Easter in the British Isles
As in many other European and New World countries, eggs and rabbits (signs of fertility and new life) are traditional symbols of Easter in the British Isles. Chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs, often adorned in colorful foil wrappers, are given to children as presents or are hidden for the Easter morning "egg hunt."
The tradition of decorating real eggs for Easter dates back to the Middle Ages. In 1290 the English king, Edward I, ordered 450 eggs to be covered in gold leaf to be given as Easter presents. It is thought that the bright hues used to decorate Easter eggs were meant to mirror the colors of the reawakening spring growth. Another British Easter custom is egg rolling or the egg race, when competitors try to be the first to roll their egg across a course or down a hill… without breaking it!
Aside from eggs, the best-known English Easter food is probably the hot cross buns. Dating back to medieval times, the buns were traditionally eaten on Good Friday, but they are now popular all around the Easter season. These sweet treats, fragrant with fruit and spices, are marked with a cross, either slashed into the dough before baking, or drizzled on in icing afterwards. The history of hot cross buns dates far back to the pre-Christian era. It is thought that they are descendants of the small cakes offered to Eostre, the goddess of spring. They may have been marked with a cross even in ancient times, to represent the four quarters of the moon. In later centuries the church, unable to stamp out ancient pagan traditions, decided instead to "Christianize" the buns by associating the cross with that of Jesus.
There is a centuries-old children's rhyme:
"Hot cross buns, Hot cross buns,
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot cross buns."
Besides the obvious symbolism of the cross, the shape of the bun was said to represent the stone that sealed Jesus's tomb, while the spices were a reminder of those with which his body was buried. The mystique surrounding these sweet rolls was so great that a stale hot cross bun was often kept in the house throughout the year to ward off evil! Sailors even carried them with them to sea as protection against shipwreck.
Easter Sunday in the British Isles is traditionally marked by church services, often held at dawn so that worshippers can view the sunrise, a symbol of Christ's resurrection. Afterwards Easter eggs are exchanged and eaten. Easter parades were also once an important tradition, during which people would wear their new clothes - the ladies in particular would show off their new "Easter bonnets" - as another sign of spring's renewal. Later the family would gather for Easter lunch or dinner, which in England traditionally consisted of roast spring lamb with mint sauce, potatoes and green peas. There was time to rest from the celebrations the next day, since Easter Monday is traditionally a holiday in Britain.
Pussy willows are also a traditional Easter symbol in England, representing the end of winter and the season of new growth.
In Scotland, huge bonfires used to be lit to celebrate Easter, a tradition dating back to ancient pagan celebrations of spring.
The origins of many British Easter customs date far back to the mists of the pre-Christian era. Yet they continue to survive, not only in Britain, but throughout the world in the many countries to which the British have carried their traditions.
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