Origins and Traditions of Easter Treats

By Terry John Calendar

Easter is a tasty time of year with Easter eggs and hot cross buns galore! Most of us enjoy these treats at Easter but how many of us know where the modern custom of giving chocolate eggs has its roots?

Easter is one of the great Christian religious festivals, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus after His crucifixion. It is preceded by Lent, a forty day period of fasting which is itself a remembrance of the forty days and nights spent by Jesus without food in the desert, during which He was tempted by the Devil. In tribute to this, people would give up all rich food, including eggs, and would eat only basic foodstuffs until Easter.

A tradition grew up of giving eggs to friends and family at Easter as symbols of rebirth that remember the Resurrection. They were normally chicken eggs which people started to decorate in bright colours. It is said that in 1290, King Edward I, ordered 450 eggs to be painted and patterned with gold leaf as gifts for his friends and courtiers. This sign of royal favour ensured that the giving of brightly coloured eggs became even more fashionable and it has continued into modern times.

An even older legend dates back to the time of the Anglo-Saxons. The Saxon goddess Eostre found a wounded bird and, knowing that winter was approaching, she transformed it into a hare, so that it might survive the bitter cold. The hare discovered that it could lay eggs and decorated them each spring as gifts for the goddess. This may also be the origin of the tale of the Easter Bunny.

During the 18th and 19th centuries it was the custom in some parts of Wales for children to ‘clap for Easter eggs’. Little groups of children went from house to house shaking wooden clappers and chanting verses such as ‘Clap, clap, ask for an egg for little children of the parish’. If they were lucky they might collect several dozen eggs during their journeys. Farm servants were given eggs for breakfast on Easter Sunday and clergymen received eggs as gifts from their parishioners.

Hot cross buns could also have their origins in pagan times and, like eggs, may be linked to the goddess Eostre. It is said that the Saxons ate buns incised with crosses during festivities held in her honour every April. She was the goddess of dawn and fertility and the cross on the buns symbolised the four quarters of the moon. It‘s worth noting that the Venerable Bede believed that her name, Eostre, was the origin of the word Easter.

Whatever the truth of that, cross-marked buns have been found in the ruins of Herculaneum. They may be the precursor to modern Christian buns, though some historians think that they were marked that way to make them easier to break.

Another train of thought is that the cross on top of the bun is a representation of the Crucifixion and also that the horizontal line is the Earth intersecting with the vertical, Heavenly line, the human and the divine.

There was certainly a tradition of handing out ‘holy’ buns on Good Friday. They were often given as alms to the poor by the monks of local monasteries. In fact, they were the only food to be eaten by the faithful on that day. By the 16th century they had become so popular that Queen Elizabeth I banned the baking of them ‘except it be at burials or on Friday before Easter or at Christmas.’

By the 18th century they were being sold on the streets of London and other towns by traders who called out ‘One a penny, two a penny’, reminding people that they could purchase for a penny one large bun or two small ones.

Hot cross buns were thought to have a curative power and a number were placed in a bag and hung up in the kitchen until the following Good Friday, as their protective powers would last through the year. A hot cross bun made on Good Friday was especially magical. If kept for a year it wouldn’t go mouldy and the harder and more shrivelled it became the better. Grated up and sprinkled into warm milk, it cured an upset tummy and if placed in a prominent spot in the house it guarded against fire. Even small pieces of one of these buns could cure any disease. They were fed to people and to animals who might be sick, a belief once widespread in south Pembrokeshire. Sailors took hot cross buns to sea with them to prevent shipwreck. 

As to which of all these tales is true, well, as the bun sellers might have said; ‘You pays your money and you picks your bun!’

Categories:Food and Drink, History, Spring

Tags:Easter

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