Stories Behind The Traditions and Songs of Easter

This book fits right in with our Christmas books. Easter is a time for special music and beloved traditions and most of us really don't know how many of the things we embrace this time of year fit into the meaning of this holiest of holidays. I was surprised by much of what I discovered. As we spotlight both songs and traditions in this book, I have dropped in two preview chapters. The first is on Isaac Watts powerful hymn "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross." The chapter on tradition takes a look at the Easter egg.

When I Survey The Wondrous Cross

Isaac Watts is generally considered to be the “Father of English Hymnody.” In his body of more then 700 published hymns, this son of a Congregationalist minister literally altered the way worship services are conducted. He opened Christian music to include new exciting songs that contained personal testimonies in carefully crafted lyrics. He thus dramatically changed not just the way people sang in church, how they related music to their Christian faith. Of all his incredible works, “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” is more than just a groundbreaking because of its point of view, but it also represents what most believe is the greatest song this famous Englishman ever wrote.

Watts was born in 1674 in Southampton, England. As a child he showed unusual intellect having mastered Latin, Greek, French and Hebrew before reaching his teens. It also was during this time that Watts' rebellious streak began to surface. He began to critique his father's services. With blunt honesty he told his family that church was not inspirational for any age group. He even went so far as to explain to his father, “The singing of God's praise is the part of worship most closely related to heaven; but its performance among us is the worst on earth.” The amused elder Watts told his son that if singing from the book of Psalms was boring, then maybe Isaac should write some new hymns that were more exciting. While most young people would have passed on the challenge, Watts accepted it and in the process revolutionized worship. Yet this transformation didn't happen overnight. In fact it might not have happened at all if something had not forced Watts out of what he considered his life's calling.

Based on early reviews by his contemporaries, there is little doubt Watt would have probably become one of England's most dynamic preachers if his health had not failed him. While still in his twenties he often so sick he was unable to keep up the daily challenges of leading a church. Thus, incapable of doing more than occasionally addressing a congregation as a guest speaker, he turned to study and writing. In 1707, as he prepared to help lead a communion service, Watts found himself entranced by Galations 6:14.


But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.


After reading the text of this one verse several times, Watts picked up a quill pen, dipped it in ink and set about composing a deeply personal poem. During this period, first person testimonies were all but unheard of, thus when Watts wrote the word “I” in that initial line, it was revolutionary. The fact that he would then take his own very individual views of faith and published was all but unbelievable. Yet in 1707, in a book called Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Watts included his “Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ.” Two years later he would republish the hymn but change the second line from “Where the young Prince of Glory died” to “On which the Prince of Glory died." As many who had sung his original version had been appalled at the gory nature of the fourth stanza, the writer also suggested that it could be deleted. Thus few today have ever sung:


His dying Crimson, like a Robe,

Spreads o'er his Body on the Tree;

Then am I dead to all the Globe

And all the Globe is dead to me.



Even with the fourth verse cut, hundreds of churches, even those who used many of Watt's other songs, refused to sing this new anthem. Christian leaders of the time felt that the “I” made this a hymn of “human composure.” They deemed this focus on the individual defined it as unfit for congregational worship as it centered on only one man's relationship with God. Yet as “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” gained exposure, theologians discovered that most Christians had a great desire to embrace the song because it reflected their own personal relationship with Christ. Hence, though this song Watts opened the door for millions to have their first “one on one” connection with their Savior.

Five decades after it was written, “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” was not only widely accepted in England, but had also found favor in the United States. Yet it would take another sixty years before the great hymn was given the tune most familiar to worshippers today.

Lowell Mason was a banker in Savanna, Georgia when he came across Watts' testimony about the cross. Sensing the original tune was out of step with modern worship, Mason sought out a new score for the lyrics. While doing research into ancient church music, Mason stumbled across a Gregorian chant. In 1824, the thirty-two year old Mason reworked that melody and fitted it to lyrics found in Watts' “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.” He then taught the new arrangement to the choir at the First Independent Presbyterian Church. The hymn was so well received at that first Sunday performance, it quickly found a publisher. It is this version that is not most commonly heard throughout the world.

Mason would move back to Boston a few years later and become one of the most respected hymn composers and publishers of his time. Certainly Christian music is much richer thanks to this man. Yet his impact on worship is minor compared to Isaac Watts.

Watts dramatically changed worship by giving it a vitality and personal quality it had never known. His hymns were triumphant statements of faith that brought the New Testament alive in music. His music made the worshipper not a spectator, but a participant in the sharing of the gospel. Because he had the courage to be different and challenge convention, he was probably responsible for millions coming to hear the call of the Lord in songs as well as sermons. It can be said with an assured confidence that without Watts leading the way there would have been no great hymns written by the likes of Charles Wesley, John Newton or James Montgomery. In the light of his incredible contributions, most feel Watts' greatest work was his “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.”

Charles Wesley would pen more than 7,000 hymns and many of these are still being used by churches all over the globe. Yet Wesley was so awed by Isaac Watts' Easter anthem that he was said he would give up all of his hymns just to have written “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross. Certainly few writers have ever captured the full meaning of the cross on an individual’s salvation as did Watts when he penned this magnificent hymn.


The Easter Egg

For most children it simply would not be Easter without the Easter egg. These brightly colored eggs have long cast their magical spell on little ones during this holiday season. In fact, even before Christ walked the earth, the season of spring and colored eggs were cast together in a myriad of customs dating all the way back to the ancient Egyptians.

Many early civilizations, including the Persians, Phoenicians, Hindus and Egyptians, believed the world began as an egg. When that egg was broken the yellow yoke became the sun and the remainder made up the earth. The egg was so revered in the Egyptian culture eggs were buried in tombs with the nation's noblemen. The Greeks also buried eggs with their dead. Why did so many ancient cultures focus so much importance on the egg? They realized the egg was the beginning of life for so many of the earth's creatures. Therefore, in their minds, each spring, when life was renewed and eggs were laid, the world was given new hope.

It was only natural that the egg would be one of the first symbols of pagan culture that would find its way into the Christian celebration of the resurrection. To so many of the men and women who were converted to Christianity by early missionaries, the egg represented life. It was an honored symbol that had the power to annually bring a new life cycle to the earth. Thus it held great awe and mystery for both children and adults. When people accepted Christ as their Savior, when they heard the story of His living after having died on the cross, when they understood that He had given them a life that would go on forever in Heaven, it was the egg that naturally came to their minds. So for many new believers the egg became an important symbol of their faith. To them the egg represented their soul's rebirth.

Long before these new Christians latched onto the egg as a symbol of Easter, their tribes had been partaking in egg hunts. Initially this was done for survival. Eggs were an important food source, and in the times before wild birds were domesticated, hunters when out looking for whatever type of eggs they could find. Eggs from almost ever kind of bird were eaten, but those whose colors set them apart were often taken home to give to children as presents. Over time different groups would adopt a special day in the spring when their children would participate in a group hunt with other children looking for eggs. The child who found the egg deemed most beautiful and colorful would usually receive a prize.

In certain parts of the country eggs with deep color hues simply did not exist. So, as the custom of children's egg hunts spread, adults would color eggs with dye and hide them the night before the hunt. This added excitement to the game, as well as making the choosing of a winner much more difficult. These hunts continued as the various European tribes converted to Christianity, but in many places, the game became a teaching tool.

Orthodox Christians were probably the first to color eggs in ways that created opportunities for explaining the true meaning of Easter. They would first pierce the egg with a needle, completely draining it, then use bright red paint on the shell. When this very fragile egg was found, the question would be asked, “Do you know why this egg is red?” Then a parent, church leader, or in some cases, an older child, would explain that the red paint represented the blood of Christ shed for each person's soul.

Over time painting one egg red gave way to artistic parents or clergy using the shell as a canvas. In many places in Eastern Europe, especially in the dark and middle ages, eggs were decorated with images of Christ, his disciplines, Mary, Joseph and other New Testament figures. When all the eggs were gathered, they were laid out in a special order so that complete story of the life of Jesus could be taught.

Sometime in the middle ages in Germany the custom of giving green eggs the day before Good Friday became a tradition. These special eggs, symbolizing life were used as decorations on trees. For a while the Easter tree was as important to most families as was the Christmas tree.

In the Scandinavian nations, as well as in some parts of the British Isles, early Christians did not hide eggs. Instead, children would go from house to house begging for brightly colored eggs. To receive an egg, the groups of children would have to act out a portion of the Easter story. Called “Pace egging,” from the Hebrew word Pesach (Passover), the custom lasted for several hundred years. Over time the eggs became known as “Peace Eggs,” representing the peace that Christ could bring to each person's life.

Because eggs were inexpensive in most regions, decorating Easter eggs crossed all social classes and remained somewhat simple. Yet in Eastern Europe the craft of egg decorating for the holiday was often given over to local artists. They used their skills to create stripped or patterned egg often displaying a rainbow of colors. These elaborate displays brought out competitive rivalries and soon the final product included the use of gold, silver and even jewels. Still for many children, the thrill of finding an egg had nothing to do with the decorated shells, they just wanted to have the opportunity to enjoy a treat.

In Medieval times eggs were on the list of foods that could not be eaten during the season of Lent. This meant that for more than six weeks, children could not enjoy one of their favorite foods. Thus, when they were given the opportunity to finally hunt for hardboiled eggs, they sought them out as if they were treasure. The first few rarely made it home, but rather were consumed where they were found.

At first many children simply used a hat or an old sack when they gathered eggs. This often meant that a number of eggs arrived home broken. To save the eggs families began to resort to using a basket. Originally this basket was created for taking food to church on Easter morning to be blessed by the priest. This custom of having food blessed in the temple actually can be traced back to the Old Testament. Once the basket was home and the food had been removed, families began to allow their children to use it during their egg hunts. Soon craftsman began to create baskets resembling a bird's nest, often selling them in shops. These special Easter baskets were kept and passed down from generation to generation and probably represented the first successful commercial exploitation of the holiday.

Easter eggs fell upon hard times not long after Martin Luther broke off from the Catholic Church. New Protestant splinter denominations in Western Europe and England felt that anything having pagan roots should be removed from the Christian church. Thus, groups like the Puritans outlawed both Christmas and Easter. For several hundred years generations of children grew up knowing nothing about this ancient tradition.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Easter made a come back as Protestant churches in England and the United States began to again recognize the day. The tradition of colored eggs also returned to the forefront of the holiday at this time. During the Civil War, President Lincoln oversaw an egg-rolling contest on the Capital grounds. This Monday after Easter custom has been continued in Washington and is now held on the White House grounds.

Though the use of eggs at Easter can be traced back to the origins of the holiday, the most famous decorated eggs are much more modern. In the last years of the nineteenth century the famed artist Fabergé created one gold and jeweled encrusted egg each year to give to the family of the Russian Czar. Eventually the number was upped to two and these rare eggs, complete with surprises hidden inside, remain the most famous Easter eggs in the world. Today Fabergé eggs are considered priceless.

The incredible value of the Fabergé eggs not withstanding, the meaning that new Christians found when this once mystical pagan icon was transformed into a symbol of faith is worth so much more. As much as eggs represent a recurring cycle of life, the Easter egg was adopted by Christians to signify the eternal life that was theirs when they accepted Christ as their savior. Thus, more than eighteen hundred years after the it became first became associated with this special holiday, the Easter egg can still teach a powerful lesson of faith.



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