Easter has been an important date in the calendar since the early days of Christianity. It is also a spring festival, and its seasonal themes of resurrection and rebirth are reflected in many rituals and practices. In days gone by Good Friday was one of only two public holidays in the British Isles (the other one was Christmas) so the long Easter weekend, as well as its religious association, became a time for fresh starts, mirth and celebration.
We’ve looked at some traditional practices and examined the ways in which we can celebrate the Easter holidays in our increasingly secular society.
• Spring Cleaning and Fresh Starts
In the Middle Ages, Easter was the time when the fires of winter were extinguished, hearths were swept and strewn with fresh rushes and houses were cleaned. The days are longer and strong sunlight reveals the dust and debris accumulated in the winter months. Throwing open the windows, airing the house, de-cluttering and cleaning are all excellent was of ushering in a new season, and a good way of ensuring that your house is ready for Easter Entertaining.
• New Outfits
The Easter bonnet represents the tradition of wearing new clothes at Easter. Discarding winter woollens and embracing brighter colours and lighter fabrics is another way of reflecting Easter traditions of renewal and rebirth. In the past, it was believed that new clothes should be worn for the Easter blessing in church, or there would be a risk of bringing bad luck. Of course, not everybody could afford a completely new Easter outfit, but a small item such as a bonnet, shawl or ribbon sufficed.
Once the new outfits were acquired, it was inevitable that people would want to show them off in public, hence the informal parade, when crowds gathered in public places, such as parks, and spent the day promenading, flirting and drinking:
“The belles and beaux, from the fineness of the weather, exceeded far, very far, any number that ever were seen at that favourite spot. From six to eight o’clock, on their return to London, it was one continued throng of holiday people of all ranks and descriptions, from Greenwich Park to Westminster Bridge. There was no resisting the torrent; and many an honest young woman who was so yesterday morning, will have fatal cause to repent, before this day twelvemonth, the frolic of tumbling down the hill in the park – drunkenness, riots, battles and thefts, as usual, dignified the proceedings. Not less than one hundred thousand persons were present.”
The Hampshire Chronicle, 28 April 1794
Inevitably the desire to be outside, to enjoy fine weather, to revel in the spring-like sense of brighter days to come, means that Easter is still a sociable, outgoing time of year when, like our Georgian predecessors, we enjoy emerging from our winter hibernation and being with other people.
• Easter Flowers
Flowers inevitably play a big part in Easter celebrations, and have always done so, because they symbolise the growth and regeneration of spring. In Victorian times, floral arrangements of lilies, tulips, pansies, and lilacs adorned both homes and religious establishments and women created lace and beadwork in flower designs to cover tables and shelves.
These days, florists are abundant with spring flowers and garden centres boast a cornucopia of spring bulbs and early summer bedding plants. For many people Easter is the first opportunity to contemplate the upcoming summer season in the garden and an ideal time for planting and planning.
• Easter Eggs
The egg is a symbol of life and rebirth and the tradition of giving eggs at Easter time can be traced back to Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Gauls. In the medieval period eating eggs was forbidden during the 40-day fasting period of Lent, so Easter Sunday – the day on which the fast ended – was greeted with feasting and merriment.
It is thought that the Easter bunny derives from a German tradition of the Easter Hare, which can be dated back to the late 17th century. The custom was that the hare would bring a basket of brightly decorated eggs for children who had been good, which would then be hidden around the garden for the children to find.
Chocolate Easter eggs originated in France and Germany in the early 19th century and in Britain they date back to Victorian times. The first chocolate egg was made in 1873 by the Fry family of Bristol, and two years later Cadbury had also made their first chocolate egg. Today, sales in the Easter period make up 10 per cent of total annual sales of chocolate in the UK.
If you’re planning an Easter Sunday egg-hunt, you can decorate your own Easter eggs by hard boiling eggs for 10 minutes. Stand the eggs in cold water to cool them down. Half-fill a cup with water, a teaspoon of vinegar and a teaspoon of food colouring. Use a wax crayon to draw designs on your egg; dip the egg into the cup of dye – the wax will remain white, highlighting the design against the coloured background. Place the decorated eggs in the egg carton to dry.
• Easter Baking
After the long period of Lenten abstinence, it is scarcely surprising that baking, using lots of eggs and butter, is a popular Easter tradition.
Hot cross buns, traditionally eaten on Good Friday, are spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves. There are many superstitions surrounding them: it is believed that hot cross buns baked on Good Friday will never go mouldy; when taken out to sea they protect against shipwreck; when shared with another person they guarantee friendship.
Simnel case is fruitcake with a twist – a layer of marzipan is included in the middle of the cake and the cake is also ‘iced’ with a layer of marzipan and then adorned with marzipan balls. The cake is stuffed with dried fruit, candied mixed peel, ground almonds and the fruit and zest of an orange.
• Easter Sports
Easter is also the fresh start of the sporting season, and Easter Monday has traditionally been a day of hunting, archery, handball games, horse-racing and dancing. The Leicester Hare Hunt took place every Easter Monday, while the Epping Forest Hunt was a favourite pastime of East Enders in the early 19th century, who travelled out to the woods to track down an elderly stag, which was released from a cart for the purpose. The event became so popular and dangerously overcrowded that it was banned in 1847.
‘Uppies and Downies’ is an Easter sporting tradition that still survives in Cumbria. It has been played since 1779, and is an anarchic free-for-all, with villagers trying to carry a leather ball between the village and the harbour, a distance of about a mile and a half.
• Easter Cards
For most of us Easter is a four-day holiday and a chance to get together with family and friends after the long winter months. We may not choose to participate in the various Easter pursuits, but we will probably be planning Easter lunches, Easter Monday walks, visits to country pubs, garden centres and so on. For those of us who will not be able to see family and close friends this year, we can always look back to the Victorian tradition of sending Easter cards. The Victorians fell in love with the whole concept of greeting cards when the halfpenny stamp was introduced in the 1870s and coloured printing techniques became cheaper. It is estimated that British people still send 40 million Easter cards annually and, as always, a well-chosen card, preferably with a short, handwritten message, is an excellent way of conveying good wishes to people you will not be seeing over the holiday period.
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