I normally realise Easter is coming when the Jif lemon ads start appearing reminding us that pancake day is upon us. Unlike Christmas, which is always 25th December, Easter varies, according to the Bible Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred around the time of the Jewish Passover, which was celebrated on the first full moon following the vernal equinox. In the past people were more aware of the cycles of the moon than we are and less likely to be confused that Easter was a different date each year. Christmas and Easter are both Christian festivals which nowadays are celebrated through their association with food.
Shrove Tuesday, aka Pancake day, was meant to be a clearing of the cupboards prior to Lent. In the medieval period eggs could not be eaten during lent and were therefore used up in the making of pancakes.
Ash Wednesday marked the start of forty days of fasting. Ashes were associated with mourning and repentance, in the past ashes were pressed on the forehead of the congregation attending church on this day. When I was young we were supposed to give up eating sweets for 40 days. In the medieval times period there was a long list of foods which should not be eaten during this period. All eggs laid during lent were boiled to preserve them.
Palm Sunday occurs the week before Easter Sunday, apart from collecting a palm cross at church on this day as it was still Lent there was little celebration, either now or in medieval period. It also marks the start of Holy Week which includes the last supper, the betrayal of Christ and his death on Friday.
For me, when growing up, Good Friday meant no meat and I still only eat fish on this day and, of course cook a fish dish for rest of family. In the Medieval era all Fridays would have been meat-free as transubstantiation (where the wafer, or meat, actually transforms into the body of Christ once devoured) was strongly believed to occur, both within the Eucharist and for meat eaten on Fridays. This also meant that no Mass was conducted on Good Friday, instead it was treated as a day of mourning. During the medieval period, the definition of fish was a bit stretched to include eels, and even beavers and ducks, which swam on water.
No wonder that Easter Monday was a day of celebration, with Christ arisen from his tomb Lent came to an end and the medieval populace feasted. All those preserved eggs could be brought out, the church dyed them red to symbolise the blood of Christ. Others dyed them yellow (using onion skins) and other colours, in 1290 Edward I’s accounts show that he paid to have 450 eggs decorated with gold leaf. Lamb was eaten at Passover (see note 1) and has now become associated with Easter. On the Medieval menu it would have been spit-roasted and, after 40 days without meat, was probably very popular, however other meats would also have been served within the numerous courses of savoury and sweet dishes that were devoured. Personally I hate the smell of lamb cooking and Easter Sunday is the one day of the year my family can be sure of roast lamb.
Simnel cake has been baked since the middle ages and it is believed that the word simnel comes from the Latin ‘Simila,’ which referred to a very fine flour made from wheat. It is one of the few cakes I have never made as I dislike dried fruit. It has a marzipan layer inside and on top and is decorated by 11 balls of marzipan, representing the faithful apostles. Marzipan, which is made from ground almonds, was very popular in Medieval times, probably the chocolate of this era as it is sweet.
Hot cross buns, which we now associate with Good Friday, seem to date from Tudor period, although sweet buns may have been eaten during Medieval Easter celebrations. I did find references to sweet-buns with crosses indicating Greek origins but nothing that tied them to Easter. It is likely the buns were crossed to aid cooking (like sour bread dough).
Note 1 Passover, is a Jewish celebration which originates from Moses taking the Jews from Egypt. When Moses requested their release the Pharaoh refused causing plagues to be sent by God to change his mind. The tenth, and final, plague was a visit by the Angel of Death to every household in the city to take their first born. In order to protect their households Moses told the Jews to dab their doorposts with the blood of a lamb, that night the Angel came and took the lives of the city’s first born, ‘passing over’ the homes that had lamb’s blood on their entrances so their lives were saved.