The Christian festival of Easter is celebrated in the UK via a number of customs, folklore and traditional food. Many theologians believe Easter is named after Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn and spring and that this pagan festival was changed to the Christian Easter.
In the UK Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon, following the first day of spring. Easter can therefore occur on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25. Easter marks the end of Lent, traditionally a time of fasting in the Christian calendar.
The Friday before Easter Sunday and the Monday after are bank holidays in the UK and schools close for two weeks around the Easter weekend.
Maundy Thursday is celebrated on the Thursday before Easter and in the Christian calendar is the day of the Last Supper, when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and established the ceremony known as the Eucharist. The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the French “Mande,” meaning “command” and is taken from the order given by Christ at the Last Supper to “love one another as I have loved you.”
In the UK, the Queen takes part in the Ceremony of the Royal Maundy, which dates back to the thirteenth century and Edward I. This involves the distribution of Maundy Money to deserving senior citizens (one man and one woman for each year of the sovereign’s age), usually chosen for having done service to their community. They receive ceremonial red and white purses which contain coins made especially for the occasion. The white purse contains one coin for each year of the monarch’s reign. The red purse contains money in place of food and clothing that used to be given to the poor.
From the thirteenth century, until the reign of James II ended in 1688, the King or Queen would wash the feet of selected poor people as a gesture of humility, and in remembrance of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.
On the Friday before Easter, Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is a day of mourning in church and special Good Friday services are held where Christians meditate on Jesus suffering and death on the cross, and what this means for their faith.
Symbols of Easter
Many of the symbols and traditions of Easter are to celebrate renewal, birth, good luck and fertility.
As a Christian festival one of the main symbols of Easter is a cross, to symbolise and celebrate victory over death. In AD325, Constantine issued a decree at the Council of Nicaea, that the Cross would be the official symbol of Christianity.
Easter week begins on Palm Sunday. In Roman times it was customary to welcome royalty by waving palm branches. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on what is now known as Palm Sunday, people welcomed and celebrated him with palm branches. Today, on Palm Sunday, Christians carry palm branches in parades, and make them into crosses and garlands to decorate the Church.
Easter eggs are an old tradition that pre-dates Christianity. Eggs symbolise spring and new life. Now in the UK it is popular to eat chocolate Easter eggs, but before this, brightly decorated hard-boiled chicken eggs were gifted, to represent spring and light.
An older traditional game in the UK that still remains in some areas is one in which real eggs are rolled against one another or down a hill. The owner of the egg that stays intact the longest is the winner.
Hot Cross Buns
Hot cross buns were first baked in the UK to be served on Good Friday. These small, lightly sweet yeast buns contain raisins or currants and sometimes chopped candied fruit. Before baking, a cross is slashed in the top of the bun. After baking, a confectioners’ sugar icing is used to fill the cross.
A traditional way to celebrate the end of the Lenten fast is to eat Simnel cake. These are cakes made of fine flour and water coloured yellow with saffron, and filled with a very rich plum-cake, including candied lemon peel and dried fruits.