From the Archives: A Brief History of Easter

POST BY MAllen

Resurrexit sketch from 'Juvenilia' (1912-1913), a series of manuscript volumes produced by the Juniors at Manresa House in Roehampton

Though we currently find ourselves in a truly unprecedented time in history, the Jesuits in Britain Archives wishes to celebrate Easter as much as is safely possible to do. This article therefore, aims to take a deeper look into the origins of the festival and its customs. As part of my research I explored, once again, the pages of the Blandyke Papers - a journal created and maintained by philosophers at St Mary’s Hall, which contain a fascinating range of articles, illustrations and poems.

First, let’s focus on the term ‘Easter’. During 1893, in Blandyke Papers volume 51, Fr Alban Goodier SJ (1869-1939) investigated the origins and meaning of the festival’s English name. While researching he finds an answer in Isaac Taylor’s Words and Places. Taylor mentions a view, first put forward by the Venerable Bede in the eighth century, that the name of the festival is derived from the pagan name Eastre, or Ostȃra, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, to whom the month of April was sacred. This line of thought follows the theory that early Christians appropriated pagan names and holidays for their own important festivals, much like Christmas. The most widely supported theory today however, is that the term ‘Easter’ derives from the Christian designation of Easter week as the Latin phrase ‘in albis’, meaning dawns. ‘In albis’ became ‘eostarum’ in Old High German, and the direct precursor to both the modern German English term.

Extract from Fr Alban Goodier SJ’s investigation of the origins of Easter (Blandyke Papers, vol. 51, p.226)

No festival would be complete without its fair share of peculiar customs, and Easter is no exception. These days, many of us (especially children), associate Easter with the custom of receiving an indulgent chocolate Easter egg. This curious folk custom, described by both Fr Goodier SJ and an anonymous contributor in Blandyke Papers volume 44, finds its origins (in England at least), surprisingly, in Lancashire. According to Fr Goodier, during Shrove-tide and Easter children in Lancashire would go from house to house begging for ‘Pace-eggs’. Their request would go like so: “If you please a Pace-egg” and would finish with “Owd Mother Rotten-egg!” if the occupant of the house did not answer with a gift of sweet meat, eggs or similar.

The author of this article seems as clueless as to what a ‘pace-egg’ is as the author of this blog-post (Blandyke Papers vol.44 p.290)

The earliest association between Easter and the Easter egg goes as far back as the early Egyptians, and was already a well-known custom during the early days of Christianity. During this time, eggs appear to have been ceremonially blessed at Easter to remind people that eggs could once again be added to staple food. Unsurprisingly the egg also became a symbol of the Resurrection. Similarly, the use of decoratively painted eggs (not of the chocolate variety) was first recorded in the thirteenth century. This tradition appears to have come about due to the fact that, hundreds of years ago, many abstained from eating eggs during Holy Week. Any eggs laid by chickens during this were specially identified as Holy Week eggs and decorated accordingly.

1892 Easter poem, likely by Fr Alban Goodier SJ (Blandyke Papers vol. 43 pp. 115-116)

Another popular Easter tradition, and one that has a similarly tenuous association with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is the Easter bunny. The origins of this symbol of Easter are however, surprisingly Christian in origin. During the medieval period, rabbits became associated with the Virgin Mary due to the ancient belief that rabbits could reproduce as virgins. More generally, rabbits, known for their remarkable ability to multiply, have always been associated with fertility. German Protestants were the first to adopt the Easter bunny as a symbol of the season, as first recorded in the 16th century. In their version the bunny came as a judge, hiding decorated eggs for well-behaved children. An opposing theory, first suggested in 1835 by Jacob Grimm, is that the symbol originated from German pagan traditions.

1890 Easter poem by Fr David Bearne SJ (1856-1920) in Blandyle Papers vol. 25 pp. 13-14

If you are interested in the Blandyke Papers, would like to make an enquiry or an appointment, please contact us.

The Jesuits in Britain Archives wishes you and all your families a happy Easter!

Alex van Goethem, Cataloguing Archivist