Bells, rabbits, eggs… Where do the symbols of Easter come from?


The Easter season is common to Jewish and Christian religions, and is accompanied by festive rites and traditions, of which religious and pagan versions survive today, peppered with numerous symbols.

The first Passover, Pessah , cited in the Old Testament, in the book of Exodus (

Easter, the holiday for Christians

Christ Jesus died in Jerusalem, during the Jewish Passover, on the 14th of Nissan (first month of spring in the Jewish calendar – which corresponds to April 7 of the year 30 in our calendars) . If the Christian Easter calendar was built on the Jewish liturgy, from the 4th century onwards  , it was established independently.

The time of Carnival-Lent, which lasts 40 days, ends with the time of Easter, a spring festival, whose name is written in the plural because it corresponds to several tenses. It is celebrated from Palm Sunday (or “Flower Easter” – one week before Easter) to Quasimodo Sunday (one week after Easter – the bell ringer of “Notre-Dame de Paris”, by Victor Hugo owes its name to the fact that he was collected on a Quasimodo Sunday).

During the Easter triduum (the three Holy Days), Christians celebrate the Last Supper (Thursday), the crucifixion (Friday) and the resurrection of Christ (on the night of Saturday to Sunday). Over the centuries, various popular festivals have expanded this ritual time.

A visual calendar of Christian holidays

The Battle of Carnival and Careme, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1559. Wikimedia

This painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder , entitled The Fight of Carnival against Lent , can be read as a commemorative calendar of festive customs from Christmas to Easter. In the center of the painting, a house dominates the village square.

The Battle of Carnival against Lent, Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530-1569), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Detail of the central part. Drawing SB/Wikimedia , CC BY

Perched in front of the high window, a figure similar to a straw mannequin with a whitened face observes the scene from the highest point of view in this square. Claude Gaignebet sees in him the Christ, the “Easter Fool” according to the apostle Paul, for whom “the cross is madness”, because it seems unthinkable for Christians that salvation could come from a messiah crucified like a slave . To the left of this house, a child hands a loaf of bread (from Easter time) to a leper.

Child and leper, detail from the painting by Brueghel the Elder. Wikimedia

In successive circles, Brueghel tells us about the rites and festivities which, at the end of the 16th century  , occupied the towns and countryside throughout the year. It depicts a popular Christianity which has become folklorized , in the words of the historian Robert Muchembled , but which will retain its medieval substrate until the first decades of the 20th century  .

In the center, below the house, women prepare fish, large and small. (detail of Brueghel’s painting. Wikimedia

In the beginning… the fish

The “fish of living water” is the first living being blessed by God. This “delicious food” appears on the Shabbat (or Shabbat) table, this time of withdrawal and rest which ends the week in the Jewish world.

Tradition dating back to paleo-Christian times designates the fish as a Christ and Eucharistic symbol. Tertullian, in his Treatise on Baptism ( De Baptismo 1, 3), speaks of Christians as little fish, pisciculi , because “following the example of the ἰχθύς, our Lord Jesus Christ, they were born in water . »

According to Saint Augustine, citing an acrostic from the Sybiline Oracles , the letters composing the word fish in Greek, ἰχθύς (ichthus) , could be an acronym for Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ/ I ēsoûs Khristòs Theoû Uiós Sōtḗr (Jesus the Christ (or the anointed) of God the son, savior). This summary of the Christian faith is an omnipresent sign in early Christian funerary art (4th century  ).

“Fish of the living”, epitaph of Licinia (det.), end of the 3rd century, National Museum of the Baths of Diocletian, Rome. Sylvie Bethmont , Provided by the author

But it was also present in everyday life, Clement of Alexandria (around 150-220), cites in The Pedagogue the intaglio rings serving as seals which bear the image of a fish or the letters ἰχθύς – Ichthus or Ichtys, from the ancient Greek ichthús, “fish”, one of the major symbols used by the first Christians.

Celebrating the Eucharist for Christians is remembering the words of Christ: “My body is true food, my blood true drink” (Gospel according to John 6, 51-58). According to Dominique Rigaux, fish “qualifies the Lord’s meal, in images of the Last Supper or monastic meals” ( At the Lord’s Table , Cerf, 1989). “Lean” food, it is consumed by everyone on Friday and Good Wednesday and Friday.

The Last Supper, mosaic in the central nave, Saint-Apollinaire-le-Neuf, Ravenna (Italy), before 540. Wikimedia

Easter Bestiary

The New Testament calls Christ ”  the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and considers him to be slain as the Jewish Passover lamb.

Easter ends Lent. It’s time for a whole sweet bestiary. In Alsace, on Easter morning we eat osterlämmele or Easter Lamala, a cake baked in a lamb-shaped mold and covered with icing sugar. Among the sweet treats of festive Easter traditions,This gilded silver group, composed of a hen and her seven chicks, takes up a rich iconographic tradition, dating back to the first Christian images. This “hen means the Church” a place of protection, according to art historian Nouredine Mezoughi.

The hen and her chicks, Treasure of the Cathedral of Monza, from a Lombard royal tomb. Provided by the author

The same symbolism is present in an illumination of a Hebrew Bible from the 14th century  . The hen feeding her chicks then representing the Synagogue .

From chicken to egg…

Judaism considers the egg to be a symbol of the cycle of death and life and the hard-boiled egg is part of the mourning meal, as well as the Seder.

In the Christian world, during the Middle Ages and until the 17th century  , the consumption of eggs, like that of meat, was prohibited during the forty days of Lent. Eggs not eaten during this time were decorated and offered on Easter Sunday. Among Orthodox Christians, the first decorated egg is painted red; it must have been laid on Maundy Thursday. At Easter, we break the shell of our (hard-boiled) egg against the egg of our neighbor at the table by exchanging these words: “Christ is risen! Truly He is risen! »

In the courts of Europe during the Renaissance, fragile chicken eggs were replaced by golden eggs, decorated with precious stones. Everyone knows the eggs that at the end of the 19th century  the jeweler Fabergé designed for Tsar Alexander III, offered each year for Easter to his wife and mother. Like a Russian doll, The Hen’s Egg , the first created in 1885 by Fabergé, opens to reveal a matte golden yolk that contains a small hen.

The Chicken’s Egg, Fabergé, 1885. Wikimedia , CC BY

When bells and rabbits lay eggs

As a sign of mourning, the Catholic Church forbids the ringing of bells on Good Thursday and Friday. Children are sometimes still told that the bells, which went on a pilgrimage to Rome, return on Easter Sunday to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, bringing back all kinds of sweets. It’s egg hunt time!

In Germany and Alsace, there are rabbits called “Easter hares” (Osterhase), who come and leave egg-shaped treats in the gardens for good children.

The white rabbit, an ambivalent symbol which comes to us from the Middle Ages, can in turn be associated with virginal purity and with the unbridled sexuality which is expressed in the animal kingdom in the summer.

The Virgin and the Rabbit, Titian, 1585. Wikimedia

As for chocolate, which appeared at the court of Louis XIV, it was for a long time a luxury delicacy. In the 17th century  , people began by pouring chocolate into an empty eggshell. Then in the 19th century  , iron molds of different shapes were developed. Our modern (most often industrial) Easter treats were born!

Author Bio: Sylvie Bethmont is a Teacher of biblical iconography at the Collège des Bernardins