Easter is, of course, one of the major Christian festivals across the world. While the religious meaning is the same, I find the history of many Easter traditions — and some of the cultural differences surrounding its celebration in the United Kingdom and the United States —interesting.
Easter in Britain has its beginnings long before the arrival of Christianity.
According to "Easter Celebrations in the UK" on learnenglish.de, many theologians believe Easter itself is named after Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn and spring.
Most of the symbols and traditions of Easter are connected with renewal, birth, good luck and fertility. European settlers brought Easter traditions to North America and, as always, the U.S. has amalgamated many of these to make them uniquely American.
Exchanging and eating Easter eggs is a popular custom in many countries, but before they were replaced by chocolate, real eggs were used, usually from chicken. The eggs were hard-boiled and dyed in bright colors and patterns to represent spring and light.
I wonder what the reaction would be if today you gave a small child a hard-boiled egg on Easter Sunday.
An old English game is one in which real eggs are rolled either against one another or down a hill. The owner of the egg that stays uncracked the longest wins. This obviously pre-dates the Xbox, the iPad and the smartphone.
Of course, everyone knows that Easter occurs at a different time each year, observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. The festival can occur on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25.
Easter is considered the end of the winter and of Lent, traditionally a time of fasting. That makes Easter a time of fun and celebration.
Turning to the days of Easter, Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, is remembered by Christians as the day of the Last Supper, when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and established the ceremony known as the Eucharist. The word “Maundy" comes from the French word "mande," meaning "command" or "mandate,” and comes from the command given by Christ during the Last Supper to "love one another as I have loved you.”
In Britain, the queen takes part in the Ceremony of the Royal Maundy, in which Maundy money is given to senior citizens (one man and one woman for each year of the sovereign's age — now 86 years old ) usually chosen for service done to their community. They receive ceremonial red and white purses that contain coins made for the occasion.
The white purse contains one ceremonial coin for each year of the monarch's reign, and the red purse contains real money. Up until the 17th century, the king or queen also would wash the feet of selected poor people both as a gesture of humility and in remembrance of Jesus's washing the feet of the disciples.
Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the Friday before Easter. It is called Good Friday, which some people think comes from it once being called “God's Friday.”
Hot cross buns, which are eaten throughout the Easter season, first were baked in England to be served on Good Friday. These small, lightly sweet yeast buns contain raisins or currants and sometimes chopped candied fruit. Before baking, a cross is slashed in the top of the bun and, once baked, the cross is filled with confectioners' sugar icing.
Another traditional way of breaking the Lenten fast is to eat some simnel cake, which is a raised cake with a crust made of fine flour and water, colored yellow with saffron, and filled with a rich plum cake.
It also includes plenty of candied lemon peel and dried fruits. And what about the Easter bunny? This may actually be an Easter hare, who was allegedly a companion of the ancient moon goddess and of Eostre. The bunny, as an Easter symbol, seems to have its origins in Germany — it was first mentioned in German writings in the 16th century. The first edible Easter bunnies, made of pastry and sugar, appeared in Germany during the early 1800s. Children in many European countries and the United States believe that if they are good, the Easter Bunny will leave chocolate eggs for them.
Women would make and wear special Easter bonnets that were decorated with flowers and ribbons. Even today, in London, an annual Easter parade features hand-made bonnets. Award-winning author and journalist Janine di Giovanni summed up this wonderful time of year when she said, “Easter is meant to be a symbol of hope, renewal and new life.”
God bless America, and happy Easter!
Frances grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009. She can be contacted at email@example.com or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.