Easter


Easter
   The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central defining event of the Christian religion, and the time appointed to celebrate it would clearly be the most important festival in the ecclesiastical calendar. Holy Scripture defines the time as early spring, around the time of the Jewish Passover festival, but it was not until the 8th century that Britain and western Europe finally settled on the standard still in use today - the first Sunday after the moon has reached its fullest point after 21 March.
   It has never been clear why the English language calls this season Easter when all other European languages (apart from one early German medieval dialect) call it by a variant of 'Pasch'. Bede says pagan Anglo-Saxons called the fourth month of the year Eosturmonath after a goddess 'Eostre', 'for whom they were accustomed to hold festivals at that season' (De Temporum Ratione, 13), and this is frequently quoted as established fact. However, since there is no other mention of her in any of the numerous sources of information about Germanic heathenism, some scholars doubt Bede's asertion, suggesting instead that he or his informants created the goddess by speculative 'back-formation' from a pre-existing, and perplexing, name for a season. The word is certainly related to 'east', and to ancient words meaning 'dawn' in various languages. April may have been regarded as the dawn of the year. Whether Bede was right in thinking the season was personified as a goddess is more doubtful - especially since the 'goddess Hreda' whom he gives as the explanation for the name of March (Rhedmonath) is equally unconfirmed by other sources - but on balance many are willing to accept it (Wilson, 1992: 35-6; Newall, 1971: 384-6).
   In the medieval church, there were numerous customs and duties carried out at Easter including extinguishing and renewing all the lights, 'Watching the Sepulchre' (Duffy, 1992: 29-37, 436, 461; Andrews, 1891: 111-19), the decoration of churches, and the performance of plays and pageants dramatizing appropriate biblical events, but these were swept away with the Reformation (Wright and Lones, 1936: i. 95; Brand, 1849 edn: 157-9).
   In the secular sphere, the most abiding Easter custom is the giving and eating of *Easter Eggs, but in the past numerous games and customs also clustered around the season. As with the other spring festival at *Whitsun, Easter was a favourite time for *church ales, revels, and other outdoor celebrations, with sports and games to the fore. For Londoners, Greenwich Park was a favourite place of resort on Easter and Whitsun Mondays, where thousands of people gathered and an unchartered fair sprang up to cater for them. Numerous other fairs and gatherings were held up and down the country.
   Easter was one of the occasions when it was felt essential to have new *clothes, or at least some item of new dress, the other times being *New Year and *Whitsun. This idea is first recorded in the 16th century, and is mentioned by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet (iii. i). Samuel Pepys indicates that in his day the fashions changed at Easter:
   She did give me account of this wedding today, its being private being imputed to its being just before Lent, and so in vain to make new clothes till Easter, that they might see the fashions as they are like to be this summer. (Diary, 15 Feb. 1667)
   If you did not wear new clothes you would have bad luck or birds would drop on you or, in one account, dogs would spit at you, and the belief lasted at least into the 1970s and is probably still to be found (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 131). It was also customary to wear new gloves at Easter, and they were thus a favourite present on the Saturday, especially from tenants to their landlords and young men to their sweethearts.
   A widespread and deeply held belief was that the sun dances for joy at dawn on Easter Sunday. There are numerous reports of people making up parties and ascending local high points to watch the sun rise, and that they saw it spinning, jumping, or rocking to and fro. It was said that if you did not see it happening the Devil was deliberately obstructing your view, or that you were not sufficiently devout. More rare, but found particularly in the West Country, was the notion that you could see the figure of a lamb, or a lamb and a flag, in the sun on this day. The belief first appears in the documentary record in the 17th century, in Sir
   John Suckling's 'Ballade Upon a Wedding' (1646) but was already sufficiently well known for the arch-sceptic Sir Thomas Browne to feel the need to refute it - 'We shall not, I hope, disparage the Resurrection of our Redeemer, if we say the sun does not dance on Easter Day' (Browne, 1672 edn.: book 5, chapter 22) but this did nothing to diminish its popularity
   (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 131-2).
   A customary game which, like *Lifting and other customs, pitted males against females, was reported from Yorkshire, Northumberland, and Co. Durham in the 18th and 19th centuries. On Easter Sunday, youths tried to waylay young women and steal their shoe-buckles, or even their complete shoes. The women retaliated on Easter Monday by taking the men's hats or caps. Both sides met that evening, or the next day, and a small sum was exacted to redeem their belongings, which was then used to fund an evening of eating and drinking. As is usual with such customs, strangers were not exempt, and anyone passing through the village on these days was likely to be stopped by the young people and a small sum demanded in lieu of shoe, spurs, or hat (Gentleman's Magazine (1790), 719; Dyer, 1876: 167-8).
   A children's custom which appeared at different times in different areas, and under a variety of local names, took place in Derbyshire on Easter Sunday and Monday. At Tideswell, they called it 'sugar-cupping', and children went to the spring at nearby Dropping Tor, where they mixed the water with sugar to make an Easter drink (Hone, 1827: 226). At Castleton and Bradwell it was 'Shak-king Monday' and they used peppermint, and children at Little Hucklow mixed water from the Silver Well with broken sweets. Compare also similar customs under *Spanish Sunday, *Ascension Day, and *elecampane. Nineteenth-century children at Evesham (Worcestershire) used to play *Thread the Needle through the streets on Easter Monday.
   As noted under *hares, there is no evidence of a connection between that animal and the putative Germanic goddess Eostre, although the link with Celtic peoples is reasonably well attested. It cannot be shown, nor is it likely, that Celtic beliefs such as these survived the Germanic and Nordic invasions and subsequent Christianization of the English. Nevertheless, there are a number of later connections between Easter and hares which are difficult to explain. In Leicestershire there was an annual 'hare hunt', and the surviving *hare pie and bottle kicking custom at Hallaton. In Warwickshire, a manorial custom reported in the 18th century at Coleshill set young men trying to catch a hare on Easter Monday. The Folk-Lore Journal (5 (1887), 263-4) quotes The Calendar of State Papers (Domestic Series) (4th series, viii: 23): '1620, April 2. Thos. Fulnety solicits the permission of Lord Zouch, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, to kill a hare on Good Friday, as huntsmen say that those who have not a hare against Easter must eat a red herring'. But none of the accounts of special foods for Easter mentions hare; for example, Samuel Pepys records eating hare three times but never at that season. Charles Billson (FolkLore 3 (1892), 441-66) accumulates much of the evidence for a long-standing connection, although he is characteristic of his time in being too ready to invoke totemism as an explanation. It is clear that further work needs to be done on the subject.
   See also *Good Friday.
   ■ Wright and Lones I, 1936: 85-122; Hutton, 1996: 179213; Brand I, 1849: 157-84.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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