany at the beginning of the last century. They are now a favorite delicacy for children in many lands.

Easter Ham • 

The pig has always been a symbol of good luck and prosperity among the Indo-Europeans. Many traces of this ancient symbolism are still alive in our time. In some German popular expressions the word "pig" is synonymous with "good luck" (Schwein haben). In Hungary the highest card (ace) in card games is called "pig" (diszno). Not too long ago it was fashionable for men to wear Ettle figures of pigs as good luck charms on their watch chains. Savings boxes for children in the figure of a pig (piggy banks) carry out the ancient symbolism of good luck and prosperity.

It is an age-old custom, handed down from pre-Christian times, to eat the meat of this animal on festive occasions. Thus the English and Scandinavians ate boar meat and the Germans and Slavs roast pork on Christmas Day. Also, in many parts of Europe roast pork is still the main dish at weddings and on major feast days. Hungarians eat roasted piglets on New Year's Day. The French Canadians have their traditional pork pie on festive occasions. At Easter, smoked or cooked ham, as well as lamb, has been eaten by most European nations from ancient times, and is the traditional Easter dish in America, too. The first records on the liturgical blessing of Easter ham date from the tenth century.24




Keith Hunt)

Easter Table • 

The nations of central and eastern Europe have other traditional Easter foods, prepared on the last days of Holy Week, blessed by the priest on Holy Saturday or Easter Sunday, and solemnly displayed on a festive table for Easter Week meals. This blessed Easter fare is called Weihessen (blessed food) in Germany and Austria, Swiecone or Swieconka (sanctified) among the Ukrainians and Poles.25 The figure of the Easter lamb, which rests on a bedding of evergreen twigs, is surrounded by colored Easter eggs. Around this centerpiece are arranged other foods in great variety and large amounts: Easter breads, meats, sausages, salads, cheese, pastry, spices, and fruit. The whole table and every dish, on it are decorated with garlands and clusters of leaves, herbs, and flowers.26

Easter Pastry • 

Many nations have distinctive Easter breads and pastries which are blessed by the priest and eaten during Eastei Week. Among the Slavic people this Easter bread is called Paska. The Russian paska is made of flour, cottage cheese, sugar, raisins, eggs, and milk. It is put in a mold and shaped in firm, square pieces, about eight inches high, with a cross on each side, and the letters J. C. (Jesus Christ) imprinted in relief. In Germany and Austria the Easter bread is made with milk, eggs, and raisins, and baked in oblong loaves of twisted or braided strands (Oster-stollen). Another kind of Austrian Easter bread is the Osterlaib (Easter loaf), a large, flat round loaf marked with the cross or an image of the lamb. In some parts of Ireland people eat on Easter Sunday "Golden bread," which, is very similar to our French toast

A favorite Easter pastry in Poland are the mazurki, originating in the province of Mazuria, which are very sweet cakes made with honey and filled with nuts and fruit. A South German pastry is the Weihkuchen (blessed cake) made of flour, oil, milk, butter, and honey. The people of Transylvania bake their ham in a cover of bread dough. The Hungarian Easter meat loaf is made of chopped pork, ham, eggs, bread, and spices.27


To be continued







Keith Hunt