A moveable feast: sacred and profane traditions at Easter

Sally-Anne Huxtable, Head Curator, National Trust Sally-Anne Huxtable Head Curator, National Trust

Easter is a time of joy and new beginnings. Head Curator Sally-Anne Huxtable discusses the myriad weird and wonderful customs and traditions of Easter that reflect the Christian, and non-Christian, origins of this spring festival. 

Many of our places have traditions, both old and new, associated with them, from egg hunts to mummer’s plays, to Easter bonnet parades and competitions.

Pre-Christian origins

According to the English monk and scholar the Venerable Bede (672–735 AD) in his work 'De temporum ratione' (The Reckoning of Time), the name Easter originates from an Anglo-Saxon springtime goddess named Ēostre, who gave her name to the month Ēosturmōnaþ, the equivalent of April.

In the 19th century, various scholars, including Jacob Grimm (the eldest Brother Grimm), attempted to link Bede’s Ēostre with Germanic Easter traditions around hares and eggs, speculating that hares must have been sacred to Ēostre.

The truth is that we don’t know how the Anglo-Saxons worshipped Ēostre, but it does seem likely that many of our Easter traditions involving eggs and hares or rabbits have their origins in pre-Christian beliefs around the cycles of nature and fertility.

Embroidered linen and silk picture of a hare and spring flowers by Joan Lander, Sunnycroft, Shropshire
Embroidered linen and silk picture of a hare and spring flowers
Embroidered linen and silk picture of a hare and spring flowers by Joan Lander, Sunnycroft, Shropshire

Quirky traditions

In Germanic countries, the tradition of a hare bringing Easter eggs to children is first mentioned in a 1682 book by Georg Franck von Franckenau called 'De ovis paschalibus' (About Easter Eggs). In the Middle Ages children in England would go from door to door begging for eggs on the Saturday before the Lenten fast. Today, many British, European and North American traditions continue to be popular, including the Easter Bunny or Hare delivering chocolate eggs to children, hunts for chocolate, painted or dyed eggs and rolling eggs down steep hills.

There are also some quirkier customs in Britain, such as Egg Jarping – a game similar to conkers where two players tap the pointed ends of their eggs together until one breaks. Another Easter tradition is Hop Egg or Egg Dancing, where eggs are laid on the ground and the aim is to dance among them, damaging as few as possible. 

Another Easter tradition in Britain is ‘Pace Egg’ plays, in which Mummers (performers in masks or with disguised faces) would perform plays with themes like St George slaying the Dragon. Here you can see Mummers arriving at Hilltop Farm,  home of Beatrix Potter, to give such a performance.

Pace Eggers at Hilltop Farm, 1913, Photograph taken by Beatrix Potter
Pace Eggers at Hilltop Farm, 1913
Pace Eggers at Hilltop Farm, 1913, Photograph taken by Beatrix Potter

The festival of Passover

The date of Easter Sunday is calculated on a lunisolar calendar based on the Jewish calendar. In the Bible, Christ dies and is resurrected during the Jewish festival of Passover. Many of the Christian traditions of Easter relate closely to those of Passover, including the eating of lamb, which in Jewish culture symbolises the annual sacrifice of a lamb in the Temple, and in Christianity symbolises the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God.

The Haggadah of Passover by Abraham Regelson, Back to Backs, Birmingham
Haggadah of Passover by Abraham Regelson
The Haggadah of Passover by Abraham Regelson, Back to Backs, Birmingham

A moveable feast

The first Council of Nicea (325 AD) fixed Easter as the Sunday after the first full moon after spring equinox. This ‘Paschal’ full moon is not the astronomical one that we see in the sky. Instead, the Western Church it is based on a complex 84-year cycle, and in the Orthodox Churches a 19-year cycle. 

Embroidered Easter banner, Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire
Embroidered Easter banner, Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire
Embroidered Easter banner, Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire

The outcome of this complicated history is that in Western and Orthodox churches alike, Easter is, quite literally,  a moveable feast. The same applies to the holidays and holydays related to it, such as Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Monday.

Maundy Thursday

In the early Church, Maundy Thursday – the celebration of Christ washing the feet of his Disciples at the Last Supper – saw monks washing the feet of and giving alms to the poor. This is still practiced in some churches, but since the reign of Edward I the monarch also gives Maundy money to the poor and, until the reign of James II,  the ruler washed the feet of those being given coins. The coins are given in red and white purses to senior citizens – one man and one woman for every year of the monarch’s life, and since 1822 special Maundy money has been minted in 1, 2, 3 and 4 pence coins.

Maundy Money, Florence Court, Northern Ireland
Maundy Money, Florence Court, NI
Maundy Money, Florence Court, Northern Ireland

Fasting to feasting

The forty days of fasting during Lent meant that Easter has traditionally been a time of feasting on luxurious foods such as eggs, butter, sugar, meat, fruits and beer. Since the 17th century, the townspeople of Morpeth in Northumberland have been given an orange every Easter Monday, while in Leicestershire the villagers of Hallaton and Medbourne meet in a field to square off against each other and win a barrel (called a bottle) of beer in a rowdy event called ‘Bottle Kicking’.

Although roast lamb, chocolate eggs, simnel cakes rich with marzipan and sweet Easter biscuits are all evocative of Easter, perhaps the most  famous Easter treat in Britain is the hot cross bun. Over the centuries these delicious spiced and fruited buns with crosses on top have been ascribed magical powers including guaranteeing good health, averting shipwrecks, preventing house fires, ensuring that good loaves of bread are baked throughout the year and cementing relationships when shared.

Joke hot cross bun, National Trust Museum of Childhood, Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire

A 'joke' hot cross bun in the collection at Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire

Hot cross bun stamp

A hot cross bun stamp in the collection at Cotehele, Cornwall

'Sunday best'


Finally, a particularly flamboyant and colourful custom which developed from post-Lenten celebrations is that of wearing Easter bonnets which many people make and decorate. This derives from the time when people would wear new ‘Sunday best’ clothes to Church at Easter and, along with the delicious foods and fun and games of this festival, is another joyful expression of new beginnings after the gloom of winter and Lent.

A child taking part in an Easter bonnet parade at Speke Hall, Liverpool
A child taking part in an Easter bonnet parade
A child taking part in an Easter bonnet parade at Speke Hall, Liverpool