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Expat Easter: Keeping Traditions

18 April, 2011 12:27  Erin Erin

Easter © Kati Molin - FotoliaTrying to maintain some degree of normalcy, for both you and your family, can be difficult as an expat. These struggles can be most acute during the holidays when you try to embrace what you consider this holiday's traditions. Though a holiday may be celebrated around the world, what counts as celebration can be wildly different. For every American abroad that eats fast food on Thanksgiving, every German quietly celebrating "Re-Unification Day" in Africa, and every Australian looking for some chocolate Easter eggs in Shanghai- the sense of displacement can be quite poignant.

By understanding the traditions of your adopted home, some of that isolation can be dissipated. Each country has their unique way to celebrate and while you don't want to abandon the traditions you love, expanding the rituals you perform can strengthen your bond to the place that you come from, as well as the place you are now.


As Easter approaches (April 24th, 2011; April 8th, 2012, March 31, 2013; April 20, 2014), an examination of the holiday is in order. One of the holiest festivals in the Christian calendar, Easter is celebrated almost anywhere that has a Christain following. However, the holiday is far from being all about religion for some participants. The Easter bunny is almost as prominent a symbol as Jesus in some cultures, and an extended weekend is a chance for families and friends to gather to welcome spring.

Celebrations Around the World


France celebrates Easter (Paques) with great gusto. The entire country is decorated with the major icons of bells and fish. Unlike other country's Easter celebrations, bunnies are not commonly used in decoration. The French Easter fish are called Poisson d'Avril, which means "April Fish". The Poisson d'Avril appears early in the month, on April lst. French school children delight in a popular trick of placing a paper fish onto the backs of as many adults as possible. Bakeries and cholocatiers also commemorate the Poisson d'Avril with fish-shaped French pastries and chocolates.

Flying Bells or cloche volant are another important symbol. French Catholics believe that on Good Friday, all the church bells in France fly to the Vatican in Rome, carrying with them the misery and grief of those who mourn Jesus's crucifixion on that day. These flying bells return on Easter Sunday morning and bring with them lots of chocolate and eggs. In keeping with the tradition, French church bells do not ring from Good Friday to Easter morning.

On Easter day, eggs (usually chocolate) are given out or hidden in nests around the garden or in their room. There is usually a contest of rolling raw eggs down a gentle slope. Whichever egg survives it's journey, symbolizes the stone being rolled away from the tomb of Christ. The giving of eggs reflects the end of the fasting period in which no eggs are eaten. Louis XIV gave eggs gilded with gold and filled with treasures to his followers. Eggs are also symbolic of resurrection in Christian religions.

To finish the celebrations, an Easter feast is prepared. Gigot D'agneau (leg of lamb) is traditionally prepared in Christian household in France, as well as spring vegetables.


The celebration of Easter in England pre-dates Christianity. The festival was once observed in honor of the Anglo Saxon Goddess Eostre. Perhaps because of this, Easter celebration in England tends to be more low-key. Palm Sunday actually starts the celebration a week before Easter. The name has its origin in the Roman times, when it was a customary to welcome royalty by waving the branches of palm tree. According to the legends, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and therefore, people welcomed him by laying a carpet of palm branches in the streets. Today palms are still used on that day, and are often made into garlands and crosses.

The UK's Easter foods include "hot cross buns" which symbolize the Cross. Less popular, but still sometimes prepared, is simnel cake. This is a rich fruit cake with a layer of marzipan in the middle and 11 balls of marzipan on top symbolizing 11 true apostles (excluding Judas). Chocolate eggs or bunnies are exchanged and real hard-boiled eggs are decorated.

The Morris Dance is another unusual feature of Easter in the UK. Professional troupes of dancers perform the dance on Easter Sunday to frighten away the veil spirits of winter. The troupes are usually male and are dressed in white shorts, red sashes, black trousers and straw hats, with lots of flowers and streamers.


Most Italians are Catholic and celebrate the religious holidays seriously and with vigor. Almost all families hold Easter, or La Pasqua, in high esteem and the day is dedicated to commemorating the resurrection of Jesus after the crucifixion. Known as the "Holy Week", celebrations across Italy reflect regional differences. Scoppio del Carro ("explosion of the cart" ) is one of the most spectacular regional events. Held in Florence for over 300 years, the ritual has a wagon standing two to three stories high dragged through the city behind a fleet of white oxen decorated in garlands. Palm Sunday is honored by the churches being swathed in baskets of palms and olive branches. The greenery is blessed by the priest and given out to the congregations. On Giovedi Santo, or Holy Friday, many churches re-enact the ceremony of the washing of the feet at the altar.

For the families, along with church going their is the exchange of Easter eggs. Eggs are also featured in the day's dishes, like Brodetto Pasquale, a broth-based Easter soup thickened with eggs. The breakfast usually consists of salami, eggs, and a special cheese cake. This is finished with colomba – a sweet cake with almonds and candied fruits. The Easter dinner is yet another feast of delicacies. The most important dish is Agnellino, roasted baby lamb. The celebration continues through Easter Monday where everybody goes out for a picnic.


Germans call out "Frohe Ostern" to each other, wishing friends a "Happy Easter". Most observers are concentrated in the southern end of the country, with religion be held as generally less important the further north you go. For those who observe, Easter in largely celebrated in church, starting with Fasching (Carnival) and then Lent.

Germany is actually regarded as the birthplace of many of the modern day Easter icons such as Easter bunny and Easter tree. German kinder learn of the Osterhase (Easter bunny) that comes to hide eggs and chocolates for them on Easter day. The Easter tree is decorate with beautiful hollow eggs.

On Easter Sunday, families gather for the holy Easter lunch. Colored eggs and lamb-shaped cake are prepared from traditional recipes. The eggs used for cooking are also uniquely prepared. Rather then being broken, they are emptied by blowing the contents into a bowl, through pinholes at either end of the egg. They can then be hung on the Easter Tree.

Czech Republic

For most Czechs, Easter (or Velikonoce) has less to do with religion and more to do with the welcoming of spring. Fairs are held with handicrafts, traditional foods, an hand-painted Easter eggs. Kraslice eggs are made by removed the insides by the pinhole technique. The eggs are decorated with bee's wax, straw, watercolors, onion peels, and stickers. As a part of the traditions, young girls decorate Easter eggs to give them as presents to boys, on Easter Monday.

On Easter Sunday (Nedele velikonocni), family to meets for a traditional feast. A coffee bread, babovka is popular, as well as mazanec, a yeast-raised cake filled with almonds, raisins and citron. A cross is usually cut into the top of the cake. Other delights consist of Easter gingerbread, Easter Ram Cake, Judas Cake, and "God's Mercy" (doughnut sprinkled with sugar).

Whipping Monday is Easter Monday. On this day, the village boys symbolically "whip" girls on the legs. The twigs are thought to bring health and youth to anyone who is thrashed with them. The braided whip of twigs is made from pussy willow and is called Easter pomlazka. While whipping the girl, the boy would recite an Easter carol, usually asking for an egg or two. The girl would reward the boy with a painted egg or candy and tie a ribbon around his pomlazka.


Easter in Spain is celebrated with great pomp and circumstance. Easter Week, known as Semana Santa, begins with Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday). It ends with Lunes de Pascua (Easter Monday). The week also consists of Ash Wednesday, Lent and Good Friday.

On Palm Sunday, people go to mass in the morning and children carry palm leaves to be blessed by the priest. There is usually a parade to mark the arrival of Christ into Jerusalem.

Ash Wednesday is the first day of the penitential season of Lent in Spain. The day is marked by a special ceremony where the ashes are placed on the foreheads of the worshipers as a sign of remorse. In the Roman Catholic churches, these ashes are specially made by burning the palm branches of the previous Palm Sunday. The philosophy behind the celebration of Ash Sunday is that if "you are dust, and unto dust you shall return" symbolizing the return of Christ.

The feast is also full of ritual. The godfather presents his godchild with a cake known as La Mona. These can be in many fun shapes. Torrijas is another part of the feast and is a blend of slices of warm bread soaked in milk, sugar and egg, then fried in olive oil. They are served along with wine, syrup, honey, sugar or cinnamon for extra touch of festivities.


The Easter holiday dinner was second only to Christmas in importance. Celebrations in Ireland hold many similarities to that of the Christian world as a ritual celebration of rebirth, resurrection, salvation and everlasting life. However, there are some unusual practices.

The dawn dance refers to the belief that when the sun rises on Easter Sunday morning, it dances with joy that the Saviour has risen. Families would get up before dawn to watch the sun rise and do a special jig. To avoid looking directly at the sun, people would watch the reflection in water, sometimes as little as a container of water on a window sill. When the sun rose, parents would tell their children to watch the bowl and give it a little jiggle so the sun would actually dance.

Egg games are played among children. Each child decorates their egg so they can identify it, and compete in egg rolling. If one egg collided with another and cracked the shell, the child who owned the uncracked egg claimed both of them. The game would end with the eating of the eggs.

Generally, a big meal is held around noon. The feast would consist of a roast of veal or lamb. After the solemnity of Lent, people indulge in dancing in laughter. A cake dance is often orchestrated where a piper or fiddler plays to signal the start of the dance and everyone would dance until the last couple standing won the cake. They would then take the cake and divide it among the crowd. This custom is the reason for the phrase "That takes the cake"!


Easter in Norway is called Paske. Bright hues of yellow can be found, illuminating the emerging spring. A peculiar tradition of Norway in regards to Easter is the reading of crime stories and detective novels. Publishers churn out series of books known as "Easter-Thrillers" or Paskekrimmen. TV stations, radio and newspapers also jump on the bandwagon by running detective series based on the works of famous crime novelists such as Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Simenon and Ruth Rendell.


Easter is the one of the most sacred holidays for people in Greece. i>Apokreas is the name of the Greek Carnival season. Religious fervor can be found in every church in Greece during this time, with different cities embracing their own traditions.

In Athens people dress up in costume and go to the Plaka to hit each other with plastic clubs that squeak, and throwing confetti. In Thrace and Macedonia, young women in traditional clothing called Lazarins. They wander the streets, singing traditional Easter songs.

On the Saturday before Easter, the Orthodox Patriarch of Greece breaks the seal of the door of the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and emerges with the Holy Fire. The flame is then flown by Olympic Airways, accompanied by high-ranking priests and government officials to Athens airport, where it is met by an honor guard to the small church of Agia Anargyroi in the Plaka. From there, the light is distributed to churches all over Attika and the rest of Greece.

Saturday evening, people congregate at the church, carrying unlit candles. At midnight, the priest announces the Resurrection of Lord Jesus Christ (Christos anesti) and people illuminate their candles by the Holy Flame. After the rituals are over, the priest blesses the food carried by people to the church.

After this resurrection service, resurrection soup, mageritsa, is served. On Easter Sunday during the day, spit-roast lamb (kokoretsi) is the centerpiece of the meal. Christopsomon, a round, flat loaf marked with a cross and decorated with red Easter eggs, is another Greek Easter delicacy.


Russia is predominantly an Eastern Orthodox Country and follows different rituals from most of the western nations. The congregation gathers on Saturday evening and takes part in an Easter vigil commemorating the buried Christ. There is usually an inner sanctuary, away from the reach of worshipers, for the priest alone. The door is closed till the stroke of midnight, at which time the priest opens the door and announces "Khristos Voskrese!", meaning "Christ is risen!". The worshipers reply “He is risen indeed!".

Easter egg decoration is taken to a whole new level in Russia. An important part of Easter tradition in Russia, eggs are usually red to symbolize the blood of Christ. The eggs are usually cracked using nails, to symbolize the death of Christ.

Easter dinner is often a community affair, with the entire congregation celebrating together. There is the traditional Easter cakes, known as kulich, that the priest to blesses before they share it together in the community celebrations.


On the eve of Easter, Danish homes and shops are decorated in green and yellow. Spring branches and daffodils, Easter eggs, and chocolate are all symbols of the holiday.

The Easter egg is the most prevalent symbol, and eggs are given to children by their parents and grandparents. Children compete for the most eggs, using a gaekkebrev (teaser letter). The gaekkebrev is a short poem or rhymes and is signed anonymously. A series of dots corresponding to the number of letters in the sender's name allows the receiver to guess the writer's identity. The gaekkebrev can be decorated with a snowdrop, which is regarded as the first flower of the year. If the receiver cannot guess the sender's identity within a certain time, the receiver will have to give an Easter egg to the sender.

The primary feast of the day occurs around lunch. Eaten with family and friends, herring and other kinds of fish are served. The traditional Danish feast is considered incomplete without the akvavit (flavored spirit), meatballs and store kolde bord.


Australia combines its British history in it's setting of aboriginal tribes and exotic animals. Shrove Tuesday begins the festivities and is associate with "Pancake Day", because pancakes are a dish using perishable foodstuffs prior to the beginning of the 40 days of fasting during Lent. Lent ends with Whitsun (or Pentecost), which is 50 days after Easter Sunday.

On Easter Sunday, churches are bedecked with flowers and bunnies delivering chocolate Easter eggs to children. However, rabbits are unpopular animals in infested Australia. In 1991, a campaign was started by the Anti-Rabbit Research Foundation, to replace the Easter Bunny with the Easter Bilby (an endangered native species). The bilby is a small rodent with a long nose and has rabbit-like long ears. The campaign's success has been somewhat limited.

One of the most popular festivals is the Sydney Royal Easter Show. It showcases the rich Australian heritage over a two week period. The show is a reflection of rural Australia with rural and farming communities exhibit their livestock and produce. Other festivals include: National Folk Festival in Canberra, the East Coast International Blues & Roots Festival at Byron Bay in northern New South Wales, and the Australian Gospel Music Festival in Toowoomba in Queensland.

Hot Cross Buns, much like those served in the UK, have a cross and are a simple mixture of flour and water. The buns are traditionally eaten on Good Friday; however, in Australia they are available in bakeries and stores many weeks before Easter. The Chocolate Easter eggs can be found everywhere. Many organizations take the opportunity to raise funds by selling tickets in raffles for baskets of Easter eggs.


Proceeded by the world-famous Rio Carnival, Brazil has a high catholic population and Easter is treated with revere. The largest and the most populous country in South America, Brazil's celebration is inherently different in that it celebrates the festival in autumn.

Easter celebration begin with the Holy Week rituals. These involve the blessing of the palm branches, woven in intricate patterns representing crosses, banners, letters and other objects. Macela flower, which blooms only in the lent, is also used. Worshipers take procession walks, carrying statues of Mary and the body of Lord Jesus Christ. The streets are filled with shops selling special Easter bunnies. Gala carnivals commemorate the day.

Feasts are prepared of clipfish, chocolate Easter eggs, and a Easter ring cake. Pacoca, a special Easter delicacy prepared by mixing crushed nuts (preferably peanuts) and other ingredients including sugar to form a paste, is given to the visitors.


Easter is one of the most important Christian festivals and is highly anticipated in Mexico. Followers pray in church and celebrate with friends and family. The rituals are a mix of Christian and native Indian traditions. This is the effects of imperialism, when Christian missionaries allowed the people they are trying to convert to blend their customs with Easter rites.

Semana Santa (Holy Week) and Pascua (Resurrection Sunday) are almost universally observed. Palm sundae again has the palms crafted into elaborate weaves, blessed by priests, and then hung on the doors of Mexican homes to ward off evil.

Passion Plays are very popular, depicting Biblical events such as the Last Supper, the Betrayal, and the Procession of the 12 Stations of the Cross, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. The enactments are impressive with real drama. Volunteers prepare for their roles for nearly the full year. In many communities, flagellation along with real crucifixion is included.

In a country with few safety restrictions, a popular tradition has been deemed too dangerous by the government. The burning of a Judas effigy filled with firecrackers has been outlawed, but is still practiced. The effigy is set on fire and pulled through the streets as fireworks launch randomly and the followers duck and run, trying to avoid being hit.


German immigrants to America are the root of most "American Easter traditions". America has taken these roots and added them to the pot of American traditions. Never a country to fear commercialism, many of the symbols of Easter have little to do with religion, and are more closely tied to the Easter celebration itself. Grocery stores abound with just about in any food you want in the shape of an Easter egg, lamb, or bunny.

Church-goers attend services and spring styles are rolled out. Large Easter parades are sometimes held in the city, with lots of candy and chocolate.

On Easter Sunday, children wake up to find that the Easter Bunny has left them baskets of candy, gifts, and chocolate eggs. Real hard-boiled eggs that have been dyed earlier in the week have now been hidden around the house or the yard and the children are responsible for finding the eggs. Many neighborhoods or organizations hold Easter egg hunts for the children, with the child that wins the most winning a prize.

The family Sunday meal is also embraced. Baked ham, potatoes and spring vegetables are enjoyed.


As is the case in so many cultural things between the US and Canada, there are many similarities but also important differences. The World's largest Easter egg is a product of Canada. In 1975, the Easter egg was constructed in the remembrance of early Ukrainian settlers. Also called the Pysanka, the Ukrainian term, the egg consisted of a huge jig-saw puzzle, with 524 star patterns and 2206 equilateral triangles.

Easter lunch is popular, with Canadian specialties like Maple Baked Beans, Potatoes Nicoise, Cape Breton Sconces and Apple Tart. Easter eggs are also eaten, with the national treasure of maple syrup.

How to re-create "Your" Easter Experience

It is important to adapt to your new culture and embrace the traditions they practice. It is really an opportunity for you and your family to grow, and accept your new home on a whole new level. Adapting may be as easy as including some of the new traditions into your yearly routine. Try new recipes, go to services in your new neighborhood, go to one of the Easter themed events in your area. Take on the attitude of an adventurer, delving into a new world or celebration.

Adapting can be more difficult when Easter isn't celebrated at all. Supplies that were abundant in your last home may be scarce or non-existent. Take the plunge into local culture and find other festivals that may satisfy the celebration of Spring. You can also look to international hotels as many offer some of the familiarity they are missing. Many hotels are offering an Easter brunch and an Easter egg hunt.

You can also share plans and ideas on our Expat Forums. Chances are, other expats have "been there, done that" and may have some helpful advice. There is also an opportunity to make expat friends who can help in the responsibility of re-creating a holiday abroad.

To all you expats out there, either celebrating or not, Happy Easter!



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