With Easter just around the corner, the shops are full of chocolaty treats - eggs, bunnies, chicks and a myriad of other assorted delights. In fact, it feels like they have been in the shops for months! As I was wandering around my local supermarket, which is stuffed full of chocolate goodies, it got me thinking about the meaning of Easter, the different traditions and and how there came to be so much association with food To understand this we need to think a little about the origins and history of Easter.
Easter is the time when Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. The word 'Easter' comes from two old pagan spring festivals - the European festival of 'Ostara' that celebrated new life and the Arabian Sun festival of 'Ishtar'. The early Christians turned these festivals of new life into meaning the new life that Jesus gave the world when he rose from the dead. Jesus died at the time of the Jewish Passover festival, when Jewish people remember that God saved them from slavery in Egypt, and so Easter is celebrated around the same time every year. Jesus was a Jew and so celebrated the Passover, which takes place in the first month of the Jewish New Year. The Jewish calendar follows the cycle of the moon so the date of Easter changes according to this. The first Jewish Christians celebrated Easter along with Passover and, as Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday, Easter Sunday is always the first Sunday after Passover.
The period leading up to Easter is known as Lent, which lasts for 40 days. It starts on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Eve, also know as Easter Saturday. If you actually counted the days you would see that they come to more than 40. This is because the Sundays in Lent don't count! Lent is a period when Christians prepare for Easter and remember the 40 days when Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the desert. During this time he didn't eat or drink anything so some Christians give up food and 'fast' for Lent but others just give up chocolate, cakes and other luxuries.
SHROVE TUESDAY (PANCAKE DAY)
Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day is the day before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday. The word 'Shrove' comes from the old English word 'Shriven' meaning to go to confession and as Lent always starts on a Wednesday, the day before became known as Shriven Tuesday, later Shrove Tuesday. On this day, people used to use up all the fattening ingredients in their house so that they were ready to fast for Lent and as these ingredients were mostly eggs and milk they would mix them with flour and make pancakes. Pancake day is still celebrated in the UK and many towns and villages hold pancake races, where people race with a frying pan whilst tossing a pancake in it. In other countries Shrove Tuesday is known as 'Mardi Gras', meaning 'Fat Tuesday' in French, and also comes from the idea of using up food before Lent. Many countries hold Mardi Gras carnivals when people dress up and take part in a parade.
MOTHERING SUNDAY (MOTHER'S DAY)
Mothering Sunday in the UK is always in the middle of Lent on the 4th Sunday. It is a Christian holiday to celebrate mothers and, traditionally, people returned to their 'mother church' - the main church or cathedral for the area. People who did this were said to have gone 'a-mothering' and this became a day when servants were given the day off to visit their mother church, usually with their own mothers and other family members. Children would pick flowers along the way to give to their mothers and eventually this evolved into the tradition of giving gifts to mothers on this day. Another name for this day was Simnel Sunday, named after the practice of baking Simnel cakes, which were first made by servant girls to take home to their mothers. A simnel cake is a rich fruit cake with a layer of marzipan in the middle and another layer on the top. It would be finished off with eleven marzipan balls, signifying the eleven faithful disciples of Jesus (the twelve disciples minus Judas). There was traditionally a relaxation of Lenten vows on this Sunday in celebration of family and church.
Good Friday is the Friday before Easter Sunday and is an important day for Christians as it is the day when they remember that Jesus was crucified. When people were crucified their hands and feet were nailed to a cross and so a cross has become a symbol of the Christian faith and it is customary to eat hot cross buns on Good Friday - yeast dough buns with currants and raisins in them and a cross on the top. However, these buns were eaten all year round in pagan times. The bun symbolised the moon and the four quarters represented the four seasons. You can eat them cold but I like them toasted and spread with lots of butter!
Easter Sunday is the most important day of the year for Christians. It is the day when they remember that Jesus defeated evil and rose from the dead. It is traditional to give out Easter Eggs on Easter Sunday. Eggs and chicks are associated with Easter because in pagan times they were associated with new life and fertility and for early Christians they helped them remember the resurrection and new life through Jesus. Eggs were used as an Easter symbol all over the world and in Russia Czar Alexander III and Czar Nicholas II commissioned some fabulous eggs from the jeweller Carl Faberge. Rabbits, hares and lambs also came to be associated with Easter because the young of these animals (new life) are generally born in Spring, around Easter time. Lamb is eaten as the main Easter Day meal in many countries.
You can find a selection of Easter goodies in the Holiday Cake section of the Website Gallery.
I am sure there are lots of other traditions that I have missed out but congratulations if you have managed to read this far! If I have left out your favourite Easter food or tradition then why not tell me about it? There are many different foods and traditions connected with Easter and I'd love to know what Easter means to you. Join the conversation and leave me a comment below.
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Wishing you all a very happy and peaceful Easter weekend.
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