In the UK, Easter is one of the major festivals of the year. It is full of customs, folklore and food.
Whilst it is commonly seen as a Christian festival, associated with the death of Jesus and his rising from the dead, it is believed that Easter actually had its beginnings long before Christianity arrived in the UK. Indeed, it is thought the name Easter actually comes from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of dawn and spring Eostre.
When is Easter?
Unlike other festivals, such as Christmas, which has a fixed date, Easter can happen on different dates each year. It is observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the first day of spring in the Northern hemisphere (most of us check our calendars!). This means that Easter falls somewhere between March 22, and April 25.
Easter marks the end of winter, and the end of Lent, which in the Christian calendar is a time of prayer and fasting. Therefore, Easter is a time of fun and celebration. The Friday before Easter Sunday is known as Good Friday, and the Monday following is Easter Monday. Both are public holidays, so people get a nice long weekend.
Schools are often shut for two weeks around Easter as well, giving children plenty of time to run around and burn off all the chocolate that is eaten!
The Thursday before Easter is known as Maundy Thursday in the UK. It is believed this was the day of the Last Supper, where Jesus commanded his followers to “Love one another as I have loved you.” The word Maundy comes from the French “mande,” which translates roughly as “command” or “mandate.”
Celebrations of Easter
In Britain, the Queen takes part in the Ceremony of the Royal Maundy, which dates back to Edward I. This involves the Queen handing out “Maundy Money” to senior citizens. It is usually one man and one woman for each year of the Queen's age, and they are 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 other gifts that used to be given to the poor.
There are many other local customs over the Easter period. Some are still alive and well, others have begun to fade away.
For example, in the North East of England in the city of Durham, it was common on Good Friday for boys to run around the city after 4pm and demand girls pay for their shoes! If the girl didn’t pay a couple of pence, then the boys would steal 1 shoe, leaving the victim struggling to walk home!
This may sound harsh, but girls got their revenge on Easter Monday, by doing the exact same thing to boys and demanding more money. If the boys had work boots on which proved difficult to take off, the girls would simply take another item of clothing, such as the poor boy's hat.
Another common symbol of Easter is the Easter egg, though it is likely this came from a time before Christianity. Eggs are widely seen as a symbol of fertility and new birth, which matches the arrival of spring and the new year.
Traditionally, eggs would be boiled, painted and given as gifts. Today, many children do still enjoy painting and decorating eggs, and give as gifts or search for them in big Easter egg hunts. However, most eggs that are gifted are made of chocolate!
In some parts of the UK, such as in Preston, Lancashire, children will attempt to 'roll' an egg down the hill, with the first egg down the hill being crowned the winner! Not surprisingly, not many eggs actually survive the journey intact, so often it is the egg that made it the furthest without cracking that wins.
The Easter Bunny
Rabbits are a common symbol for Easter and are seen as a symbol of fertility.
The Easter bunny (rabbit), however, may actually be an Easter hare. The hare was allegedly a companion of the ancient Moon goddess and of Eostre.
Strangely, the bunny as an Easter symbol seems to have it's origins in Germany, where it was first mentioned in German writings in the 16th Century. The first edible Easter bunnies appeared in Germany during the early 1800s, and they were made of pastry and sugar. In the UK, children believe that if they are good the Easter Bunny will leave (chocolate) eggs for them.
Easter in Manchester and the North West of England
In the North West of England, around Manchester, there are still areas that hold Pace-Egg plays. These outdoor plays generally revolve the retelling of the story of St. George.
With a lot of telling and retelling of the story, many plays end up very far from the accepted 'real' story. Indeed, more often than not, they end up as a comedy! These plays are notorious for being not just outdoors but wandering all over the town. They are not fixed in one location, and players take advantage of local shops and scenery to help with the play.
If you are in England during the time of Easter, then make sure you have time to enjoy the many local events, and make sure you are not full, as there is a lot of food to enjoy... especially chocolate!