Old-Time Easter

April 8th, 2012

Article from Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1897, apropos to the day.


By Gabrielle Marie Jacobs

THE first celebration of Easter, the oldest of the Christian festivals, antedates the dawn of the third century. The ancient Christian year began with this period, and not with Advent, the Resurrection having been, to the early church, an event of greater importance and solemnity than the Nativity.

All the ceremonies attending the observance of Easter were at first exceedingly simple, but in the early part of the fourth century a decided change was brought about by Constantine. He instituted vigils, or night-watches, for Easter eve, at which the people remained in the churches until midnight. The tapers which it had been customary to burn at this time were displaced by huge pillars of wax, not only in the churches but all over the Imperial City, so that the brilliancy of the night exceeded the light of day. Easter Sunday was observed with all the pomp and imposing accessory that could be devised by a ruler naturally fond of display.

The Resurrection festival was early made coincident with that of the heathen goddess of spring, and on the new faith and its observances were grafted many pagan traditions. One of them was the use of eggs as symbols of Easter. The egg has been for thousands of years the emblem of reincarnation. The Egyptians held it sacred as the emblem of the renovation of the human race after the Deluge. The Persians, who celebrate their New Year at the vernal equinox, present one another with appropriate gifts, among them being colored eggs. The Jews accepted the egg as a symbol of their departure from Egypt, and at the feast of the Passover it was placed on the table with the paschal lamb. Thus it was natural that the early Christians should have adopted it as an emblem of the Resurrection and a future life.

On this day their salutation was, “Christ is arisen,” to which the person addressed answered, “Christ is arisen indeed, and hath appeared unto Simon,” a custom which is still retained in the Greek Church. In Greece the courts of justice were formerly closed, alms were distributed, slaves were freed, and the people gave themselves up to rejoicing and feasting in honor of the day.Dancing was, during many centuries, a religious ceremony. In the temples of Jerusalem, Samaria, and Alexandria, the enclosure still known as the choir was devoted to this ceremony; for, according to the teaching of some of the early fathers, dancing is a part of the ceaseless worship of the saints, angels, prophets, and martyrs. The pious enthusiast and statesman, Cardinal Ximenes, revived the Mozarabic liturgy in the Cathedral of Toledo, and at the Easter festivals the worshippers danced decorously in both the choir and the nave. The custom was discontinued about the middle of the seventeenth century.

In mediaeval times it was the practice of many Continental clergymen to illustrate their Easter sermons with what were termed “Fabulse Paschales,” in which the sacred incidents of Scripture, in order that they might be more intelligible, were mixed with frivolous tales. These, like the miracle plays, owed their origin to the rude and uncultivated state of the laity.

Superstition was the mother of many curious customs, which began with Maundy Thursday and ended with Easter Wednesday. In some of the rural localities of England loaves of bread are baked, even yet, on Good Friday, and put by for medicine, for it is believed that a small portion grated in water and given to a person suffering with various ailments will work a certain cure. The non-eating of crossbuns was also believed to place the house of the non-eater in danger of being burned down. All fires were put out on Easter eve, for good-luck and other blessings. The fires were relighted with consecrated flints, preserved in the churches especially for that purpose. The flint signified Christ, and the flame the Holy Ghost, and fire obtained in this manner was held to prevent the effect of storms.

It was also said that people ought to put on some new article of dress for the first time on Easter Sunday, or they would have no good fortune in love affairs during the year, and would, besides, be liable to various illnesses.

On Easter Monday the young men in the Yorkshire villages had a custom of taking off the young girls’ shoe-buckles. On Easter Tuesday the young men’s shoe-buckles were taken off by the young women. On Wednesday they were redeemed by little pecuniary forfeits, with which were purchased materials for a ” Tansy Cake,” with dressing. Tansy is supposed to have been the “bitter herb ” used by the Jews at the feast of the Passover, but the Christians cleverly disguised its bitterness with sugar, spices, etc. The ancient idea is to-day embodied in the mintsauce which generally accompanies the spring lamb to modern tables.

Formerly the spurs of travelers were confiscated by jokers during Easter week, and their owners were compelled to redeem them with a small sum of money.

“Lifting ” or ” heaving ” is a very old custom. It is emblematic of our Saviour’s Resurrection, and the accompanying kiss is said to be in remembrance of His kissing His disciples. A party of gayly dressed, ribbon-decked young women sallied forth carrying a chair with arms, back, and legs decorated with rosettes. They seized a youth and placed him in the chair. He was held fast by some and by the others raised above their heads three times, then kissed by each girl. This observance took place on Easter Tuesday, and was intended as a punishment for a somewhat similar practice indulged in by the men the day before.

The origin of the sepulchre rite is not known. It probably had its rise in the old mystery plays which were often performed in the churches. Some of the characteristics of this ceremony would lend support to such a theory. However, at first it consisted only of the burial of the cross, and not of the blessed sacrament. The object of the custom was the strengthening of the faith of the ignorant and of converts. The first sepulchres were recesses at the side of the altar, closely resembling tombs. Frequently the altar-tombs of great persons were used as the resting places of the carved, painted, and gilded structures of wood which, in the smaller and poorer churches, did duty in lieu of a permanent receptacle.

The temporary structures, though in use only two days in each year, were as ornate and costly as the funds of the parish would permit . They were usually covered with gold-leaf, and no sepulchre was complete without its hangings, pall, and lights. The tapers, blessed for the occasion, were generally thirteen in number, to represent Christ and His disciples. The central taper of the group was always very large. One used as late as 1557, in the abbey church of Westminster, is said to have been three hundred pounds in weight. In earlier times representatives in iron, timber, and cloth, of God, His angels, and the devil, were a portion of the furnishings of an Easter sepulchre. Frequently to these were added effigies of knights, with weapons in their hands, to guard the sepulchre from Good Friday until Easter morning, the real work, however, being done by watchmen, paid and victualled for that purpose. One account of the “properties” of a certain Easter sepulchre mentions that the angels were provided with perukes as well as wings.

After the solemn adoration of the cross, sometimes known as the “creeping” ceremony, the cross, which had been wrapped in a winding-sheet, was brought to the recess or tomb, and placed therein, to the singing of appropriate antiphons.

There is another tradition to the effect that, after the adoration of the cross, and before it was wrapped in its winding-sheet, it was washed with wine and water, and the ablution given to the priests and the people to drink.

Only in the process of time did the host come to be buried with the cross. The precise period when the addition was made is not known, but it was prior to the thirteenth century. In those days the belief prevailed that the Lord’s second coming would be on Easter eve; hence, in many localities the sepulchres were anxiously watched through the night preceding Easter

Sunday, until three o’clock in the morning, when two aged monks would enter and remove the symbol of the Resurrection, which was held up before the worshipping audience during the chanting of the anthem “Christus Resurgens.” It was then carried to the high altar, where a procession formed, with lighted tapers, old men bearing a canopy of velvet over the symbol. The procession then made a circuit of the exterior of the church, all singing, rejoicing, and praying, until, coming again to the high altar, their precious burden was placed there, not to be removed until Ascension-day.

Leave a Reply