James Lloyd muses on the history of Easter and takes a quick look at some of the customs by which it was observed in his home county.
Regular visitors to this column will be familiar with the author’s disdain for the determination of folklorists (and people who like to think that they are folklorists) for deriving everything rural, rustic or involving the colour green to pre-Christian religion. The categorisation of Easter as a pagan festival is one of the most common and yet moronically lazy examples of this assumption.
“Eostre,” or so the theory goes, “was originally a pagan goddess of the spring, whose festival the church stole.”
This argument makes the standard mistake of treating all polytheistic religions as interchangeably “pagan”. Eostre was a goddess of the Anglo-Saxons, yet Christians were celebrating the Resurrection long before Christianity reached Britain, so why would they have borrowed a pagan goddess for the name, timing or theme of their festival?
It is not even certain that there ever was a cult of Eostre. Our only source for the goddess is the eighth-century Northumbrian polymath Bede, who, like so many of our sources on supposed pagan beliefs, was himself a Christian. The controversial suggestion has been made that Bede invented the goddess himself, extrapolating fallaciously from the name of the festival. Eostre is the Old English comparative form of the adjective “east”, so that Easter is literally “more east”, a reference to the earlier and brighter dawn.
The argument also ignores the fact that “Easter” is only the festival’s English name. In French (for example), it is known as Pâques, deriving ultimately from the Hebrew Pesach. This is the Hebrew name for the Passover, the festival that Christ marked with His disciples on the first Maundy Thursday before His arrest. This name even appears in the obscure English word Pace, which appears in the expression “Pace Egg play”, a form of mummery traditionally performed at Easter in parts of northern England. No one, however, argues from the mere similarity of name that Pâques is really a Jewish festival, or that the Christians stole it from Judaism (even though its explicit association with Passover means that, arguably, it is and they did).
Perhaps Easter eggs (or Pace eggs) provide alternative evidence of at least a pagan contribution to the festival. While it is certainly true that eggs are a symbol of new life in many cultures, there is also a practical reason for their association with Easter. In Catholic times, meat was forbidden during Lent and that included eggs. Hens, however, are unaware of the subtleties of the Christian calendar and will go on laying regardless. To let the eggs go off would be wasteful, so instead they were hardboiled and saved until Lent was over. By the time Easter Day came round, people had a stockpile of boiled eggs that they could not possibly eat in one go, so, naturally, they played with them, rolling them downhill, decorating them or exchanging them as gifts.
Yet there are other customs that all the modern scepticism in the world cannot quite clear of the taint of paganism. One such custom, though sadly fallen into disuse, is that of the Holly Boys and Ivy Girls. This was performed in certain villages in East Kent on Shrove Tuesday, part of the revelry that preceded the solemnity of Lent. The boys of the village would make an effigy out of holly, while their female counterparts wove a similar likeness out of ivy. The effigies would be erected on opposite sides of the village and then the two teams had to steal that belonging to their enemy, take it back to base and burn it.
This tradition was recorded as far back as 1661 and has led to a lot of speculation. Some commentators have (inevitably) perceived some heathenish rite of fertility. Others have compared it to a French Catholic custom of burying an effigy, the representative of good cheer and old living, on Ash Wednesday. It is probable, with the custom now lapsed and little information recorded about it while it was still vital, that its origin and rationale will never be known but, in the present author’s opinion, its confinement to East Kent should warn us against deriving it from some universal belief system.
In addition to peculiar customs, different counties also had their own peculiar culinary tastes. In Kent, Lent was pie pudding time. Pie pudding was developed when the strictures of a Catholic lent forced people to be creative and it was traditionally eaten throughout the penitential season, up to and including Easter Day itself, until its popularity waned in the nineteenth century. To describe it would be boring. Instead, in something of a departure for The Rural Voice, you will be told how to make it. You will need:
• 2 ½ pt. milk
• 5 lb. ground rice
• ½ lb. butter
• ½ lb. caster sugar
• 8 eggs
• mixed spice
• 2 oz. candied peel
• currants (at own discretion)
• puff or short pastry
Boil most of the milk, perhaps with a few laurel leaves in it, for a quarter of an hour. Mix the ground rice with a little cold milk until quite smooth. Strain the boiling milk and add it to the rice mixture. Beat the eggs. Take the mixture off the heat and stir in the butter and beaten eggs and spice. Line a dish with the pastry and pour in the mixture. Strew the top with the peel and currants. Bake for twenty to twenty-five minutes in a moderate oven.
In modern times, Easter has become rather monotonous. The Victorian indulgence of the chocolate egg has displaced the hen’s hard-boiled produce the world over and the customs that existed in regional nooks have either become similarly universal (such as the originally Northumbrian custom of egg-rolling) or have dropped out of use altogether. There is, in principle, nothing wrong with borrowing someone else’s traditions (Christianity itself is a Palestinian import, via Italy) but must it be at the cost of one’s own? If you find the time in the holiday, pop down to the library and try to find out how your county used to celebrate the festival. You might find something worth bringing back.
Easter, after all, is about resurrection.