By the Regency Era, Easter had evolved from its pagan origins to a much more religious, and family-friendly tradition. Normally Parliament did not begin its first session of the year until after Easter and activities were curtailed between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, and especially during the 40 days of Lent when people were expected to refrain from “indulgence foods” like cakes or pastries, dairy foods, and fats Monday through Saturday, and from meat on Friday. (Sunday is not part of Lent) Even during years when Parliament resumed early, the official London Season with all its parties, balls, and routs did not fully begin until after Easter Sunday.
The day before Lent began was Shrove Tuesday, a day to confess sins to one’s priest (or to get “shriven”). According to Regency researcher and author, Regina Scott, it was also a day they referred to as “pancake Tuesday,” the last opportunity to eat all the foods forbidden during Lent. The custom might have begun as a way to use up any of these foods one had in the house so they wouldn’t spoil. Other cultures used their last day of anything goes to create events such as Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday.
In England, a host of games accompanied Pancake Tuesday, including pancake races (flipping a pancake in a frying pan while running) and Street Foot Ball, or Hurling, which is a cross between soccer and American football. You can read more about those games here.
Then Lent, a time of fasting and abstinence began. Behavior was also curtailed during Lent.
According to noted Regency researcher, Nancy Mayer:
Though the theatres were open during most of Lent, they presented more oratorios and benefits than dramas. The theatres were usually closed during Holy week– the week between Palm Sunday and Easter.
Easter was a pivotal date on the calendar. Though it wasn’t and isn’t a fixed date, many events depended on the date of Easter. Schools, universities and courts had Easter terms. Several events occurred a week or so after Easter.
Easter Monday and Easter Tuesday were government holidays.
Many of the fashionable set went to London in February when Parliament resumed and the Queen’s birthday was celebrated. The official celebration of royal birthdays, often had no connection to the actual date of birth. The celebration of the Queen’s birthday usually took place in the first week of Feb. before Lent. Those in town before Easter seem to have had more dinners and routs than balls– according to those newspapers I have read. Balls were not considered proper during Lent.
Even the royalty had a custom for Easter called “the Maundy,” usually the Thursday before Easter Sunday. On this day, the ruling monarch gave food and tunics to the poor who lined up for help following the example the Savior who helped the poor. In old times, there was even a foot washing ceremony representative of when Jesus washed the feet of his apostles during the Last Supper (a ceremony still practiced in some churches). A version of the Maundy continues even today.
Many families also colored hard boiled eggs using natural sources for dyes to give as Easter gifts. Pasche Eggs, which were also called Pace Eggs, were dyed and recipient’s name and age carefully scratched out with a blade so that the white of the shell showed through the color. Others decorated eggs by using tallow to draw a design on the egg then dying it, then removing the tallow to reveal the design. People also decorated eggs by painting pictures on them using colored dyes. Children participated in egg rolls where they rolled eggs down hills or other angled surfaces in a race to the finish line, or even to see how far the eggs rolled.
True believers viewed Easter and Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, as even more important than Christmas due to its reminder of the Resurrection. Multiple church services occurred during the week complete with choirs singing. On Easters Sunday, worship included choirs singing, incense burning, chanting, kneeling, making the sign of the cross, and lighting candles during personal prayers. Some churches today, especially larger cathedrals, still practice these traditional forms of worship. A common practice includes draping the statues in black and stripping the altar on Good Friday symbolic of mourning the Savior’s death, then on Easter morning, remove the black and dress the altar as a celebration of His Resurrection.
According to Gaelen Foley, new gowns and Easter bonnets were a must for all gently-bred Regency ladies.
Easter dinner was an important part of the day, usually including ham or lamb, and, of course, hot cross buns–a tradition that continues today.
In my family, we balance the fun of Easter with the Christian religious aspect, normally reserving the celebratory customs of decorating, egg hunts, and parties for Saturday. This leaves Easter Sunday open for church service and more reverent observances. (However, the Easter Bunny does leave a few small gifts and candy in my children’s Easter baskets, which await them on the breakfast table Easter morning.) We also have a nice ham dinner that evening upon our return from church.
What are your favorite Easter customs?