Growing up, I always looked forward to that one spring Sunday morning where I knew I would awake to find a woven basket waiting for me at the foot of the stairs.
It would be lined with plastic "grass," stuffed to the brim with goodies (decorated eggs, marshmallow chicks, chocolate candies, and always a cuddly stuffed bunny), wrapped in cellophane, and topped with a bow. Children around the world received Easter baskets like this.
Today, we celebrate Easter as the Christian holiday that commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but the backstory of the basket and all the traditional stuffers has nothing to do with the story of the resurrection and also traces back thousands of years.
To ancient cultures, Easter was known as the spring equinox -- the time between seasons when the hours of day and night were equal. For farmers, this marked the highly anticipated transition from the dark days of winter to the sunny days of spring. It was a time for people to pray to their pantheon for a bountiful harvest. This included the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility, Eostre (sounds like Easter, doesn't it?). It is written in the eighth-century work "The Reckoning of Time," which was penned by the Venerable Bede (an English monk and scholar) that people held feasts in her honor. She was depicted cradling a woven basket in the crook of her arm. Thus was the beginning of the Easter basket.
As for the basket stuffers -- the rabbit, the eggs, the candied goods -- it was all about symbolism. From medieval times, the hopping hare was a symbol of fertility. According to European folklore, a rabbit was said to leave a basket filled with colored eggs for children, and when settlers immigrated to America they brought the story with them. Eggs -- decorated or otherwise -- have historically been mythological motifs for new life. Ancient Egyptians, Asians, and Greeks all believed in the premise of the world being born from a cosmic egg. For Christians, the egg symbolized the empty tomb of Jesus, and they stained them red to represent the blood of Christ. When cracked open, this symbolized his resurrection.
Bundled together, this completed the Easter basket. The tradition of exchanging baskets is said to be descended from early medieval Catholics. To celebrate the end of Lent, they would bring baskets of delicious goods to church in order to be blessed by a priest. All of these symbols of fertility were passed down through the ages -- the bunny, the eggs, the basket itself -- to be reimagined into the Easter traditions we hold dear today.