Easter in the Eighteenth Century

Like many holidays in the post-Reformation world, Easter in England in the 1700s became more an excuse for festive wildness than an incentive for religious devotion.

The Medieval Catholic Church supplied pageantry and ritual coupled with religious devotion. The Protestant Reformation did away with much of the ritual. Protestants leaders like Henry VIII wanted to keep in the ritual (he just wanted to remove the pope from the equation). However, Henry VIII--however unwillingly--opened the door to the purer form of Protestantism that wanted to replace ritual entirely with individual testimony/scripture reading (Henry VIII did find it useful to detest ritual whenever it meant he could relieve churches of their belongings).

However, the rituals didn't vanish. In the absence of state-sanctioned ritual, many churchgoers simple retreated to or continued on with older folkloric customs, which customs had never really gone away in any case. 

Christmas underwent such a transformation, which is why the Puritans in America didn't celebrate it (or other ritualized celebrations). The American Christmas is the result of comparatively "new" traditions though even today, English Christmases tend to be far more, uh, worldly than so-called commercial American Christmases. To understand an English Christmas, think Thanksgiving plus Halloween plus the aftermath of a football game when the home-team won. The Christmas story is in there somewhere.

Post-Reformation Easters weren't all that dissimilar--in fact, most festivals in 1700s England could be described as "excuses to harass the neighbors and drink." (Making it more and more understandable why the Puritans were so un-enthused about bringing over these traditions.)

There was a particular Easter tradition called peace-egging which is basically trick-or-treating--for eggs! The eggs were sometimes dyed. Sometimes, the trick-or-treaters would sing. There could possibly be a connection here to "egging" a house without treats on Halloween! And a possible connection to caroling. My guess is that certain traditions simply lend themselves to being used . . . no matter what the occasion!

The picture is teenage me with an egg tree, a tradition that my mom started (or continued) in our family. She would cut a bare bush or tree limb in early spring (often as the result of pruning). We would then hang blown, dyed eggs from the limb. I don't know if there is a pagan/folklore connection. To me, the egg tree simply always meant "Easter"! At one point, when I was working at a business that wouldn't allow any religious decorations, I brought in my own egg tree. Another woman, also a Christian, brought in a palm branch. There's something to be said for symbolism that flies completely under the radar because nobody gets it but the people who produced it. (Though it could also say something sad about the gap in American education.)

2 comments:

  1. Thanks Kate! That's very cool!

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  2. One thing that is a little jarring is to see the celebrations from countries today where the Catholic church is prominent. There are places in south America and the Philipines where people actually nail themselves to crosses for Easter! As annoying as commercialism is, I'll take that over blood and gore any day.

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