Tuesday 6 December 2016

Why do we eat eggs at Easter?

There's a story behind each of the traditions we observe at this time of year

Clodagh Finn

Published 25/03/2016 | 02:30

The tradition of Easter eggs can be traced all the way back to the goddess Eostre.
The tradition of Easter eggs can be traced all the way back to the goddess Eostre.

Let's start with the row. That's the problem with moveable feasts, such as Easter; it's impossible to get everyone to agree when to celebrate them and that's exactly what happened in the early Irish church.

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Around the end of the sixth century, St Columbanus went to Europe and realised that the date of the Roman Easter was different to the Irish one. He was convinced the Irish way of calculating one of most important days in the Christian calendar was correct and he said so, telling the Pope in no uncertain terms.

Rome, unsurprisingly, was having none of it and the wayward Irish were taken to task for stepping out of line.

The famous synod of Whitby in England in 664 finally settled the dispute in favour of the Roman system, but it took some five decades before the Irish church finally accepted the verdict.

But Easter has a much longer tradition, stretching back to ancient times when people celebrated a symbolic resurrection with the return of the spring and longer days.

There are several stories of resurrected pagan gods, too, and many of the traditions associated with them have been woven into the modern celebration of Easter.

It's hard to work out whether Easter is a religious or a secular festival these days, something which won't have been helped by Cadbury's decision to sideline the word 'Easter' on its chocolate eggs this year.

The chocolate manufacturer denied claims that religion had anything to do with its decision to downplay the word 'Easter' on its packaging, but they're not the only chocolatiers who are shifting the emphasis away from religious associations.

For instance, Nestle is marketing a milk chocolate egg and its Milkybar Easter Egg is now simply Milkybar white chocolate egg.

The irony in all this is that Easter owes just as much to its pagans origins as it does to its Christian ones. To help you work out which tradition is which, here's a potted history of the roots of Easter.

Pagan origins

As early as the 7th century, Christian scholar the Venerable Bede asserted that Easter took its name from the pagan goddess of spring 'Eostre'. She was the great mother goddess of the Saxons in Northern Europe and her name was derived from the ancient word for spring, 'eastre'.

Parades

The tradition of the Easter parade goes right back to the fourth century when pilgrims flocked to the so-called Holy Land to replicate the last journey that Jesus made on his way to Calvary.

This description from the 4th-century diary of a woman called Egeria from Gaul somehow captures a spirit of procession that still resonates today: "And then all, even to the smallest child, go down with the Bishop, on foot, with hymns to Gethsemane.

There, on account of the great number of people in the crowd who are wearied owing to the vigils and weak through the daily fasts, and because they have so great a hill to descend, they come very slowly with hymns to Gethsemane.

"And over two hundred church candles are made ready to give light to all the people."

Fasting

Fasting on Good Friday also has a long tradition, though a Repak survey in 2015 showed that about 50pc of Irish people will ignore the fish-only rule and eat meat today, while the same number will down an alcoholic drink. Though, that's nothing compared to what we'll put away during Easter when we'll drink enough to fill at least 53 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Bonfires

Easter fires have a long history stretching back before the arrival of Christ, but St Patrick put a Christian stamp on the tradition when he lit a famous paschal fire on the Hill of Tara, seat of the high King of Ireland, in defiance of pagan tradition.

Eggs and Easter bunnies

There are almost as many stories to explain eggs as there will be chocolate eggs on Sunday. In one version, the tradition goes back to the aforementioned goddess Eostre who was symbolised by an egg-laying hare or rabbit.

There's a Christian story that offers another explanation. After the Ascension of Christ, Mary Magdalene told the Emperor of Rome that "Christ was risen".

He apparently replied that Christ was no more risen than the egg on the table in front of him was red. The egg on the table is said to have turned blood red.

Whatever the reason for eggs, you're unlikely to find a more Irish expression of the tradition than the Tayto Cheese & Onion Easter Egg. But before you rush down to the shop to buy the, ahem, unusual combination, be warned: they are available only at Tayto Park for €5.95.

Hot cross buns

The tradition of baking buns as religious offerings goes back to earliest times. The hot cross bun, though, is thought to date to Tudor times when a London bye-law decreed that spiced buns could be eaten only on Good Friday, at Christmas and at funerals. The cross was added later and the 'hot' came later still.

In 1773, James Boswell wrote in his diary: "Being Good Friday I breakfasted with him and cross-buns". Because the buns were generally served hot, they later became known as hot cross buns.

Lamb

It used to be considered lucky to meet a lamb - though not for the lamb as in medieval times, a whole roasted lamb formed the centrepiece of the papal feast on Easter Sunday. The new season's lamb is still a potent Christian symbol and remains a popular choice on Irish dinner tables.

Easter bonnet

Irving Berlin, who said he "could write a sonnet about an Easter bonnet" after watching an Easter parade in New York brought the hat to popular attention but the tradition reflects an older tradition of buying new clothes at Easter.

In the 18th century English almanac maker Poor Robin, wrote: "At Easter let your clothes be new/Or else be sure you will it rue."

Irish Independent

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