British Easter Customs: making Easter eggciting
Easter, like any other, is a festival synonymous with many symbols and customs:
It’s a mish-mash of the resurrection of Christ, chocolate eggs, painted hard-boiled eggs, Maundy money and a rabbit all rolled into one. So a festival as muddled as any other on the British and global calendar then. And it’s a moveable feast at that.
So let’s get the latter point out of the way.
Calculating when Easter Day/Easter Sunday will fall
For Christians, the actual point of Easter Sunday is not eating your bodyweight in chocolate eggs but celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But why does it change every year? I won’t lie, I’m always confused by this.
Time and Date.com tells us that: ‘According to the Bible, Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred around the time of the Jewish Passover – celebrated on the first full moon following the vernal equinox.’
By the end of the 2nd century there were some churches celebrating Easter on the day of the Passover and others celebrating it on the following Sunday.
Not terribly helpful you’ll agree.
So, in 325CE (common era) the council of Nicaea (now known as Turkey) established that Easter would be held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. And so, from that day to this, the date of Easter depends on an ecclesiastical approximation of March 21 for the vernal equinox. Hence there’s a 35-day span for celebrating a one-time event.
If that’s still as clear as mud and it is a long and complex tale, try this article from Christianity Today.
So that’s the reason for the season and the confusion over the timing dealt with. Now to crack open a few other Easter traditions and aspects – starting with the name: Easter.
What’s in a name?
Similarly to the modern Dutch ooster and the German Ostern, Easter came from an Old English word: Eastrun. Or Estru. Or Estre and Eostre. Take your pick.
There’s an accepted theory that it’s derived from the name of a goddess mentioned by Bede, the 7th-8th century English monk. But it is only a theory. Chances are this was mere speculation on Bede’s part because there’s no firm evidence of such a goddess existing.
Maundy Thursday: Show me da money
Maundy Thursday is the Thursday before Good Friday – the day that Christ died on the cross. Or did he? This article from the Huffington Post with the snappy title ‘The Day Christ Died – was it on a Thursday or a Friday?’ argues otherwise.
An aside: Good Friday – doesn’t this seem an odd name for a day that someone was crucified on? The chances are it was once ‘God’s Friday’ or even Holy Friday. Makes sense huh?
Be that as it may, Christians remember Maundy Thursday as the day of the Last Supper. It was then that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and established the ceremony known as the Eucharist.
The word ‘Maundy’ has its origins in the French word, “Mande,” meaning “command” or “mandate”. It’s taken from the command given by Christ at the Last Supper, “love one another as I have loved you.”
In Britain, the Queen takes part in the Ceremony of the Royal Maundy. Something that dates back to Edward I. And this is where the money comes in. Well now it does. Once upon a time our monarchs did the foot bath thing but now avoid that and simply dole out purses. Can you blame them? Not me.
Maundy Money is distributed to deserving senior citizens – one man and one woman for each year of the sovereign’s age. They’re usually chosen for service to their community. They’re given two ceremonial stringed purses: one white and one red. The white one contains your normal British currency and the red one contains Maundy coins. Minted for the occasion, the amount given corresponds in pence either to the Queen’s current age or her length of time on the throne. There’s conflicting information on this. In either event, the longer the reign or the older the monarch – the bigger the booty.
Before moving on to the non-Christian elements of Easter a quick mention of Palm Sunday. It would be rude not to.
Easter week begins on Palm Sunday. Why Palm Sunday? Well because, in Roman times it was the custom to welcome royalty by waving palms. A bit like ticker-tape if you like. Hence, when Jesus pitched up in Jerusalem on what’s now known as Palm Sunday, he arrived to a carpet of palms on the streets and people waving them.
The Eggcellent part of the Easter festival
Easter eggs were not always made of chocolate. They were once actual eggs. Specially decorated they were given out to celebrate the Easter festival.
It’s alleged that this custom began in Mesopotamia where they stained eggs red to commemorate the blood of Christ and the crucifixion. When cracked open they symbolized the empty tomb.
Though note that eggs have been used as symbols long before Jesus was on the scene. So I guess then they were just …. eggs?
The Easter Bunny
It’s an odd one this – given that the Easter Bunny might actually be a hare. Yup – that long-eared bundle of fluff associated with being jugged is your actual deliverer of the Easter eggs.
Still I imagine that, as a symbol of fertility, the hare is as suitable as the rabbit as a fertility symbol being a prolific breeder itself.
It’s possible that the bunny as an Easter symbol originated in Germany. Mentioned in German writings in the 16th century, the hare was an alleged companion of the ancient Moon goddess and of Eostre. Yes, the one who probably never existed. Not even as a ‘mythical’ goddess. I’m detecting a theme here.
Put on your Easter bonnet
Back in the day Easter was a traditional day to tie the knot. Which may explain why it’s common to dress up for Easter.
The Easter bonnet, any new or fancy hat worn at Easter, likely stems from the tradition of wearing new clothes at Easter.
And most folk of a certain age have got the term and the notion ‘Easter Bonnet’ fixed in their collective consciousness by Irving Berlin using the American Easter Parade as his frame of reference.
Get your buns out
I refer of course to Hot Cross Buns. Traditionally eaten on Good Friday, a hot cross bun is a sweet, spiced bun made with currants or raisins and marked with a cross on the top. For reasons that ought to be obvious by now.
For fans of GBBO here’s Paul Hollywood’s recipe. Or, if you prefer an Easter biscuit, Health4All have a recipe for Easter biscuits that counts cassia oil as an ingredient. Cassia being significant here because it’s probable it was used in embalming Christ’s body. Of course, if you’re making biscuits then a biscuit cutter could come in handy. SED Developments have biscuit/cookie cutters in all manner of designs. This is their website: https://sed-developments.co.uk/home/designs/ and this is their Etsy shop: http://stores.ebay.co.uk/4pointsleisure/Cookie-Cutters-/_i.html?_fsub=21872492017
Let them eat cake
The simnel cake is the traditional way of breaking the Lenten fast. Yet, did you know that the simnel cake was once associated with Mothering Sunday?
The obscure and the odd
Of course, Britain wouldn’t be Britain without a smattering of weird and wonderful Easter traditions mixed into the festival.
So aside from dying, or painting and exchanging eggs, or hiding them for an egg hunt, there’s rolling hard-boiled eggs down hills. Why? I mean – just why?!
But it gets wackier.
This BBC America article cites 5 surprising Easter traditions. Maundy Thursday we’ve covered but Bottle Kicking, Egg Jarping and the Nutter’s Dance are new to me. And if you don’t believe me – here’s the proof:
Now. Hop it!
PS: If you enjoyed this you might also want to tuck into my blog all about Shrove Tuesday: https://www.aaedits.co.uk/blog/shrove-tuesday-pancake-day-traditions/