Time to savour the feast of spring

From chocolate bunnies to spit-roasted lamb: Keith Botsford looks at the history, both Christian and pagan, of Easter food; As the Father sacrificed his Son, the son became the pure, innocent Lamb of God, which accounts for the prime place given to lamb on Easter Day
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Indy Lifestyle Online
This week is the great intersection of the world's monotheisms and its pagan, perpetually renewed hope for the future. Like all such festivals, Easter - from Eostre, the goddess whose festival was celebrated at the spring equinox - is marked with food, sacrificed and eaten, and fellowship. It marks renewal, the first fresh shoots of plants, the birth of lambs; it marks the end of the 40-day fast, surviving another winter, the renewed dominance of the sun over the night, of warmth over cold. Compared to that teutonic feast of Yule, when the snow lies round about, deep and crisp and even, Easter is bright and brilliant: it is about resurrection, nature's, God's, and for believers, our own.

In less secular times - what my youngest son calls "the olden days" (which for him is when video games didn't yet exist) - you would have been deeply aware of Easter. Throughout Lent, every image in your church would have been draped in cloth; no candles would have been lit, no bells rung, no masses sung; you would have been fasting, and especially abstaining from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays; you would have resolved to share in the Passion, to have given up something which you relished; then something would have stirred on Palm Sunday, awakening would be in the air for which you should prepare yourself with penitence (if not sackcloth and ashes, which even emperors once wore, with a thumb-print of ash on your forehead); you would share your experience with the Jews of the Old Testament as you listened to the Lamentations of Jeremiah. And suddenly, on the eve of Easter, on Holy Saturday, off would come the veils, the bells would peal, the paschal candle be lit, and you would sing of your joy.

This distinction between darkness and light remains very real for me, thanks to Igor. As his name indicates, Igor is a Slav, and he still observes Lent with typical Slav excess. He gives up drink. And dear God, does he love drink. During Lent I will get several calls a week announcing "only 22 days to go, only 17, only 11", and when the countdown comes down to single digits he becomes preoccupied with the breaking of his fast: the how, where, when of his resurrection. So that together, this weekend, we shall go to the monastery in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where, as an adolescent, starved by Lenten fasts, I was a novice and counted the days just as he did - to the monastic Easter feast of lamb and even a glass of wine. Igor and I shall probably have a few.

Emerging from winter, during which the standard diet was salt fish (in Poland they would take their revenge on herrings by hanging one on a tree branch and execrating it as they hurried to church on Easter), hard bread and root vegetables, it's small wonder that fast should give way to feast. The gods, however primitive, always liked their food: and they weren't vegetarians. To appease them one made a living sacrifice (no salad bar) and offered them a portion. And as the Father sacrificed his Son, the son became the pure, innocent Lamb of God, which accounts for the prime place given lamb on Easter Day.

As far as I'm concerned, the connection of Easter with lambing is not fortuitous, least of all in a theophagous religion (for communion is eating God's flesh and drinking of His blood). Sheep were by far the most important commodity in the ancient world, and lambs represent one of the most real connections between food and life. Not all of us are up to taking a spring lamb (10-12 kgs) and grilling it whole, as the Greeks still do, on an open fire - though the gods showed good sense in demanding that their sacrifices be cooked that way. We may not make the ancient connection nor even the religious, but wherever Christianity has spread, the chances are we'll be eating lamb in one form or another.

And will have eaten fish today: fish that's stuffed with the caviar eggs of Christian symbolism - the Pope's fisherman's ring as fisher of men, the Fisherman King of the Grail legends with their religious subtext. To the Christian world, fish was not flesh; and we in our pre-war boarding schools knew that all too well - it was a gelatinous, unidentifiable substance that probably, but not certainly, had once swum. What we did identify was that the Greek letters of Ichthys spelled Jesus Christ: I-esous, CH- ristous, TH-eou, S-oter, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. We knew about the loaves and the fishes, and a half-Italian like myself would down the fish while dreaming of what fish could be, elsewhere: tasty grilled river trout, smooth sole, immaculate turbot, ah. Alas, Fridays and Ember Days, days of fast, made many a Catholic youth an icthyophobe from childhood.

True, we lose something by not making those connections, but the unconscious connection still exists, because food has always been venerated and always will be, for the same reason that we lie on a beach and "sun-worship", because warmth and food and drink are our most basic and "natural" needs. Insecure mortals that we are, we dread not only dying but dearth, so that plenty is always celebrated as hunger is feared (why else would Chagall always have carried a piece of bread in his pocket, just in case?).

Spring always heralds plenty. To feast is to celebrate with joy, as a fast is to observe with sorrow. Our hot-cross bun, traditionally baked in this country on Good Friday, is a culinary offering to the resurrection to come. But it too has its pagan origins, being a representation of the moon and its four quarters; and the Greeks had their own, with horns, a bous, offered to Apollo and Diana. In its Christian translation, marked with a cross, it was made from the dough prepared for communion bread and, as its reputation was that it would not go mouldy, it had symbolic value as being immortal. Thus Poor Robin's Almanack doggereled:

Good Friday comes this month; the old woman runs

With one a penny, two a penny "hot cross buns",

Whose virtue is, if you believe what's said,

They'll not grow mouldy like the common bread.

Indeed, though it was not old women, I still have a vestigial childhood memory of that street-crier's chant, "Hot Cross Buns! hot cross buns!", echoing through the Kensington backwaters. My memory of Shrove-Tuesday pancake-races, however, is much clearer - a crepe swimming in a shallow pan in butter is nothing easy to balance over a hundred yards - and Shrove Tuesday was also, in South America as in England, the great derby-day for cock-fighting.

The link between baking and Easter is well-established, for the egg, which may not be eaten in Lent, is harbinger of the chick. Thus our own simnel cake (from Latin simenellus, fine flour), the plaited loaf made with egg at Seder, the beginning of Passover (which Christians analogised to the plaited rope with which Judas hanged himself in shame), and that extraordinary centrepiece of the Russian Easter (celebrated by the old calendar a fortnight after ours), the giant, cylindrical kulich of yeast cake made with egg and stuffed with currants, and its accompanying pyramidal pashka - or its Greek Orthodox equivalents, for what Greek family does not indulge itself in mountains of food on the day, and what Greek housewife has not vied all week with her neighbours to produce the most splendid feast?

As for Easter Bunnies and Easter eggs (chocolate) or otherwise, they are a part of our latter-day Germanic heritage. At Easter, Germans go in for rabbit; from them, too, comes the Easter egg as part of the celebration; made kinder for Kinder or kids, even in a politically incorrect age, by being transformed into bunnies and a treasure-hunt. The egg itself has always been a part of the paschal tradition, and we have records of painted eggs going back to the earliest days of Christianity: painted blood-red in honour of the Saviour's blood among the Orthodox. The chocolate Easter egg, which in my childhood contained as many splendid miniaturised gizmos as Japan in those days could produce, not to speak of additional sweets, is no more than the end-result of Swiss entrepreneurship and smart marketing, now bastardised. It used to be a thing of beauty which you could admire, nose rubbed longingly to the glass, in the windows of the great patissiers and chocolatiers: huge or small, they were as lovingly decorated as any Faberge egg, and far tastier.

That all this is now secularised, mechanised, commercialised and dumbed- down, is no doubt a source of rue to many. But perhaps we should remember our pagan origins and simply enjoy our Easter food as the symbol of bounty and renewal which it is. And pray for a sunny day.

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