Easter Traditions:  A Moveable Feast

31st March 2021

The first full moon after the Spring Equinox (20th or 21st March) signified the Anglo-Saxon pagan festival of spring rebirth, thought to be linked to the dawn goddess ‘Eostre’ (or ancient Germanic goddess ‘Ostara’) said to have a hare as her sacred animal. 

The Christian celebration of Easter Day always falls on the first Sunday after that moon, so on any Sunday between 22nd March and 25th April. Originally in European folklore children were brought gifts of coloured eggs by hares (hence the ancestry of our Easter Bunny). Eggs, chicks and rabbits/hares being associated with new growth and fertility.

On Good Friday, most forms of work were thought to be unlucky, with the greatest ill-omen being any use of iron tools or nails (a reminder of the crucifixion of Christ). However, in contrast it was traditionally believed to be the best possible time to plant potatoes, beans, peas and parsley. (Although for obvious reasons it was advised to use a ‘wooden spade’ to be on the safe side!)  “Seeds buried, like Christ, would soon spring up and flourish”.

In the week before Easter it is still a tradition in the north of England (especially Cumbria & Yorkshire), to make a savoury bitter ‘Easter Ledge pudding’, using the young leaves of the Common bistort (also known as Pudding or Passion Dock)  Bistorta officinalis. These are mixed with nettle tips, onion, barley or oatmeal, and fried with eggs and bacon. Bistort is a native of Europe but was often cultivated as a vegetable, and is found especially in damp meadows. Other young wild plant leaves that can be added include dandelion, sorrel, and lady’s mantle (Alchemilla glabra) all rich in nutrients in early Spring.

The ancient joke of making ‘April Fools’ on April 1st or All Fools Day, may have originated from 1582 with confusions around the change to the Gregorian calendar. It was popularised in the 18th century with bosses sending apprentices on pointless errands to find pigeons’ milk, striped paint, elbow grease, or hen’s teeth!

This year Good Friday falls on 2nd April when traditionally a purgative was thought to be a beneficial health tonic. In the 18th Century a book by one Mrs Harrington recommended a purging ale:  
“Take the strongest ale you can get, and leave it in a bag with bay-berries (= wax myrtle), ash-keys, aniseeds, fennel seeds and crushed senna (!): Drink thereof about a pint morning and evening, it purgeth the body mightily”. (Hard to believe that wasn’t an April Fool joke!)

Another superstition possibly worth heeding was that traditionally a new article of clothing should be worn to church on Easter day to prevent a year of bad luck. Or it was predicted if you failed to observe the tradition that at the very least “birds will make a mess on you”.

Pussy Willow is an early sign of Spring as male catkin buds covered in silky silver fur appear before any leaves. Later the catkins become yellow with pollen. The stems are traditionally used as decorations around the world for Spring, Easter and especially Palm Sunday. Above is a Victorian Easter card, and my illustration. 

Happy Easter!

Article by Lucy-Anne Bishop, Ethnobotanist and Artist

o    The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, by Charles Kightly, 1987.
o    Nature’s Ways: lore, legend, fact and fiction, by Ruth Binney, 2006
o    The Forager Handbook – a guide to the edible plants of Britain, by Miles Irving, 2009

Header Photo by freestocks on Unsplash, Victorian Easter Card, Pussy Willow Illustration by Lucy-Anne Bishop