Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:58 am
It should be simple enough to write a bit about Easter, I thought. After all, it is the most important festival in the Christian calendar, and a good deal of Britain’s heritage, at least for the last fourteen centuries or so, has been informed by a Christian tradition. So we should be sure of our ground. Of course, everyone knows that a touch of paganism creeps into our rituals here and there too, adding a little juice and shedding a dim light on some of our even older customs.
You start getting into trouble when you say things like, ‘everyone knows’.
A bit about Easter
Let’s start with the easier bit, the Easter story. It is a powerful story, from Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, through to the Last Supper (Maundy Thursday), arrest, trial and the awful suffering of the crucifixion on Good Friday. Jesus’s body is placed in a guarded cave tomb, which is covered with an enormous rock. But, by Sunday, the rock had been mysteriously moved and the body had vanished. The authorities believed it had been stolen. But the disciples believed Jesus had been resurrected. This, of course, is at the heart of Christianity. The crucifixion and resurrection mobilised an entire religion. Life triumphs over death, there is a new beginning, a re-birth.
Even a contented cynic like me can respect the Easter story, and the faith behind it; nor would most people dispute that Easter is anything other than a Christian celebration. Though I’m sure the lost scrolls of Horus, the saga of the great pink pixie and other bits of faux twaddle have plenty of alternatives to offer, none of them has made much difference to Britain.
It is believed that Christ celebrated the Last Supper on the first day of the Jewish celebration of Passover (Pesach in Hebrew), which dates back to about 1300BC and commemorates the liberation of the Children of Israel, when Moses led them out of Egypt. We still use the adjective paschal, derived from the Latin (via Greek and Hebrew) for Passover, to refer to Easter. Because of this, the dates of Easter and Passover – which are both movable feasts – often coincide. The First Council of Nicaea in 325AD, the first official meeting of church authorities, determined that Easter should be the first Sunday following the paschal full moon, which is the full moon that falls on or after the vernal (spring) equinox. Differences in calendars mean that Western Christians celebrate Easter on different dates to their Eastern Orthodox brethren.
But why is Easter called Easter in Britain, and in other English-speaking places?
Well, many people believe there is some kind of association with an ancient deity, Eostre, or Ostara, a Germanic goddess of dawn. You regularly come across things like the following, which is from that font of all useless and dodgy knowledge, The Reader’s Digest Book of Strange Stories, Amazing Facts:
“Eostre is the Goddess of Dawn and her festival is held around the vernal equinox, the date when day and night are of equal length.”
That’s pretty definite – as are many other references you come across. The problem is that it assumes a great deal, because Eostre is about as elusive as the real Easter bunny. In fact, the only historical reference to Eostre was made by our old chum Bede in De ratione temporum, (On the reckoning of Time), written in 725AD. In this, talking of the names by which the English (Anglo-Saxons) knew the months of the year, Bede says of April:
“Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated ‘Paschal month’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.”
Bede does not elaborate and, other than that single reference, there is apparently no other historic evidence for the existence of this goddess. No statues, no amulets, no memorials – nothing. We hear plenty about other gods – Woden (Odin), Thunor (Thor), Frigg and Tiw; but nothing about Eostre. Then there’s the etymology of eostre in its various forms; it is almost certainly old German, possibly derived from the word for east or sunrise. So, was Bede right? He often wasn’t. But, on the balance of probability, he would be unlikely to make it up. So did the Anglo-Saxons worship a great goddess of the sunrise, a good witch of the east, equivalent to the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, or the Greek, Eos? It is quite possible, even probable, that they did, even if only at a local level. The trouble is, we simply don’t know.
Anyway, the fact is that, for some unknown reason, the biggest event in the Christian calendar appears to have a non-Christian name in the English-speaking world. Was this another example of the early church making use of existing custom and practice? There is an awful lot about this on the Internet, some of it interesting, some of it sharing similar ground with the Hobbit. It is a debate we can ignore, or pass over, here; but if you want to delve further, you can do a lot worse than starting with an excellent article exploring Eostre’s existence and why Easter isn’t a pagan holiday on the website “And sometimes he’s so nameless”. Read the comments too – they’re fascinating.
You might be interested to hear that another old chum, the Rev E Cobham Brewer, in his wonderful Dictionary of Phrase & Fable (1894 edition), refers to April – Ostermonath – as the month of the ost (east) wind. He also says that it was formerly a common belief that the sun danced on Easter Day.
Eggs have long been a symbol of the universe, creation, life, fertility, rebirth and springtime, occurring in many ancient cultures – Persian, Egyptian, Jewish, Roman and Hindu, for example. In Christianity, the egg often represents the rebirth of man. Some see the egg as symbolic of the stone that blocked Jesus’s tomb. There is also an association between eggs and Mary Magdalene. One story says she took eggs to the tomb of Jesus, to share with the other women mourners there, but that when she met the risen Christ at the empty tomb, the eggs turned blood red. Colouring eggs red is, apparently, a Christian tradition. You probably won’t find any of that in the Bible, though…
In Britain, it is thought that the tradition of Easter eggs developed in the Middle Ages because eggs were a ready source of food after Lent. Decorating eggs seems to have been a practice in several countries, particularly in the east, for many centuries. Several countries also have a custom of egg rolling, which some say originated with farmers hoping for fertile crops. In Britain, egg-rolling goes back centuries and is known as pace-egging – from Pasch – or Passover. It is apparently particularly popular in the north and is very big in Preston. In the 19th century, the custom was exported to the USA, where it is now part of the White House calendar – a timeless tradition since 1878…
In modern Britain, supermarket shelves groan under the weight of chocolate eggs. I spotted one in our local store, large and beautifully wrapped, going for £40.00; what kind of idiot pays forty quid for a chocolate egg?! Then I found that Harrods was selling a Columbian milk chocolate egg for £60.00 – but I guess that Columbian milk is special, and has to come a long way. From what I can make out, chocolate Easter eggs originated in France and Germany, but were first mass-produced by Cadbury in 1875; they were hollow and filled with sugared almonds. My personal favourites used to be small, caramel-filled eggs; they were about two inches long and came in a pack of about 8. Yum.
Rabbits are not native to Britain – and neither is the Easter bunny. Mind you, some people think that the Easter bunny was really a hare, and the hare does have a history in these islands, being regarded as both unlucky and lucky since the Middle Ages. It is suggested that witches readily turn into hares, though I’ve never experienced that myself. Julius Caesar said the Celts of Britain deemed the hare to be sacred. These days, some folk will even tell you that the hare is a symbol of the goddess Eostre – you know, the one we don’t know anything about. Be that as it may, the origins of the Paschal Bunny seem to depend on whether you subscribe to an egg-laying rabbit tradition (yes, really), an association with the Virgin Mary (which I don’t even begin to understand), the obvious connection with fertility, birth etc (see bonking like bunnies) – or any combination thereof. I think you will search in vain for references to the Easter Bunny in the Bible. However, the arrival of this, frankly weird, beast on these shores, it seems, can be blamed on German or Dutch Lutherans, who took the idea of the Osterhase, the Easter rabbit (or hare) with them to the United States in the 18th century, from which it was exported back across the Atlantic, ostenwards as it were, to Britain. The Easter bunny allegedly distributes coloured eggs to children who have been good, a general notion which has a certain similarity with another time of year – just a different costume.
Naturally, like eggs, the Easter bunny is available in chocolate form. Harrods will sell you a Belgian one for a modest £10.00, though it’s called Godiva which suggests it might not be modest at all. In fact, it is possible to obtain a wide variety of chocolate creatures at Easter, including (obviously) chicks and lambs. More mystifying are chocolate unicorns, cows, pigs, caterpillars, gruffalos and, suggesting that Easter is actually far older than the church thinks it is, chocolate dinosaurs.
For many of us, the hot cross bun is an Easter treat – though, sadly, they are now available most of the year round. They don’t have to be eaten hot, but, arguably, they do need to be cut open and spread with butter. In Britain, a bun is kind of small, sweet loaf; hot cross buns traditionally contain raisins, mixed spices, candied peel and have a cross on top made of almond paste or shortcrust pastry. They were regarded as a post-Lent treat and traditionally eaten on Good Friday. An old rhyme, dating from the 18th century or earlier, will be familiar to many:
Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot cross buns!
So what is the origin of the hot cross bun? Well, like most of our Easter customs, it’s a little hard to pin down, but the earliest reference seems to be as recent as 1733. The cross is obviously cited by the church as evidence of a Christian background. Thomas Dudley Fosbroke in British Monachism: or Mannners and Customs of the Monks and Nuns of England says that the buns were made of the dough kneaded for the host and were marked with the cross accordingly. That most reliable source, the Reader’s Digest, says that women used to bake little ‘magic’ wheat cakes all over Europe around Easter. Brewer quotes Fosbroke and also goes on to say:
The round bun represents the full moon and the cross represents the four quarters of the moon. They were made in honour of Diana by the ancient Roman priests, somewhere about the vernal equinox. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans worshipped the moon.
Various sources claim that two carbonised loaves marked with a cross were found in the ruins of Herculaneum, buried by the same eruption of Vesuvius that froze Pompeii in time in 79AD. Oh – and guess what? Pagan Saxons baked breads slashed with crosses to honour Eostre, goddess of spring and fertility; of course they did.
These days, hot cross buns come in a bewildering variety of flavours, including chocolate (of course) and chilli (why?). The best news is that they are meant to be lucky and are able to be kept for twelve months without turning mouldy. However, I can tell you, from personal experience, that the ones I bought from the local branch of Booths go mouldy much sooner than that.
Old Easter joke: What do you get if you pour boiling water down a rabbit hole? Answer – a hot, cross, bunny.
One Easter, many years ago, my mother announced we were going to have a Simnel cake. Despite this delicacy never appearing on any previous occasion, we were informed that this was a well-known Easter tradition and, after a duly dramatic baking session, the cake was produced with something of a flourish. And I haven’t had it since. The reason I mention it now is because no one has suggested that Eostre baked one.
Simnel cake is a light fruit cake with a marzipan layer in the middle, a marzipan layer on top, and decorated with eleven marzipan balls, or eggs, representing Jesus’s disciples minus Judas the traitor. It is then grilled for a short while and can, additionally, be decorated with flowers.
Its origins are unexpectedly obscure (please note, this site uses irony), but it seems to have once been associated with Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent. Some believe the name is derived from the Latin simila, referring to very fine flour made from wheat. Other theories include the myth that the cake was created by Lambert Simnel, pretender to the English throne at the time of Henry VII, who was put to work in the royal kitchens – though Simnel cakes were known before that, apparently. The story I really like is that Simnel cake was invented by two people, Simon and Nell.
Oddly enough, Brewer says that Simnel cakes are rich cakes eaten in Lancashire in mid-Lent, and are of German origin.
Everyone says Simnel cake is quite difficult to make – so here is Paul Hollywood’s recipe for one.
That concludes a bit about Easter. Does it matter whether you celebrate Christ’s resurrection, the sunrise, fertility, or the coming of spring? Passover? All of them? I think you should celebrate at least one and eat a chocolate goddess while you’re doing it.