Easter eggs are great and it’s fun to watch children search for them before settling into a satisfying brunch or dinner. There are a number of traditional foods and activities that are associated with Easter and each family picks and chooses which ones to follow. But where do all the traditional foods and activities come from?
Ham: The Early Traditional Easter Meat
In the U.S., most families that celebrate Easter have ham for dinner. In the days before refrigeration, this would have been more for practical reasons than tradition. In the early days of U.S. history, meat would have been killed in the fall.
Unlike what we do today, families couldn’t just throw the meat in a freezer and forget about it. Any pork leftover from the bleak winter months had to be cured before Lent for use in the spring. Since curing meat took a long time, colonists would have been pulling out the first hams around Easter time anyway. So, ham would have been the easiest thing to make for Easter dinner. The tradition still stands today.
Lamb Origins Coming From Passover
The roast lamb dinner has ancient roots in Christian and Jewish traditions. Easter occurs during the traditional Jewish Passover celebration, where a sacrificial lamb was prepared with unleavened bread accompanied by bitter herbs. This tradition was honored so that God’s angel would pass over the home without harming those inside. Jews who converted to Christianity referred to Jesus as the sacrificial lamb, cementing the tradition.
During Passover, Jewish people celebrate a meal called the Seder which commemorates the flight of enslaved Jews from Egypt, as recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible. Specified foods are arranged on a plate and consumed one by one during a special service. The foods vary a bit by tradition, but here is a listing of the most commonly used.
- Z’roa: A lamb shank that symbolizes the ancient offerings made at temples.
- Beitzah: The egg promises rebirth and longevity.
- Maror: Bitter herbs, usually horseradish, to remind Jews of the bitterness and difficulty of enslavement.
- Karpas: A non-bitter vegetable soaked or dipped in salted water to portray tears.
- Haroset: Apple, nuts, and wine are mixed together to represent the mortar and brick under which the Jews were enslaved.
- Hazeret: Some people have a second bitter herb, like romaine lettuce.
Special Sweet Breads
Other than meat being steeped in tradition, there are also special pastries such as hot cross buns which are sweet rolls stuffed with currants and raisins and marked with a cross on top that are a tradition in different countries. Hot cross buns are normally found in Europe, Australia, India and New Zealand, but they can also be found here in the United States. But, where did they originate from? There is a belief that including hot cross buns was borrowed from pagan religions. Supposedly ancient Anglo-Saxons baked wheat cakes in honor of Eostre, the goddess of spring. After becoming Christians, the Saxons started eating cakes blessed by the church.
The Czech babobka and Polish baba derive from the same tradition. The Portuguese and Greeks have flat loaves decorated with a cross and Easter egg design. In Syria and Jordan, Orthodox Christians serve honey pastries.
Egg Hunts And Chocolate Bunnies
The reasons behind the egg hunts and bunny chocolates during this time of year can be associated with the German and Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, from whom the name Easter originates. Eostre was the goddess of the dawn and the rebirth of the year. Her symbol of a rabbit laying eggs has also been borrowed, hence the popularity of rabbits and eggs. Going back even further, egg symbolism began in Neolithic civilizations where female deities and eggs were a big part of pagan traditions.
Decorating Easter eggs started in Medieval Europe as did rolling the eggs. In the U.S., Germans brought the tradition of dying and coloring the eggs, probably beginning in late 18th century. During the 19th century, the holiday began to center around children and fun.
Easter has a number of traditions that make it to our tables, and activities associated with the celebrations. Now when preparing your feast, or dying your eggs, you’ll understand why and where it all began.