Believe it or not — like many other holidays that developed in the early Middle Ages during the Christianisation of Europe — Easter is heavily influenced by ancient paganist rituals, festivals and symbols.
While Christmas is generally accepted to be a mash-up of various winter feast celebrations (Saturnalia, Yule and Koleda, among others), Easter's name is literally descended from an ancient Germanic goddess known as Ēostre (or Ostara), whose honor feast took place in April.
Even as many of these syncretized paganist roots are quietly swept under the rug, important symbols from this ancient time (such as eggs and rabbits) live on, though with explicitly Christian interpretations. For example, eggs are a common symbol of fertility in paganist religions, but they are now tied to Christianity as symbol of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Continue below for a look at a few of the oddest ways these cultural holdovers (or in one case, the nationwide response to an invasive species problem!) have manifested in today's modern Easter traditions.
Dyeing eggs is a common tradition for many American families celebrating Easter, but Ukranians take this crafty practice a step further with pysanka — intricately designed Easter eggs decorated using a wax-resist technique known as "batik."
To make these tiny masterpieces, molten beeswax is first applied to the shells of fresh eggs (where the parts are to remain white). The eggs are then dipped through a series of colorful dye baths, with additional wax applied following every dipping. Once the designs are complete, the wax is rubbed off and a glaze is applied to give the egg strength and gloss.
A single egg can take several hours to complete, but as you can see in the image below, the results are well worth all the hard work.
2. The Easter Bilby
If you know anything about Australia, you might already be familiar with the continent's centuries-long struggle to contain populations of unwelcome invasive species — most prominently, the rabbit.
After making their way to the continent in the late 18th century, these furballs quickly boomed in numbers thanks to a lack of natural predators, the continent's mild winter climate, and, of course, their penchant for prolific copulation. Although populations are better controlled nowadays, the long-term effects that rabbits had on Australia's ecology was both devastating and widespread.
Given this history, it's not too surprising to learn than Easter-celebrating Australians aren't exactly thrilled to honor the cult of the Easter Bunny! The solution, of course, was to find another long-eared furball to dole out chocolate to little kiddies. Enter the Easter Bilby.
In addition to slightly resembling a rabbit, this little marsupial is also an endangered species, making it the perfect candidate for raising money and awareness of the country's conservation efforts. So now you can eat bilby-shaped chocolates and feel good about supporting an imperiled species — all at the same time!
3. Whipping women
In some eastern European cultures, Easter is celebrated with men going door to door and whipping any woman they encounter — often until blood is drawn. No one is quite sure how the practice came about, but according to folklore, any woman who is hit is supposedly bestowed with beauty, health and fertility for the next year.
The whips, which are known as "pomlázka" in Czech or "korbáč" in Slovak, are typically made of braided willow and are often embellished with colorful ribbons.
Although the idea of women being whipped by men certainly raises some eyebrows and some disapproving nods, the tradition as it is practiced today is not as overtly violent as it once was. As Raymond Johnston for the PraguePost explains:
"Some older women can tell you that when they were younger they did get a substantial whipping at the hands of neighborhood boys, but now it has become much more symbolic in the places where it is practiced, and is seldom seen at all in cities. Most whips these days wind up being decorations and not put into action, as even symbolic violence against women is starting to seem unacceptable. Still, even the sight of an Easter whip makes some women cringe due to negative memories."
Luckily, there have been some modern updates to the tradition. In some communities, whipping women has been replaced by significantly more benign water fights. That's something, right?
4. The war of the rockets
For residents of Vrontados, Greece, Easter is heralded by a volley of fiery homemade rockets streaming over city streets. The rocket war, known as "Rouketopolemos," is part of a 125-year-old tradition that is waged on the night before Easter by local parishioners belonging to two rival Greek Orthodox churches — Agios Markos and Panagia Erithiani.
The objective of the rocket war is to strike the bell of the opposing church, though the exact origins of how it connects to Easter remains a mystery.
5. Easter trees
It sometimes seems like Christmas has a monopoly on tree decorating, but that's not the case everywhere. Easter trees are a big thing in Germany.
Just ask Volker Kraft (below), a pensioner from Saalfield, Germany, who has spent more than three decades decorating the tree outside his home with thousands of eggs.
The tree has accumulated so many eggs over the years that it has even become something of a tourist attraction. In the weeks leading up to Easter, it is not uncommon for Kraft to receive thousands of visitors hoping for a glimpse of the pastel bauble tree.
6. Egg tapping
This simple game is known by many other names — egg knocking, egg battling, egg jarping, egg fighting — but the concept and rules behind it are quite straightforward. Two people face off with hard-boiled eggs in an attempt to crack the shell of the other player's egg without cracking their own.
As with all games, there are ways to cheat. The most common way is to switch out a real egg with one made of a harder substance. In some cases, this means relying on marble eggs or even using as egg from a different species bird that is known to produce harder shelled eggs (such as the guinea hen).
If you think egg tapping is your calling, then you'll be happy to hear that there are actual serious competitions, including the Marksville Egg Knocking Contest in central Louisiana and the World Egg Jarping Championships in Peterlee, England.
For most Americans, dressing up as a witch and trick-or-treating may seem like activities strictly associated with Halloween, but they also happen to be hallmarks of a typical Easter celebration in countries such as Germany.
This is because the important Christian holiday sometimes falls closely to Walpurgis Night, an annual cultural celebration that welcomes spring with dancing, bonfires and folklore. Witches play a major role in the narrative, and it's not uncommon for an effigy of a witch to be burned during the bonfire celebration as a symbolic way of warding off evil spirits.
8. Polish palms
These extravagant totems bedecked with branches, flowers, ribbons and other ornaments are one of the most important ceremonial icons found in Polish celebrations of Palm Sunday.
After they are constructed following Ash Wednesday, they are then consecrated in a church before being paraded around town. Since actual palm trees do not grow in Poland, willow branches are typically used as a symbolic substitute for palm branches.
It's not uncommon for these Easter palms to reach over 30 feet, and the largest one on record was a whopping 118 feet tall!
9. Crucifixion reenactments
Although it's not as common to find crucifixion reenactments in the U.S., they are actually quite routine for many Christian cultures across the world.
In the image above, we see Indonesian Christians participating in a crucifixion procession through the town of Magelang, Java, and in the photo below, a man is nailed (literally) to a wooden cross and raised up in the air during Good Friday celebrations in the village of Cutud, just outside of Manila, Philippines.
The Catholic Church actually frowns upon these rituals, but despite their gruesomeness, they have been going on for decades and are even considered a major tourist draw.