Rick Steves European Easter


By Rick Steves

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Rick Steves, America’s expert on Europe, explores the rich traditions, celebrations, and history behind some of Europe’s most colorful and charming Easter celebrations. Discover Carnevale in Venice, Lent in Cantiano, Holy Week in Sevilla, Easter Sunday in Greece, and beyond.

Rick examines “Easter Through the Ages,” including the Biblical story of Easter and the pagan and secular traditions that have shaped the Easter celebrations of today. He compares the beliefs of Eastern and Western Orthodox traditions, and shows how holidays are uniquely celebrated across cities and countries. In Rome, the Vatican blesses palm fronds on Palm Sunday, while in Tuscany, olive branches are blessed instead. Churches in Sevilla display elaborate floats for Easter Sunday, while villages across Italy, Slovenia, and Greece celebrate with feasts.

Touching on Italy, Slovenia, Switzerland, Spain, Greece, and the Vatican, and filled with fascinating insights and vibrant full-color photos, Rick Steves European Easter is a delightful way to understand Easter heritage from a multicultural perspective.



EUROPE IS MY FAVORITE PLACE to travel, with its charming mix of people, history, and traditions. And Easter is a time when these rich traditions come to the forefront. Every country, every village, every family has its own way of observing the Easter season—ranging from religious to raucous, from fasting to feasting, from chocolate eggs to lamb-gut stew. These fascinating cultural differences make Easter a season of mystery, magic, and just plain fun.

For Christians, Easter celebrates the central Christian event—Christ’s suffering, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. This is the cornerstone of the Christian faith: that God gave his son to live on Earth among us to empathize with our mortal experience and share his Father’s message with us. The life of Jesus culminated on the cross, where he died to save humankind from sin and bring the gift of salvation. Then he was resurrected, showing the promise of eternal life. For that reason, Easter is the most sacred and thoughtful—and arguably most important—of Christian holidays. It’s a time for quiet reflection and passionate ritual that swings from great sadness to great joy.

Festive, fragrant, and dramatic floats fill the streets of Sevilla during Holy Week.

The Easter season is a rich mix of Christian and pagan rituals. Sights range from art celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus to gaily dressed characters symbolically plowing the soil to welcome life returning to the fields each spring.

For students of history, Easter is an occasion to dig even deeper, to uncover the holiday’s prehistoric origins. Just as European churches sit on the remains of pagan temples, the Easter story is founded on the remnants of pagan festivals. These lusty pre-Christian celebrations were incorporated into the Christian tradition, and many live on even today.

For kids, it’s a time of magical fun, when adults take children’s visions of the supernatural seriously. There are gift-giving rabbits, mysteriously hidden eggs, delightfully messy art projects, and candy, candy, candy. Adults get into the spirit, remembering their own childhoods. It’s when friends gather, grandma and grandpa come for dinner, and several generations can all enjoy specially-prepared foods, gifts, decorations, and precious time together.

With several generations gathered, this farm boy in Tuscany cracks open his chocolate egg, excited to discover a prize hiding inside.

Easter is an inherently joyous time, marking the end of winter and the arrival of spring. It’s a time to celebrate a new start. Whether you believe in the Resurrection or just the return of flowers, sunshine, and the earth’s bounty, it’s the promise of new life.

Before we go further, I’ve got a few important disclaimers: The reality is that—as in America—not everyone in Europe makes a big deal of Easter. (Don’t plan a special spring trip expecting to see festivities everywhere.) And as you read this book, you’ll hear about all kinds of Easter traditions and customs, both religious and secular. I treat all of these as equally valid. The non-religious might scoff at the Bible story about a man who really died and came back to life. But taken on faith, it’s a rich story that helps believers understand the greatest gift ever given. When it comes to Easter customs, historians might have a different take on the exact origin story of the Easter Bunny or in which century a particular hymn became popular, but I’m writing more from a love of Easter than strict historical accuracy.

Whether you celebrate the Resurrection or just the return of flowers after a long and cold winter, Easter is a time to enjoy the promise of new life.

Be aware that many of the European traditions I feature are very local. Some are known only to a single village, or special only to a single family. It’s hard to generalize about how “all” of Germany or “all” of Italy celebrates Easter. This book doesn’t even try to do that. Instead, I focus on a few of the countries and customs I find most interesting. Many of my sources come from my travels—when locals tell me about their celebrations, I pass it along to you. While researching this book, I learned that nobody really knows much of anything for sure about the misty origins and meanings of many legends associated with Easter. If you’re the type of person who needs everything to be proven fact . . . you’re probably not reading this book.

Now, as you anticipate the arrival of another Easter, sit back and enjoy this book. We’ll begin by traveling back in time to the origins of our Easter traditions. Then we’ll travel through modern-day Europe, tracing the entire two-month-long celebration.

We’ll start with the craziness of Carnival—from the masked balls of Venice, to monsters on the rampage in Slovenia, to a musical Mardi Gras in Switzerland. This is followed by 40 days and 40 nights of sobriety and reflection—the time known as Lent.

Easter is preceded by Lent—40 days of sobriety and reflection. And Lent is preceded by the wildest party of the year—Carnival.

Easter is celebrated in many ways, but in every culture it’s a time for families and loved ones to be together.

Then Easter time really heats up when we reach the Holy Week that leads up to Easter Sunday. We’ll see thousands waving branches for Palm Sunday at the Vatican. Holy Week continues with special fervor in Spain, with all-night processions, passionate worship services, adoration of the Virgin Mary, and some provocative costumes.

We’ll see how people prepare for the big event, including the secular traditions that accompany Easter—that world of kids, chocolate eggs, and home-cooked dishes.

Finally, we’ll experience the joy of Easter Sunday as various cultures across Europe celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus along with the return of spring—each in their own way. Along the way, expect to find Easter customs that are both foreign and familiar, offering new and different ways to celebrate the joy of the holiday. Whether your Easter is about bunnies or Bible stories, revelry or the Resurrection, it is a wondrous time.

During Easter week, it’s hard not to get caught up in the moment.

Happy Easter!



FOR CHRISTIANS, Easter is about the last days of Jesus of Nazareth—his death and Resurrection. These events transpired over a single week in history, around A.D. 33. That’s when Jesus was arrested, tortured, and executed by the authorities. Then, on the third day after his death, Jesus came back to life and appeared to his followers.

These momentous events, collectively known as the Passion and the Resurrection, are known to history from several books of the Bible. The different authors of these books each relate slightly different details, but they basically tell the same story.

The central figure is Jesus of Nazareth (c. 4 B.C.–c. A.D. 33). He’s also known to history as Jesus “Christ,” a title meaning the messiah or chosen one. Born in Bethlehem to a mother named Mary, he was raised in Nazareth as a carpenter’s son. Jesus was a Jew. He likely spent most of his life in (what is today’s) Israel and Palestine. Back then, the region was part of the vast Roman Empire—ruled from Rome and administered locally by the Romans’ Jewish subordinates.

Jesus formed a band of 12 disciples (a.k.a. apostles). He gained a reputation as an itinerant preacher and miracle worker—healing the sick, walking on water, turning water into wine, and more. He preached a message of loving your neighbor. He warned that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and would soon be established on earth. This part of his message sounded threatening and rebellious to the Roman and Jewish authorities, who took steps to have him arrested, tried, and killed. That final week of his life—the Passion, which led to his Resurrection—is what Easter is all about.

This remarkable story has helped shape Western history. For 2,000 years, the various episodes have been brought to life by many well-known artists, creating some of the world’s masterpieces. Here’s how those events are described in the Bible, and illustrated by timeless art.

Duccio, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, 1308-11


The Passion story begins the Sunday before Easter, as Jesus and his followers make a triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. The Bible says: “As they approached Jerusalem, a very large crowd cut branches and spread them on the road. They shouted joyfully: ‘Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!’”


On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus immediately alienated the authorities. He entered the temple and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. “My house will be called a house of prayer,” he said, “but you have made it a den of thieves.” He spoke ominously about the coming Kingdom of God. The chief priests and elders were troubled by how enthusiastically the common people were embracing Jesus. They plotted to arrest him. They offered Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, 30 pieces of silver to betray him. Judas agreed and they were delighted.

El Greco, Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple, c. 1600

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1494-97


On the first day of Passover, as evening came, Jesus and the disciples gathered at the table. Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and said “Drink; this is my blood, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins.”

As they were eating, Jesus said, “Truly, one of you will betray me.” They were all very concerned, and one by one they asked him, “Lord, is it I?”

Ugolino di Nerio, The Betrayal of Christ, 1325-28


When they had sung a hymn, they went out to a place called Gethsemane. Jesus was deeply distressed, and his sweat was like drops of blood. He prayed, “Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not my will, but your will be done.”

Just then, Judas appeared with a crowd armed with swords and clubs. Judas approached Jesus and said, “Greetings, teacher,” and kissed him. The men seized Jesus. Then all of the disciples deserted him and ran away.


They bound Jesus and took him to Pilate, the governor. When the chief priests accused Jesus of blasphemy, he made no reply. Pilate was amazed. He announced to the crowd: “I find no evidence against this man.” But the chief priests stirred up the crowd. “Crucify him!” they shouted. “Crucify him!” Pilate took water and washed his hands, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” Then, hoping to placate the crowd, Pilate had Jesus whipped, and handed him over to be crucified.

Tintoretto, Christ Before Pilate, 1567


The soldiers spat on him, and struck him on the head with a staff. Then they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him. They twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him, and mocked him, saying “Hail, King of the Jews.”

After they had mocked him, they led him out to be crucified.

Raphael, Christ Falls on the Way to Calvary, 1515-16

Giotto, Crucifixion, c. 1303-5


Jesus carried his cross to the place called Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. And they crucified him.

Above his head, they placed the written charge against him: “The King of the Jews.” They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left. They divided up his clothes by casting lots. Those who passed by shook their heads and mocked him. Even those crucified with him heaped insults on him. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” At the sixth hour, darkness came over the whole land. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And when Jesus had cried out, he gave up his spirit and died.

Ugolino di Nerio, The Deposition, 1325-28


As evening approached, they took down the body. Several of Jesus’ female disciples were also there, watching from a distance. They wrapped the body in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then they rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb and went away. Pilate made the tomb secure by posting guards.


Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, Mary Magdalene and the other women went to look at the tomb. They saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. They saw a young man. His countenance was brightly shining, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid that they became incapacitated. “Don’t be afraid,” the young man said to the women. “You are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here. He has risen!”

Trembling and confused, the women fled from the tomb. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Do not be afraid,” he said. They fell at his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said: “Go and tell my brothers they will see me.” They told all these things to the disciples, but they did not believe the women, because their words seemed like nonsense.

Ugolino di Nerio, The Resurrection, 1325-28

Cima da Conegliano, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, c. 1502-4

Later Jesus appeared to the disciples as they were eating. They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. “Why are you troubled?” Jesus said. “Look. It is I myself! Touch me and see.” And he ate in their presence.


Later, Jesus appeared again to his disciples. He led them outside. He lifted up his hands and blessed them. He said, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” While he was blessing them, he was taken up before their very eyes. He was taken up into heaven, where he sat on the right hand of God. He had told his disciples: “I am with you always.”



WHILE CHRISTIANS have celebrated Easter for 2,000 years, the festival itself is much older. And it’s no coincidence that it happens at the start of spring. For as long as people have shivered through a long cold winter, they have celebrated the arrival of spring.

Imagine you’re living in Europe in prehistoric times. The bleakness of winter . . . the short days and long nights, the mist and rain, the barren fields, the hunger and the cold. You’re at the mercy of nature, the fickle gods—Odin, Thor, and Freyja—and the elves, trolls, and Valkyries. In summer, the gods bring warmth, plants grow, and food is plentiful. Then it gets cold and dark, and the earth becomes frozen and forbidding.


On Sale
Mar 15, 2016
Page Count
208 pages
Rick Steves

Rick Steves

About the Author

Since 1973, Rick Steves has spent about four months a year exploring Europe. His mission: to empower Americans to have European trips that are fun, affordable, and culturally broadening. Rick produces a best-selling guidebook series, a public television series, and a public radio show, and organizes small-group tours that take over 30,000 travelers to Europe annually.  He does all of this with the help of more than 100 well-traveled staff members at Rick Steves’ Europe in Edmonds, WA (near Seattle). When not on the road, Rick is active in his church and with advocacy groups focused on economic and social justice, drug policy reform, and ending hunger. To recharge, Rick plays piano, relaxes at his family cabin in the Cascade Mountains, and spends time with his son Andy and daughter Jackie. Find out more about Rick at http://www.ricksteves.com and on Facebook.

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