While we here in Virginia have certainly been living recently with all the trials of
“The uncertain glory of an April day,
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by and by a cloud takes all away,”
(The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 1.3.85-87)
we may hope for a sunny, idyllic (and tornado free!) Easter this Sunday.
Like so many of our most popular holidays, Easter began as a pagan celebration, morphed into an intensely Christian holiday, and has today settled into an odd hybrid of the two – with a healthy dose of Cadbury Cream Eggs thrown in.
The name “Easter” is presumably derived from the Germanic goddess of fertility, Eostre, in whose honor festivities were held at the spring equinox to mark the advent of the season. Thus, Easter stems from the ancient tradition of celebrating the rebirth and renewal that comes at this time of year. In fact, two of the items most commonly associated with the holiday, eggs and rabbits, were both ancient symbols of fertility. (Well, not quite; hares were the original “Easter Bunny,” or “Osterhase,” but eventually were replaced by the better known – and cuter – rabbit.) And when these two unique objects combined, you got an egg-delivering rabbit that would become an indelible image of Easter through the centuries.
In keeping with the theme of rebirth, Easter was adopted by the Catholic Church at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. It does not, however, fall on the same date every year, but continues, in the pagan tradition, to be governed by the cycles of the moon. Easter is always on the first Sunday following the full moon of the vernal equinox on March 21. Yet Easter is really the culmination of a whole season of religious observances, beginning 40 days prior on Ash Wednesday. The following period of fasting and restraint, known as Lent, culminates in Holy Week, or the week leading up to Easter Sunday and encompassing Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. This lengthy period of fasting could be where the tradition of hard boiling Easter eggs comes from, since that may have been the way in which the eggs were preserved through Lent, when consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs was forbidden. As you might imagine, by the time Easter itself rolled around, people were ready to feast and let loose.
An Elizabethan Easter
This year, Shakespeare shares a special bond with Easter, since the Bard’s birthday falls on the very same weekend. Although in the plays themselves, references to this spring holiday are limited to one: In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio chides Benvolio, asking, “Didst thou not fall out with a tailor for wearing his new doublet before Easter” (3.1.26-27)? This quip refers to the popular custom of the time of wearing one’s new clothes on Easter. This was a chance for people from all levels of society to show off their new garb, from simple to fantastic. For some, it was an especially momentous occasion, since it might be the only time they received new clothes all year. Today, people still like to show off their snazzy new “Easter bonnets” on the day.
16th Century Shepherds
Other activities which Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have enjoyed include various outdoor games and dancing. Morris dancing, in which belled and beribboned men would perform intricate dances to frighten away the spirits of winter, was especially popular. The practice of dying and decorating eggs is thought to have begun as early as the 13th century, and in Elizabethan England the colorful eggs were exchanged as gifts between young people. Small children would lay out nests at night, in which the Easter hare would deposit eggs for them to find the next morning – the predecessor of the modern Easter basket. The image of little Will Shakespeare laying out his Easter nest, hoping to find colorful treasures there in the morning, is a charming one.
Of course, what would any decent holiday be without some delicious food to help you celebrate? If you choose to pass up the chocolate bunnies and marshmallow Peeps for some more historical fare (or maybe you’d like to indulge in both, which may or may not be what I’ll be doing…), you might want to try the ubiquitous hot cross bun. Read the history of this baked good, which includes a reference to Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, here.