Although it is designated as a Christian holiday the English word Easter takes its name from the pagan festival of Eostre, goddess of spring and has deep roots in Anglo-Saxon mythology. Easter is also timed to coincide with the Jewish feast of Passover. It marks the return of the planting and lambing seasons.
In the Christian world Easter is the commemoration of Jesus' resurrection which is observed on the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox, which can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25. This year spring rolled in on Saturday, March 20th and Easter is on April 4th. Easter is also a holiday associated with chocolate, colored eggs and family gatherings with big meals. Early in the morning children get up and search the house and garden for eggs and other treats left by the Easter bunny. The eggs and the rabbit itself are ancient symbols of fertility and springtime rebirth. Let's take a look at how people celebrate in different countries.
Alsace (a region in France) - Alsatian Easter traditions are centered around the rabbit. Children are told that the rabbit hides chocolate eggs around the garden. However by the time the noon meal arrives on Easter Sunday the hare becomes a classic stew. Oschterlammele which are lamb-shaped brioches (a brioche is a highly enriched French bread) sprinkled with sugar are baked in terracotta molds and attired with a ribbon around their necks sit in bakery display windows. Even the traditional Kougelhopf (a traditional French pudding with fruit) becomes a "lamb".
In Austria everything begins on Palm Sunday. The "palms" which are actually made from various green branches or shoots (pussy willows, branches of juniper, boxwood, periwinkle etc.) are decorated with apples, oranges, nuts, colored eggs, pretzels, artificial flowers, little wreaths or multi-colored ribbons. In Innsbruck, the palms are 3 to 5 meters high and decorated with boxwood, ivy, pretzels and apples and crownes by an olive branch. In Thaur and Solbad Hall (Tyrol) they extend past the rooftops. Similar to the maypole and "Prangstangen" (poles decorated with flowers) the palms are the descendants of the tree of life, a magical symbol of the eternal life force that dates back to ancient times. A charming tradition that delights the children of Austria is that the Easter bunny lays eggs at Easter.
In Bayonne, France there is the ham fair which is held from Holy Thursday to the Eve of Easter. Bayonne Ham is a wine cured boneless ham produced near the town of Bayonne. It is air-dried and lightly smoked with a flavor that is influenced by the wine used in the curing process.
In Corsica (an island in the Mediterranean Sea) superstitious Corsicans always carry a few chestnuts in their pocket on Holy Thursday. An illness blessed by simple contact with the chestnuts will flee as quickly as it came. All throughout Corsica on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, penitents parade in a long procession, barefoot and wearing cowls on their heads. The rural women follow behind along the Way of the Cross collecting rosemary branches along the way to flavor their traditional meals with. In Bonifacio, on Good Friday they eat fougasse, dry cakes flavored with pastis and white wine. On Easter Sunday they roast a tender kid (goat) in the oven. For dessert there is campanile, sweet bread shaped like a crown and flavored with anise and eau-de-vie (a clear colorless, fruit brandy). Whole hard-boiled eggs are placed in the dough before baking. In Sartena where fortress-like houses cling to the sides of the rocks, the Catennacio procession takes place at night on Good Friday. A penitent with chains on his feet and carrying a cross on his shoulder recreates the walk to Golgotha. On the Cuscione plateau shepherds make brocciu, a cheese that is a natural filling for little turnovers. There are also pastis-flavored migheches, little crown, a tasty pastry to welcome the parish priest when he arrives to bless the house.
In Finland long before Easter, children sow raygrass seeds in saucers and place them on windowsills to sprout. They put willow branches into vases of water to bud. Easter is at the center of a number of festivals marking the beginning of spring. Seven weeks before Easter Mardi Gras or Laskiainen in Finnish is observed. It was a day marking the annual cycle of women's labor. A feast was held and the whole village headed out to sled on the snowy slopes. It has been centuries since the Finns have observed Lent but they still retain the tradition of eating well on Mardi Gras. There is pea soup, pancakes and buns filled with whipped cream, jams or almond paste. From the Orthodox they also adopted the custom of blini or buckwheat pancakes. On Mardi Gras children go sledding and prayers are recited for a good flax harvest. Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday and ends with Easter Sunday and Monday. On Palm Sunday one gets a bunch of consecrated willow boughs and goes to offer good wishes to family and friends. This custom in Finnish is called Virpominen. It comes from an old Orthodox tradition from Eastern Finland when children used to go from house to house waking up the people of the neighborhood by tapping on their doors with budding willow branches. In the Finnish church calendar the sufferings of Good Friday took on an importance of its own. It was a day of many prohibitions. One was not allowed to make a fire, sweep or spin flax. Visits were not permitted and you could not eat before sundown. In some parts of western Finland, children were whipped at dawn on Good Friday in remembrance of Christ's suffering. In southwestern Finland on the eve before Easter children would go from house to house throughout the neighborhood announcing their arrival with rattles and cow bells. This marked the end of Holy Week. Swings and seesaws were built for the children in the yards. An old belief hold that the sun begins to dance on Easter morning as it joins in the joy of Christ's resurrection. The Easter table is laid with eggs, chicken and lamb dishes. Pasha is a traditional Easter dessert. However the most common dessert is mammi a recipe dating back to medieval times. It is a kind of brown porridge made from rye flour and malt. Nowadays the mixture is cooked over low heat in a kind of cardboard container that imitates birch bark and is served with cream and sugar. Today mammi is a seasonal food that bakeries always offer their customers at the appropriate time. Children love to play hide and seek with Easter eggs. Symbols of Easter in every Finnish home are chickens, chicks, decorated eggs and rabbits. Children anxiously await Mignon eggs, real egg shells filled with milk chocolate. It was thought in Old Europe that witches were up to their tricks especially on April 30th in the North. In the period between Good Friday and Easter Sunday it was believed that trolls, evil genies started their pranks to take advantage of the fact that Christ was entombed in the grotto. Another belief was that trolls were old women in Satan's service. They inspired fear since they had the power to injure humans and pets. In western Finland in some regions it is still common to make big bonfires on Easter Sunday morning to ward off evil spirits. Witches accompanied by a black cat became a part of Finnish Easter tradition in the last century. Of course, these servants of the devil lost their evil powers and were turned into amusing good fairies. They can be seen on postcards. Since the 19th century girls have gone from house to house dressed as little Easter witches. Little girls wearing headscarves, their faces blackened with charcoal go from door to door with their brooms offering good wishes receiving a coin or some candy in return.
The egg is the symbol of life and the most identifiable Easter symbol in Germany. Today most children in Germany prefer to get a delicious assortment of German chocolates, handmade truffles, pralines or candies in their Easter baskets. The Easter bunny was first mentioned in German writing in the 1500s. German children believe that if they are good, the Easter bunny (Osterhase) will lay a nest of colorful eggs and hide them throughout the house. The first edible Easter bunnies were made in Germany from pastry and sugar in the early 1800s. Each region has its individual traditions. Also often associated with Easter are birds. In Tyrol you'll find a chicken and in the Hanover region a cuckoo. Traveling through Bavaria one may find roosters or foxes in Thuringia and Westphalia. A part of German Easter celebrations are Easter trees (Osterstrauch). These trees are decorated with hollowed-out eggs, which are dyed and hung with colorful ribbons throughout the Easter week. The Thursday before Easter (Maundy or Holy Thursday in English) is called Grundonnerstag in Germany. The name itself means "green Thursday" but was actually derived from greinen, an old German word for mourning or crying. On that day it is traditional to eat green dishes, such as seven herb soup which consists of spinach, parsley, leeks, chives, dandelion and sorrel. In Karfreitag, Germany on Good Friday people traditionally eat fish for dinner. On Easter Sunday families gather together to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and the end of Lent with a festive meal. A common dish is lamb. If there are herbs left over from the Holy Thursday meal they are then used to make Eier in gruener Sosse or eggs in green sauce.
Eggs and rabbits are also traditional symbols of Easter in the British Isles. Children get chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs as presents or they are hidden for the Easter morning "egg hunt". In 1290 the English king, Edward I ordered 450 eggs to be covered in gold leaf and 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. Competitors try to be the first to roll their egg across a course or down a hill without breaking it. The best known English Easter food is the hot cross buns. This dates back to medieval times when the buns were traditionally eaten on Good Friday. Now they are popular throughout the Easter season. These sweet buns are made with fruit and spices and marked with a cross which is slashed into the dough before baking or drizzled on by icing after baking. Besides the symbolism of the cross the shape of the bun was said to represent the stone that sealed Jesus' tomb while the spices were a remainder of those with which his body was buried. The mystique surrounding hot cross buns was so great that a stale bun was often kept in the house throughout the year to ward off evil and sailors even carried them to sea as protection against shipwreck. Church services traditionally mark Easter Sunday in the British Isles. Services are often held at dawn so the worshipers can view the sunrise which is a symbol of Christ's resurrection. Afterwards Easter eggs are exchanged and eaten. The Easter meal traditionally consisted of roast spring lamb with mint sauce, potatoes and green peas. Another symbol representing the end of winter and the season of new growth are pussy willows. In Scotland huge bonfires used to be lit to celebrate Easter.
The most important feast day in the Orthodox liturgical calendar is Easter. Good Friday is considered a fast day in Greece when only olives, vegetables and bread are eaten. On Saturday the whole family prepares hard-boiled eggs which are then dyed red. Traditional tsoureki bread is braided and adorned with the red eggs. At midnight when the bells ring out Christ's resurrection a tripe soup called mayeritsa is brought to the table in which the heart and lungs of the paschal lamb have been cooked and the Easter bread is broken. Everyone chooses a red egg which has to be held with three fingers as each person tries to break his neighbor's egg. On Easter Sunday the lamb is roasted on a spice it is then accompanied with rice, salad and special meatballs made with liver, onion, and finely chopped vegetables held together by a strip of intestine. While waiting for the lamb roasting on the spit the celebrations of eating and drinking have already begun.
In Italy there are many legends surrounding la colomba (the dove). One of them is that immediately after Easter during the Battle of Legnano the Milanese who were fighting Barbarossa saw the battle turn in their favor when three doves flew up from a church. Since that time the Milanese have commemorated the event by eating dove shaped cakes. Everywhere in the world la colomba is synonymous with good news and provides a joyful end to the Easter meal. The ingredients for the cakes are flour, butter, egg yolks, sugar, orange zest, almonds and milk. In Sicily there is the "cassata" (a ricotta filled sponge cake) to celebrate Easter after the privations of Lent. A Sicilian proverb holds that anyone who has no cassata at Easter is truly to be pitied. Other sweets are Martorana or Pasta Reale a marzipan confectionery prepared in many shapes and Agnellini pasquali, little marzipan Easter lambs. Easter also means the arrival of spring so one will also find fresh peas and beans, artichokes served in frittella and fresh tuna marking the opening of fishing season. Each village has its own special traditions. In Prizzi, in the hills south of Palermo, The Dance of the Devils takes place on every Monday of the Easter season. Wearing red and black satanic masks complete with horns and grotesque noses a portion of the townsfolk wreak havoc constraining passers-by to buy them drinks (a metaphor for stealing their souls). During the ensuing celebrations the devils are "forced" to get the drinks and "cannateddi", a typical Easter cake is distributed.
The Easter celebration is by far the most important in the Russian Orthodox Church. Some of the Russian symbols of this festival are already familiar like the folk-art Easter eggs with their intricate patterns and colors of red, black and golden-yellow. Equally impressive are the images of the bejeweled and bedazzling enameled eggs created by court jeweler and artist Karl Faberge. Traditional Easter foods are a nut and fruit filled yeast cake which is called kulich and an accompanying sweet cheese spread called paskha. The classic kulich was begun several days before Easter and contained candied fruit, almonds and raisins. It was always baked in a special pan like a cylindrical coffee can. When done the cake was decorated with white frosting drizzled down the sides. On the side spelled out in pieces of candied fruit were the letters XB representing the Cyrillic letters for "Christos voskres" - "Christ is risen". The kulich was often carried to church and set out on long tables to be blessed by the priest. Next to the cake was the paskha in a pyramid shape. On this were also the letters XB. Creating paskha takes hours as the "pot cheese" must be weighed down with a heavy board to drain off moisture before it is pressed through a sieve and other ingredients are added. Depending on the household it may be decorated with almonds and candied fruit or served with a slice of almond bread or with walnut and raisin bread. In Russia Easter eggs are cooked with onion skins to give them a brownish color. Then on Easter Sunday Russians go to cemeteries where they eat the eggs by the tombs of loved ones, leaving some behind when they depart. They will be eaten by beggars through whom the spirits of the dead will be appeased.
In Sweden on Holy Thursday the famous "Easter witches" arrive. Children dressed in costumes sing a song or two and then the "witches" beg for some candies to put into their coffee pots in preparation for their flight back to Blue Mountain astride their brooms. The night before Easter children receive an egg filled with candy and the traditional Easter eve meal is herring and eggs. In the old days people took their time lighting the fireplace on Easter morning since it was believed that the first person to have smoke coming from the chimney was a witch! These days the Easter Sunday meal consists of spring lamb, sharing the table with herring and salmon cooked in various ways, including Strommingsflundror (stuffed herring) and Laxpudding (salmon gratin). Meanwhile children have dyed baskets full of hard-boiled eggs yellow - using onion skins - and red - using beet juice. Then everyone pairs against each other tapping their eggs. The person with the egg that is last to crack is supposed to have good luck throughout the coming year.
Wishing everyone a very Happy Easter in English and the following languages:
Danish - Paaske
Dutch - Pasen
German - Ostern
German (Lower Rhine) - Paisken
Greek - Pasxa
Irish - Cáisc
Italian - Pasqua
Latin - Pascha or Festa Paschalia
Portuguese - Páscoa
Romanian - Pasti
Scots - Pask
Spanish - Pascua
Swedish - Påsk
Total time: 1hr to 2hr
Preparation time: 15 minutes + 1 hour draining time
Refrigeration time: 8 hours
Cooking time: A few minutes
- 1.5 kg (3 1/2 lb.) thick Fromage blanc or Baker's cheese, such as ricotta, brousse, etc.
- 250 ml (1 cup) sugar
- 250 ml (1 cup) heavy cream
- 225 g (8 oz.) softened butter
- 4 egg yolks
- 125 ml (1/2 cup) candied fruit and peel
- 125 ml (1/2 cup) finely chopped blanched almonds
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
Drain the cheese by placing it in a strainer and putting a weight on top - otherwise the loaf may not keep its shape;
In a bowl, macerate the candied fruit with the vanilla;
Break up the cheese with the back of a spoon; mix in the butter;
In a saucepan, heat the cream until bubbles start to form around the edges;
In another bowl, beat together the eggs and sugar; pour in the hot cream; return the mixture to the saucepan and return to the heat; cook gently over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens - do not let it boil or it may turn lumpy;
Remove from the heat; add the candied fruit; place the saucepan into a large bowl of ice water and stir until the mixture has cooled;
Add the cheese and the almonds; put the mixture into a mold and cover with a muslin cloth and place a weight on top; refrigerate at least 8 hours before unmolding; decorate and serve.
To slice, slide your knife through to make horizontal slices, saving the top slice and replacing it: it's more attractive that way.