History of Easter: European Pagan and Christian Traditions & Superstitions

Topics: Aryan sun worship – Dancing sun – Saxon goddess Eastre – Red and golden eggs –  Hand-ball and egg-throwing  –  Tansy cakes  – Miracle plays – Spring festivals and hawthorn –  Easter mummery – Lifting of women and men – Easter trickery – Easter Cakes and buns – Simnels  (Simon and Nelly cakes) – Braggot Sunday – Carling Sunday and Easter peas-and-beans

.  .  .  .  .   Many scarcely yet obsolete ceremonies and superstitions peculiar to the spring time of the year may likewise be traced to the ancient fire or sun worship, and other Aryan sources. That the sun rose on Easter-day, and danced with delight in honour of the resurrection of Christ, is evidently an ancient superstition engrafted on an orthrodox Christian tenet. This sun-dancing belief is thus rebukd in the “Athenian Oracle” :—

“Why does the sun at his rising play more on Easter-day than Whitsunday? The matter of fact is an old weak, superstitious error, and the sun neither plays nor works on Easter-day more than any other. It’s true, it may sometimes happen to shine brighter that morning than any other; but, if it does, ’tis purely accidental. In some parts of England they call it the lamb-playing, which they look for, as soon as the sun rises, in some clear spring or water, and is nothing but the pretty reflection it makes from the water, which they may find at any time, if the sun rises clear and they themselves early, and unprejudiced with fancy.”

Sir Thomas Browne, referring to this subject, says :—” We shall not, I hope, disparage the Resurrection of our Redeemer if we say that the sun doth not dance on Easter-day; and though we would willingly assent to any sympathetical exultation, yet we cannot conceive therein any more than a tropical expression.”

These extracts are sufficient to show the ” toughness” of the traditionary belief, and that its probable origin is of an earlier date than the Christian festivities of Easter. Some derive the term Easter from the Saxon Oster, to rise; others “from one of the Saxon goddesses, called Eastre, whom they always worshipped at this season. Others, again, prefer the Anglo-Saxon root, signifying a storm, “the time of Easter being subject to the continual recurrence of tempestuous weather.”

The procuring of original or “need-fire,” from flint and steel at this season, has been previously referred to. At Reading, in 1559, it appears by the churchwardens’ account, yet extant, that 5s. 8d. was “paid for makynge of the Paschall and Funte Taper.” Two years previously, one made for the abbey church of Westminster weighed three hundred pounds!

A quaint old writer, in a work called “The Festival,” published in 1511, referring to these “need-fires,” says :—” This day is called, in many places, Godde’s Sondaye: ye knowe well that it is the maner at this day to do the fyre out of the hall, and the blacke wynter brandes, and all thyngs that is foule with fume and smoke shall be done awaye, and there the fyre was shall be gayly arayed with fayre floures, and strewed with grene rysshes all aboute.”

The coloured eggs thrown into the air or knocked against each other, at Easter, by adults as well as children, are, doubtless, remnants of the Aryan myth, which typified the renovated sun of the spring season by a red or golden egg. Schwartz says it was a custom among the Parsees to distribute red eggs at their spring festival. De Gebelin, in his “Religious History of the Calendar,” traces this Easter custom to the ancient Egyptians, Persians, Gauls, Greeks, Romans, and others, “amongst all of whom an egg was an emblem of the universe, the work of the Supreme Divinity.”

In the nursery tale of “Jack and the Bean-stalk,” evidently descended from an Aryan source, one of the hero’s feats is the abduction from the giant’s castle in “cloudland” of the hen that, at the bidding of its owner, laid golden eggs.

Brand says :—” Belithus, a ritualist of ancient times, tells us that it was customary in some churches for the bishops and archbishops themselves to play with the inferior clergy at hand-ball, and this, as Durand asserts, even on Easter-day itself. Why they should play at hand-ball at this time, rather than any other game, Bourne tells us he has not been able to discover; certain it is, however, that the present custom of playing at that game on Easter holidays for a tansy-cake has been derived from thence. Erasmus, speaking of the proverb, Mea est pila, that is, ‘I got the ball,’ tells us that it signifies ‘I’ve obtained the victory; I am master of my wishes.'”

Brand seems to have hit upon the most probable origin of this ballplaying, which appears to be but another form of the Easter egg throwing; but, in consequence of his non-acquaintance with the Sanscrit writings and the common Aryan origin of the greater portion of the modern European populations, he sets it forth with great diffidence. He says :—” It would, perhaps, be indulging fancy too far to suppose that the bishops and governors of the churches, who used to play at hand-bal l at this season, did it in u mystical way, and with reference to the triumphal joy of the season.”

Mysteries, moralities, or miracle plays were performed at Easter, either by, or with the sanction of, the ecclesiastical authorities. In the “Sleaford-Gild Account Book” there is an entry, under the date 1480, as follows :—” Payd for the Eyitiuall of ye play for the Ascencion, and the wrytyng of spechys, and payntyng of a garment for God, iij. s. viij.d.”

In the Red Book of the Corporation of Kilkenny there is an entry at Midsummer, in 1586, which states that one Richard Cogan played the part of Christ. His fee for the performance is not stated, but Henry Moore received eightpence for acting the Devil, while the Kilkenny baker was only rewarded with sixpence for personating the Archangel Michael.

Similar observances obtained until recently at other spring festivals, all having, doubtless, a common origin.* They evidently refer to the increasing power of the sun, the passing away of the winter storms, and the joy of the people a-t the prospect of an abundant supply of the products of the earth. Reginald Scot, in his “Discovery of Witchcraft,” published in 1584, says :—

“In some countries they run out of the doors in time of tempest, blessing themselves with a cheese” (another sun emblem, owing to its form), “whereupon was a cross made with a rope’s end, upon Ascension Day.—Item, to hang an egg, laid on Ascension Day, in the roof of the house, preserveth the same from all hurts.”

During the last thirty or forty years two Easter customs seem to have declined rapidly in Lancashire and the North of England. Many troupes of boys, and, in Some instances, grown-up persons, not very long ago, decorated themselves with ribbons, or party-coloured paper in the most fantastic style, and sallied forth during Easter week “a pace-egging,” as it was termed.

One of their number rejoiced in the euphonious cognomen of “Tosspot.” His face was blacked with soot, and he carried a basket on his arm for the purpose of receiving contributions in the shape of “pace” or “Paschall” eggs. Of course, the sovereign substitute for all commercial articles, current coin of the realm, was equally acceptable to the dingy and somewhat diabolical-looking treasurer; for the said “Tosspot” bore remarkable resemblance, both in complexion and some other characteristics, to the “Old Nick” of the Norsemen.

These “pace-egging” gentry generally wore wooden swords, with which rival troupes, meeting in the streets, occasionally entered into mimic combat that was not always bloodless in its result. The troupe sometimes played a kind of rude drama, in which I remember a certain knight having mortally wounded an enemy, vociferously called out for a “doctor,” offering the sum of ten pounds as a special fee for his immediate,appearance. Others sang some barbarous rhymes, evidently modern versions of older strains, in which Lords Nelson and Collingwood figured conspicuously. I remember well, in my younger days, having taken a part in more than one of these performances at Preston. In the neighbourhood of Blackburn, men, with blackened faces, dressed in the skins of animals and otherwise disfigured, paraded the streets and lanes on these occasions, and, I suppose, obtained much “pace-egg” money, from the terror they inspired. It is not very many years ago since I met a troupe of this class in the village of Walton-le-dale, near Preston, that levied its “black-mail” with considerable success.

I am inclined to think that the mummery practised at Easter, in Lancashire, resulted merely from the transfer of the May-day games, the orgies of the “Lord of Misrule,” the “hobby-horse,” the Morris dancers, &c, to this festival. The time of holding of holidays, and the character of the amusements, vary in different localities, and they are not unfrequently blended one with another, when the original purport of each has ceased to be remembered or regarded in the light of a religious festival. The May-day mummeries in London, in Brand’s days, and even yet, appear to have borne some resemblance to the Lancashire Easter performances. He says :—

“The young chimney sweepers, some of whom are fantastically dressed in girls’ clothes, with a great profusion of brick-dust, by way of paint, gilt paper, &c, making a noise with their shovels and brushes, are now the most striking object in the celebration of Mayday in the streets of London.”

The obtaining of alms, or rather “largesses,” as they would term it in “the olden time,” appears to have been the chief object of both parties. Indeed, this element in the performance it appears was not confined to the sweeps of London or the “Tosspots” of Lancashire, for Brand further observes :

“I remember, too, that in walking that same morning, between Houndslow and Brentford, I was met by two distinct parties of girls, with garlands of flowers, who begged money of me, saying, ‘Pray, sir, remember the garland.'”

The other custom referred to consisted in the “lifting” of women by men on Easter Monday, and the indulgence in a similar freak, on the following day, by the fair sex, on their masculine friends, by way of retaliation. It was commonly performed in the public streets, and caused much amusement; but it was a rude and indelicate piece of practical joking, which can very well be dispensed with, notwithstanding the faith of some that the practice was originally intended to typify the Eesurrection of Christ.

Bayard Taylor, in his “Byeways of Europe,” gives an interesting account of Andorra, a little republic situated in the heart of the Pyrenees, between France and Spain. This secluded state has enjoyed an independent existence since the days of Charlemagne, and the manners and customs of its inhabitants are of the most simple and primitive character. Mr. Taylor refers to a singular custom that obtains amongst them, and which bears some resemblance to the Lancashire one just referred to. He says, “Before Easter, the unmarried people make bets, which are won by whoever, on Easter morning, can first catch the other and cry out, ‘It is Easter, the eggs are mine!’ Tricks, falsehoods, and deceptions of all kinds are permitted; the young man may even surprise the maiden in bed, if he can succeed in doing so. Afterwards they all assemble in public, relate their tricks, eat their Easter eggs, and finish the day with songs and dances.”

Cakes and buns are baked at this season, which are supposed to possess supernatural properties. Sir Henry Ellis says, “It is an old belief that the observance of the custom of eating buns on Good Friday protects the house from fire, and several other virtues are attributed to these buns.” In “Poor Robin’s Almanack” for 1733, is the following:—

Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs

With one or two a penny hot-cross buns,

Whose virtue is, if you believe what’s said,

They’ll not grow mouldy like the common bread.

The baking of cross-buns at Easter is evidently but a legitimate descendant of the cake baking of the olden festivities. Some consider the cross on the buns as an addition since the introduction of Christianity; others think it may be the remains of an older observance.

Dr. Euhn, speaking of the crosses on ancient boundary and bridal oaks, says an oak formerly grew in a wood near Dahle, around which newly-married couples danced three times, and afterwards cut a cross on it. This cross, he contends, originally represented ” Thor’s hammer, the consecrator of marriage.” The latter was unquestionably one form of the many phallic symbols.

Mr. Baring-Gould notices the prohibitions issued at various times against the carrying about of ploughs and ships, especially on Shrove Tuesday, because they were phallic symbols. A writer in the Quarterly Magazine, although he considers the planting of the old boundary oak as a Saxon institution, yet regards the placing of the cross thereon as a withdrawal of the tree “from the dominion of Thor or Odin.”

Kelly, in reply to this, says :—” More or less it did so in Christian times, but previously to then the cross as well as the tree may have belonged to Thor.” The cross, in some of its varied forms, has evidently been used as a mythical type from the earliest period of traditional history.

I remember, only a very few years ago, when on a visit to Brampton, in Cumberland, being shown, in the neighbourhood, the locality on which one of these ancient marriage oaks had grown for ages. It had only recently been cut down, to the chagrin of many of the neighbouring inhabitants.

A writer in “Once a Week,” referring to this subject, says, “Do our Ritualists eat hot cross-buns on Good Friday? Perhaps they do not, but consider the consumption of such cakes to be a weak concession to the childish appetites of those who would not duly observe their Lenten fastings; and who, had they lived in the days of George III., would have been among the crowds who clustered beneath the wooden porticos of the two “royal,” and rival, bunhouses at Chelsea.

But there is the cross-mark on the surface of the bun to commend it to the minds which are favourably disposed to symbolism; and there is the history of the cross-bun itself, which goes back to the time of Cecrops, and to the liba offered to Astarte, and to the Jewish passover cakes, and to the eucharistic bread, or cross-marked wafers, mentioned in St. Chrysostom’s Liturgy, and thence adopted by the early Christians. So that the Good Friday bun has antiquity and tradition to recommend it; and, indeed, its very name of bun is but the oblique boun, from bous, the sacred ox, the semblance of whose horns was stamped upon the cake.

There, too, they also did duty for the horns of Astarte, in which word some philologists would affect to trace a connection with Easter. The substitution by the Greeks of the cross-mark in place of the horn- mark would seem to have chiefly been for the easier division of the round bun into four equal parts. Such cross-marked buns were found at Herculaneum.”

The “simnels” eaten on Mid-Lent, or “Mothering” Sunday, are, doubtless, but modern representatives of the ancient festive cake. On Simnel Sunday young persons especially visit their aged parents, and make them presents of various kinds, but chiefly of rich cakes. It is said by some to have been originally called “Mothering Sunday” from a practice which formerly prevailed of visiting the mother church or cathedral, for the purpose of making Easter or Lenten offerings.

The word “simnel” has given rise to much discussion amongst etymologists. It is variously spelled simnell, symnel, or, in Lancashire especially, simbling. It is not improbable that it possesses some relationship to the Anglo-Saxon symel or symbol, a feast. Bailey and Dr. Cowell derive it from the Latin simila, fine flour. The popular notion is that the father of Lambert Simnel, the pretender to the throne in the reign of Henry VII., was a famous baker of these cakes, and that they retain his name in consequence of his great reputation in confectionery art. This, however, cannot be correct, as simnels are referred to long before his time. It is far more probable that the trade gave the name to the man, as in the cases of smith, baker, tailor, glover, etc. These cakes, like brides’-cakes, are generally profusely decorated.

It is not improbable that the name ” simnel” was in Saxon times employed to designate a finer or superior kind of bread or cake. It occurs in the “Lay of Havelock the Dane,” a French romance, abridged by Geoffroi Gaimer, the Anglo-Norman trouvere. This “Le Lai de Aveloc,” Professor Morley says, belongs to the first half of the twelfth century. He considers it to have been founded on ” an English tradition that must have been extant in Anglo-Saxon times, for Gaimer speaks of it as an ancient story.” The lay says that when the fisherman Grim, the founder of the town of Grimsby, “caught the great lampery, he carried it to Lincoln, and brought home wastels, simnels, his bags full of meal and corn, neats’ flesh, sheep and swine’s flesh, and hemp for the making of more lines.”

Since the above was written, the following paragraph on this subject appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine :—

“simnel Cakes.—A well-known Lancashire antiquary sometime since stated that this term ‘originally meant the very finest bread, Pain demain is another term for it, on account of its having been used as Sunday bread’ (if a conjecture may be hazarded, it is possible there may be some connexion with the shew bread and heathen votive offerings, as in India and China) ‘at the Sacrament. The name appears in Mediawal Latin as simanellus, and may thus have been derived from the Latin simila—fine flour. In Wright’s ‘Vocabularies’ it appears thus:—’Hie artocopus—symnelle.’ This form was in use during the fifteenth century. In the ‘Dictionarius’ of John de Garlande, compiled at Paris in the thirteenth century, it appears thus :.—’ Simeneus—placenta—simnels.’ Such cakes were stamped with the figure of Christ or of the Virgin.’ Is it not a little singular that this custom of making these cakes, and also the practice of assembling in one place to eat them, should be confined to Bury? Such is the fact. No other town or district in the United Kingdom is known to keep up such a custom.* As stated above, much labour has been expended to trace its origin, but without success.”

The harshness and general painfulness of life in old times must have been much relieved by certain simple and affectionate customs which modern people have learned to dispense with. Amongst these was a practice of going to see parents, and especially the female one, on the mid Sunday of Lent, taking for them some little present, such as a cake or a trinket. A youth engaged in this amiable act of duty was said to go a-mothering, and thence the day itself came to be called Mothering Sunday, One can readily imagine how, after a stripling or maiden had gone to service, or launched in independent housekeeping, the old bonds of filial love would be brightened by this

Mid-Lent Sunday is likewise called Braggat or Braggot Sunday, from the custom of drinking “mulled” or spiced ale on that day. The word is believed to be derived from the ancient British bragawd, which signifies a liquor of this class. The Braggat ales drunk on Braggat Sunday have, no doubt, intimate connection with the buns and cake of the other spring festivities.

The solid and fluid elements, in some form or other, appear to be indispensible in all festive gatherings, religious or otherwise. Bacchus and Ceres, or Dionysos and Demeter, were jointly honoured at the festivals attendant upon the celebration of the Eleusinian mysteries. Shakspere makes Sir Toby Belch exclaim, on Malvolio’s interference with their noisy festive roystering, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

In an old glossary of the Lancashire dialect, published in 1775, “callings” are described as “Peas boiled on Care Sunday, i.e., the Sunday before Palm Sunday.” “Parched” peas, or peas fried in pepper, butter, and salt, form yet a favourite dish amongst the poorer classes in the north of England on “Carling Sunday.” A tradition, indeed, still exists, which asserts that, during a very severe famine, a vessel opportunely arrived in one of the ports, laden with a cargo of peas, to the great delight of the inhabitants; and the ” carling” feast is regarded as a memorial of the event.

Peas and beans have had symbolical or sacred characteristics from the earliest times. Beans were regarded by the Greeks and Eomans, according to Plutarch, as highly potent in the invocation of the manes of the departed. Brand says: “There is a great deal of learning in Erasmus’s Adages concerning the religious use of beans, which were thought to belong to the dead. An observation which he gives us of Pliny, concerning Pythagoras’s interdiction of this pulse is highly remarkable. It is ‘that beans contain the souls of he dead.’ For which cause also they were used in the Parentalia.” He further adds: “Ridiculous and absurd as these superstitions may appear, yet it is certain that our carlings thence deduce their origin.”

Source: Traditions, superstitions, and folklore, (chiefly Lancashire and the north of England:) their affinity to others in widely-distributed localities; their eastern origin and mythical significance, Charles Hardwick, 1872

Index: Easter Throughout History

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One Response to History of Easter: European Pagan and Christian Traditions & Superstitions

  1. Your quotation by Sir Thomas Browne is also a good example of his dry and subtle sense of humour!

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