An annual tradition at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Baltimore is the dying red of hundreds of eggs for use in the Easter Sunday mass. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun video)

On Sunday morning, as Christians in the region and around the world take part in the Easter traditions they enjoy, an observer might be tempted to ask: How do the ways they celebrate the holiday reflect its meaning?

Children pet bunnies and gobble jelly beans. Wal-Mart sells more than 500 types of Easter confection, including unicorn- and space alien-themed baskets. Just a few of them allude to Christianity.

How does eating a package of Peeps recall the man Christians believe redeemed the world by rising from the dead nearly 2,000 years ago? Balancing Easter's secular and religious sides can be a challenge for area churches.

Some Roman Catholic congregations schedule egg hunts to help draw families with children to Easter services. Certain Baptist ministers, meanwhile, skip such activities to emphasize the spiritual significance of the holiday.

And on Saturday, St. Paul Lutheran Church in Catonsville found creative ways to explain the Resurrection story to kids before letting then loose to hunt for colored eggs. The egg shells, church leaders said, symbolize the tomb where Jesus was placed, and the treats inside represent his gift to the world of saving mankind from sin.

"We're trying to help the children learn the Easter story," said Barb Haar, the church's minister of parish life.

At St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Highlandtown, the elements of fun and faith also come together. There, as at Eastern Orthodox churches worldwide, a single, striking symbol evokes the Resurrection in all its mysterious glory: a hard-boiled egg dyed red.

"Pascha would be unthinkable without red eggs," said the church's spiritual leader, the Rev. Michael Pastrikos, using the Greek word for Easter. "They represent Jesus' suffering and death on the cross, which happened in blood and brought us eternal life. Cracking [the eggs] means the end of the old and beginning of the new. And, to be honest, they're just a lot of fun."

Every year, at the end of the Pascha service on Saturday night, well after midnight, Pastrikos turns to several baskets of the red eggs, blesses them with a prayer, and hands one apiece to the 400 or so people who come up and meet him at the altar.

"Christos aneste!" ("Christ is risen!") he says each time.

"Alithos aneste!" ("He is indeed risen!") they respond.

And everyone flocks to the basement, where they crack the eggs in playful hand-to-hand combat the Greeks call tsougrisma ("clicking together"), hug, and sit down to the feast that, for Eastern Orthodox Christians, brings weeks of fasting to a festive end.

If bunnies and marshmallow candy are the symbols of modern secular Easter, the red-egg tradition blends fun and religion in a way that has unified communities — and satisfied worldly and religious appetites — for centuries.

"It's a tradition of the people, and everyone enjoys that, but it has to be part of the liturgy. It represents something spiritual — the resurrection of the Christ, which gave us the possibility of salvation," Pastrikos said.

An age-old symbol

There's no consensus on the origins of the practice, though most agree the egg has been a pagan symbol of springtime fertility, life and rebirth since pre-Christian days.

Early Christians later adapted the symbol to their faith, with the shell representing the mortal world.

When it cracked, that was like the world dying away; what remained meant rebirth just as the Crucifixion gave rise to eternal life.

"Just as Jesus Christ broke the bonds of hell and rose from the dead, so too, with the egg, we break its bonds and partake of its fruits," said the Rev. John Vass, pastor of Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church in East Baltimore, which also blesses and hands out red eggs.

The Orthodox faithful trace the red dye to the legend that Mary Magdalene — one of Jesus' followers — wandered the Roman Empire preaching the Resurrection, carrying eggs as a sort of visual aid.