Easter, the holiest feast-day in the Christian calendar, presents two puzzling features which need explanation, though they are only marginal to its importance. The first is its date. It is unique among Christian festivals in having no fixed date but moving through early spring (within certain limits); Lent, Ascension Day and Whitsun (Pentecost) move correspondingly, for their dates depend on that of Easter. The reason is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which Easter celebrates, took place during the Jewish Passover, and the Passover is never held on a fixed date but according to a moon-based calendar. A date based on moon phases necessarily drifts from year to year in relation to the solar calendar and requires complex calculations. After several generations of uncertainty and dispute, in 325 AD a Church Council set Easter at the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox (21 March); this date is still used in Western Christendom, but later calendar changes created discrepancies with the Orthodox Churches.
The second puzzle only concerns English-speakers. English is the only language which uses the word ‘Easter’, apart from one early medieval German dialect which had the related ‘Ostarun’, and its origins are mysterious. Throughout the rest of Europe the festival was (and usually still is) called by some term derived from Latin pascha or its Greek equivalent paskha, themselves coming from pasah, the Hebrew word for Passover.
This first writer to record the term ‘Easter’ is the Venerable Bede (672-735), who gives it a pagan origin. In his treatise on the calendar, De Temporum Ratione (section 13), he lists what the names of the months had been in pre-Christian England. April, he says, had been Eastur-monath, named after ‘a certain goddess to whom the Teutons in pagan times were accustomed to offer sacrifices during the month of April, who was called Eostra’. But there is no mention of her in any of the other sources of information about Germanic religion. Some scholars therefore have doubted whether Bede’s statement is reliable, since he or his informants might simply have inferred the existence of a deity by ‘back-formation’ from the puzzling name of the month. (Bede similarly explains the pagan name for March by referring to an equally unknown goddess Hreda). But current scholarship tends to support Bede, especially since the discovery in 1958 of Romano-German votive tablets dating from around 150-250 AD dedicated to goddesses called matrones Austriahenea, another name seemingly derived from the same root, which is related to words meaning ‘east(wards)’ and ‘dawn’, appropriate for a spring deity. It should be added that Eostre had nothing to do with hares; Julius Caesar said British Celts regarded hares as sacred, but no source records Anglo-Saxons as attributing religious significance to the animal.
In the medieval church Holy Week and Easter were marked by dramatic services symbolically commemorating the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus; these were suppressed at the Protestant Reformation, but modernised versions are still used in Roman Catholic and High Church Anglican liturgy. Churches have always been lavishly decorated on Easter Sunday; evergreens used to predominate, especially box and yew, as symbols of everlasting life, but nowadays flowers are preferred, with gold and white as favourite colours. Some families also deck graves at this time.
One major liturgical symbol is the kindling of ‘new light’ between Holy Saturday and Easter Day, ideally at midnight or at dawn, to represent Christ the Light, or Sun, of the world. In folk tradition, as recorded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was commonly believed throughout England that the sun itself danced for joy as it rose on Easter Sunday. Many people used to gather on hilltops before sunrise in the hope of seeing this dance; in the West Country, some hoped to see the figure of the Lamb of God in the centre of the sun’s disc. At Clyro in Radnorshire in the 1870s people went to a certain pool ‘to see the sun dance and play on the water and the angels who were at the Resurrection play backwards and forwards before the sun’ – no doubt ripples on the surface favoured this effect. The custom had died out in England by the end of the nineteenth century, but children were still doing it in Ireland in the 1920s.
Equally widespread was the belief that it was essential to wear at least one item of new clothing on Easter Sunday, to have good luck through the following year. If you did not, birds would spatter their droppings onto you; one Irish nurse even warned a child that crows would peck his eyes out. Nowadays, when having new clothes is no longer a rare event in most people’s lives, the old custom has morphed into something more sharply defined, but also more frivolous: the Easter Bonnet. In New York, from the 1920s onwards, an Easter Parade was held in Fifth Avenue, for which women wore their prettiest dresses and hats; in 1933 a hit song by Irving Berlin focussed attention on the hats:
In your Easter Bonnet
With all the frills upon it
You’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter Parade.
Schools and youth groups now commonly arrange competitions for children to decorate Easter Bonnets and be photographed in local papers.
The link between Easter and eggs can be found in many European countries and takes many different forms, e.g. the display of elaborately decorated eggs, the exchange of painted eggs as gifts during or after the Easter Mass, games played with eggs, children hunting for real or chocolate eggs, etc. There was originally a practical reason behind this: throughout medieval Europe, and up to modern times in Catholic and Orthodox countries, eggs were a forbidden food under the rules of the Lent fast. But spring is the peak laying time for hens. The resulting glut of eggs was preserved by hard-boiling or in waterglass, and then used up at Easter.
English Easter egg customs, first recorded in 1778, show a sharp division between northern counties where they featured strongly (as they also did in Lowland Scotland), and midland and southern counties where they were almost unknown. Even now, when the chocolate egg is a universal Easter treat, northern England keeps up its characteristic games and customs. These are known by the general name of ‘pace-egging’, ‘peace-egging’, or ‘paste-egging’; ‘pace’ is the oldest form, from Latin pascha, but is often replaced by the more familiar words. One custom was carried on by parties of children, dressed up in whatever finery they could contrive, who went from house to house singing and asking for eggs; some householders would give eggs already dyed, others plain eggs which children took home for their mothers to decorate. One method was to apply small flower-petals and leaves to the egg, tightly bound on with cloth, and hard-boil it in water strongly tinted with onionskins, coffee grounds, gorse blossom, cochineal, or beetroot; the pattern would stand out white against the dyed parts of the shell. Alternatively, the whole shell could be dyed and patterns and writing later scratched upon it. Making such pace-eggs can be a highly skilled craft.
Egg-rolling was a widely popular game, usually played on Easter Monday, not the Sunday. Children would roll their eggs, either dyed or plain but always very hard-boiled, down some suitable slope; they were then eaten. In the 1950s it was still common in Scotland, in England north of the Trent, and in Ireland in Ulster, Wicklow, Kilkenny and Wicklow. Some towns, including Chester, Derby and Scarborough, have traditional sites for the game, the two most famous being Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and Avenham Park in Preston, where it is still enthusiastically practised.
Though visiting houses to ask for eggs has been a children’s custom in recent generations, this was not always so. In the 1880s the Lancashire folklorists John Harland and T. T. Wilkinson told how ‘young men in groups varying from three to twenty, dressed in various fantastic garbs and wearing masks – some of the groups accompanied by a player or two upon the violin – go from house to house singing, dancing and capering’. A further elaboration was the Pace-Egg (or Peace-Egg) Play, which was peculiar to Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria and differed from other versions of the widespread Mummers’ Play in that it was performed at Easter, instead of the more usual Christmas/New Year season. Cheap printed texts (chapbooks) were produced from the mid eighteenth century till the First World War. As with other Mummers’ Plays, the action centred on the fight between a hero and one or more adversaries, here usually Saint George and Bold Slasher, in which one is killed and then revived by a comic Doctor. Minor characters, not involved in the action, include the drunkard Old Tosspot and ‘Molly Masket with eggs in her basket’, who is of course a man in drag. Since the 1930s many schools have taken up this tradition, notably Calder Valley High School at Midgley in West Yorkshire, where it is performed by teenagers.
by Jacqueline Simpson, 2015