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Two women wearing extravagant hats adorned with colourful flowers and eggs

Easter Bonnets: The weirdest Easter tradition you've never heard of

Large Easter Bonnet parades are held in the US where thousands of people show off their colourful hats | Image: Shutterstock

For many people, Easter Bonnets aren’t even a thing at Easter. Like Simnel Cake or Egg Rolling, you have to know about them already or you’ll just muddle on through the Easter holidays in blissful ignorance. However, if you’re a parent, carer, or guardian to any child under the age of 10, let alone a primary school or nursery teacher, just thinking about an Easter Bonnet is enough to bring you out in hives.

Where did this strange phenomenon come from? Many of us of a certain age don’t recall having Easter Bonnets when we were younger, and why is it called something so archaic as opposed to just ‘a hat’?

To discover the provenance of the Easter Bonnet, we need to go back to the 4th Century. This is the time of Constantine the Great, widely regarded as the first Roman Emperor to embrace Christianity.

Keeping in line with the ancient springtime tradition of renewal, re-birth and now resurrection, it became fashionable for the Romans to wear shiny new clothes on Easter Sunday, having spent the previous forty days of Lent wearing the same old, same old.

As the trend trickled down to the masses, it became bad luck if you didn’t have new clothes to wear on Easter Sunday. This even got a mention in ‘Poor Robin’, a 16th-century satirical almanac, that (clunkily) noted in rhyme, “At Easter let your clothes be new, or else be sure you will it rue”.

Both Shakespeare and Samuel Pepys talk of Easter clothes around the same period, the former in Romeo and Juliet (1597) and the latter in an Easter Day diary entry (30th March 1662). Despite all this, there’s still no specific reference to any form of headgear, let alone that all-conquering bonnet.

One theory is that the Easter Bonnet derived from the so-called ‘Sunday of Joy’, which took place on 16th April 1865, the first Easter Sunday after the end of the American Civil War. It’s been reported that on this day all the women came out of mourning for the fallen soldiers and discarded their dark, grim attire for outfits full of colour and joy. However, this does seem unlikely as it was just two days after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. There is also no obvious reference that the Sunday of Joy might have occurred in 1866 instead, so this seems an unlikely origin.

If this ‘Sunday of Joy’ ever even existed, it may have become conflated with the first-ever US Easter Parade of 1870, when the post-Easter service congregation came out of St Patrick’s Cathedral and walked down Fifth Avenue in their finery. The women’s colourful bonnets would have stood out against the men’s dark suits and hats. This may have even inspired Irwin Berlin to write Easter Parade in 1933, which was immortalised by the eponymous 1948 musical starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire.

One thing is for sure, the Easter Bonnet, now as synonymous with children at Easter as hollow chocolate eggs, is an American invention and the tradition of making Easter Bonnets is relatively new. It seems to have gained popularity very quickly, but we still have no solid evidence as to why the bonnet was chosen as the go-to Easter headwear. And for that matter, why a hat at all? It’s spring, hats are for the winter or summer, no?

It would be remiss not to propose a theory. The first line of Irwin’s Easter Parade reads: “In your Easter Bonnet, with all the frills upon it,” and the penultimate line concludes: “Oh, I could write a sonnet about your Easter Bonnet”. Could it really be that we have the Easter Bonnet just because it was a handy rhyme?

While you muse on that, spare a thought for all those adults tasked with the duty of trying to attach a felt-pen saturated rendition of a yellow chick onto a ring of card with a dried-up glue-pen.