In the primitive Church Holy Saturday was known as Great, or Grand, Saturday, Holy Saturday, the Angelic Night, the Vigil of Easter, etc. It is no longer, like Thursday, a day of joy, but one of joy and sadness intermingled; it is the close of the season of Lent and penance, and the beginning of paschal time, which is one of rejoicing.
By a noteworthy exception, in the early Church this was the only Saturday on which fasting was permitted (Constit. Apost., VII, 23), and the fast was one of special severity. Dating from the time of St. Irenaeus, an absolute fast from every kind of food was observed for the forty hours preceding the feast of Easter, and although the moment assigned for breaking the fast at dawn on Sunday varied according to time and country, the abstinence from food on Holy Saturday was general.
The night of the vigil of Easter has undergone a strange displacement. During the first six or seven centuries, ceremonies were in progress throughout the entire night, so that the Alleluia coincided with the day and moment of the Resurrection In the eighth century these same ceremonies were held on Saturday afternoon and, by a singular anachronism, were later on conducted on Saturday morning, thus the time for carrying out the solemnity was advanced almost a whole day. Thanks to this change, special services were now assigned to Holy Saturday whereas, beforehand, it had had none until the late hour of the vigil.
This vigil opened with the blessing of the new fire, the lighting of lamps and candles and of the paschal candle, ceremonies that have lost much of their symbolism by being anticipated and advanced from twilight to broad daylight. St. Cyril of Jerusalem spoke of this night that was as bright as day, and Constantine the Great added unprecedented splendour to its brilliancy by a profusion of lamps and enormous torches, so that not only basilicas, but private houses, streets, and public squares were resplendent with the light that was symbolic of the Risen Christ. The assembled faithful gave themselves up to common prayer, the singing of psalms and hymns, and the reading of the Scriptures commentated by the bishop or priests. The vigil of Easter was especially devoted to the baptism of catechumens who, in the more important churches, were very numerous. On the Holy Saturday following the deposition of St. John Chrysostom from the See of Constantinople, there were 3000 catechumens this church alone. Such numbers were, of course, only encountered in large cities; nevertheless, as Holy Saturday and the vigil of Pentecost were the only days on which baptism was administered, even in smaller churches there was always a goodly number of catechumens. This meeting of people in the darkness of the night often occasioned abuses which the clergy felt powerless to prevent by active supervision unless by so anticipating the ceremonies that all of them could take place in daylight. Rabanus Maurus, an ecclesiastical writer of the ninth century (De cleric. Instit., II, 28), gives a detailed account of the ceremony of Holy Saturday. The congregation remained silent in the church awaiting the dawn of the Resurrection, joining at intervals in psalmody and chant and listening to the reading of the lessons. These rites were identical with those in the primitive Church and were solemnized at the same hours, as the faithful throughout the world had not yet consented to anticipate the Easter vigil and it was only during the Middle Ages that uniformity on this point was established.
Most American families observe Easter customs and traditions, but the religious significance of many of these may be lost. For example, new Easter clothes. It was part of the baptismal ceremony (and a token still remains) that the candidates for baptism (Catechumens) were given a new white garment to wear its newness and its whiteness both signifying purity. It may seem that Easter is just another excuse for merchandizing (so does Christmas). But we Christians need not regard wearing new or special Easter clothes simply as commercialism or vanity. Christians should try to keep in mind, when wearing something new for this holiday, our New Life in Christ. And we should do our best to make our appearance match the joyousness of the greatest feast of the Church.
The Christian symbolism of Easter bunnies might seem pretty obscure, and it's easy to suppose that the rabbits are simply a pagan symbol of fecundity taken over by Christianity. Even if so, bear in mind that the ancestors of pre-Christian (even pre-historic) pagans at some time knew about the true God Adam and Eve and Noah, for example. Pagan beliefs about God's action in the world and about man's true destiny were far from the truth, of course, but many things can be understood through basic human intelligence and that intelligence comes from God. The coming of spring is a cause for rejoicing for everybody, whether Christians or non-Christians. The Easter bunny is actually a pretty good symbol of God's plan for his creatures (including humans) to "be fruitful and multiply," and of the renewed exhuberance of all creatures in cooperating with God in creating new life. (The Easter bunny might seem to be more a metaphor for God's plan for His creation in Genesis than in the Gospels.) Maybe we should think of the fecundity of rabbits as a symbol of evangelizing, and the many new believers God desires. We could think of the eggs the Easter Rabbit carrys in a basket as representing Christians carrying the message of Christ into the world.
The Easter egg is a symbol of the Resurrection. The shell represents the tomb which could not contain the Resurrected Lord. The chick which `bursts forth' from its lifeless shell is a metaphor for the mystery of the Christ's Resurrection.
Filling baskets with colored Easter eggs is a nearly universal custom in Christian countries, and there are nearly as many traditional ways to dye and decorate eggs as there are ethnic groups. From the very elaborate and expensive Easter eggs made by the jeweler Fabergé for the Russian Czar in the nineteenth century, to the intricately etched Pysanky eggs of the Ukraine and similarly distinctive egg-decorating customs of eastern Europe, to the simple (if messy) kitchen-table food-coloring dyed eggs most Americans know, the Easter egg is revered as a symbol of the Resurrection.
While your family probably has its own traditions about the best way to do Easter eggs, there are articles and library books on the subject which might give you some new ideas. You might use some of the religious symbols illustrating this book in decorating the Easter eggs. One good idea is to paint one of the eggs gold, and write Alleluia on it. The child who discovers the Alleluia egg might be given a special honor, such as lighting the Easter candle.at mealtime.
In some parishes there is a custom of bringing filled Easter baskets to the Easter Vigil, and, after Mass, the priest blesses all the baskets and the eggs, candy, Easter breads or flowers they contain, with holy water. If your parish doesn't do this, or if your children are too young to go to the Easter Vigil, you might want to do this with your children when they set their baskets of eggs out for hiding before bedtime on Holy Saturday. A simple sign of the Cross with holy water could be made by each child on his own basket.