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The story behind today's Easter traditions

Posted 12.04.19  - Culture

From ancient Mesopotamia to New Zealand via Queen Victoria, Easter traditions have evolved in exotic ways...

Even the agnostic among us Britons know – hopefully – about the reasons behind Easter: Christ died on the cross only to then, three days later, be resurrected. But how did we get from that to hot cross buns and Easter bunnies? And when did we start rooting around gardens in search of chocolate eggs?

The latter have their origin in Mesopotamia: a historical region of Western Asia where early Christians began dyeing chicken’s eggs red to symbolise the crucified Christ’s blood. This itself was an adoption of Pagan associations between eggs and spring, new life – that sort of thing.

Fast-forward to 16th-century Germany and the Protestant reformer Martin Luther had supposedly begun setting up egg hunts for women and children – this time a nod to the biblical tale of women finding Jesus’s empty tomb. Soon enough a certain Princess Victoria was enjoying the same larks at Kensington Palace courtesy of her German mother. ‘Mama did some pretty painted & ornamented eggs, & we looked for them,’ the future queen told her diary.

These eggs were likely hard-boiled, and perhaps cooked with onion skins to generate a golden hue. Such hunts became popular across mainstream England in the early 1900s, with Easter by now more oriented on family fun. That was truer still half a century later, when confectioners such as Cadbury’s first introduced chocolate eggs.

Among today’s best Easter egg hunts for families is the one held all weekend around the Peak District’s handsome Chatsworth estate , accompanied by rides on the Easter Eggspress train.

Photo credit: Chatsworth Estate

The National Trust and National Trust of Scotland, meanwhile, run Easter Egg Hunts in alliance with Cadbury at their properties across the UK over the bank holiday.

Photo credit: The National Trust

Likely to be visible at most is the Easter bunny. A longstanding symbol of spring fertility, he also dates to Lutheran traditions, although back then he was a hare – yet still with the same happy propensity for distributing eggs, Santa-style, to well-behaved children.

You’ll find one such bunny hopping around London’s beautiful Chelsea Physic Garden with entrants to his trail promised an egg by artisan chocolatiers Rococo.

Chelsea Physic Garden

Another calorific Easter delicacy is the hot cross bun, traditionally scoffed on Good Friday. These naughties are also an adopted tradition; originally they were made by pagans to mark the Spring equinox. After banning them proved unpopular – surprising, that – the Christian church passed a law limiting the buns to official religious ceremonies. Judging by Waitrose’s bakery section these days in September or January, that one has been abandoned.

A hot cross bun legend centres upon East London’s The Widow's Son public house. Promising to return on Good Friday, a departing sailor asked his widowed mother to bake some of the buns. He never returned, though, despite the grieving woman baking more each Easter. After she died, the buns were displayed in the house – now a pub – window. They are (ahem) still visible today and every Good Friday someone adds a new bun before a boozy knees-up.

The Widow's Son Public House

If the sailor were still alive, he’d do well to head to Auckland. A vanilla-bean custard reprise on the delicacy at bakery Ima Cuisine has been named the 'world's best hot cross bun' by Jetstar's in-flight magazine, and stupendously long queues are now routine over Easter.

Exotic Easter delicacies are available right here in Britain, too. 2019’s most glamorous egg is surely the Centenary Imperial Egg from Yorkshire tea shop chain Betty’s, honouring its 100th anniversary. Themed around the colours of Betty’s original Harrogate outpost, this five-kilo wonder sees pink-coloured white chocolate, decorated with handmade sugar roses and royal icing designs, frame a golden milk-chocolate interior egg using fine Swiss choc. The cost? Just £495.

Betty's Centenary Imperial Egg

Those Mesopotamians would never believe it. Their dyed chicken’s eggs have evolved into decadent choccy ovals worth half a grand. But whether you’re greedily (and expensively) tucking into one of those, rooting about rose bushes for clues, cutting up hot cross buns or thanking Easter bunnies, spare a thought for the origin of each Easter tradition – and perhaps for that poor East London widow, too.

Richard Mellor - Travel & History Journalist

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