Jane Austen's Easter Posted on

Jane Austen’s Easter

Colonel Fitzwilliam’s manners were very much admired at the parsonage, and the ladies all felt that he must add considerably to the pleasure of their engagements at Rosings. It was some days, however, before they received any invitation thither, for while there were visitors in the house they could not be necessary; and it was not till Easter-day, almost a week after the gentlemen’s arrival, that they were honoured by such an attention, and then they were merely asked on leaving church to come there in the evening. For the last week they had seen very little of either Lady Catherine or her daughter. Colonel Fitzwilliam had called at the parsonage more than once during the time, but Mr Darcy they had only seen at church. The invitation was accepted of course, and at a proper hour they joined the party in Lady Catherine’s drawing room.
Pride and Prejudice

Easter is arguably the most important holiday in the Christian Calendar. It is on this day that Christians from all denominations celebrate Christ’s victory over death, for, as the Apostle Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15 , “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins…But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” That victory is the sure knowledge that He is the Son of God and that all He said was true—who else could be raised back to life from the dead? “For he taught his disciples, and said unto them, The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day.” If He had not been raised then He would be, as some claim, only a great teacher or Rabbi.

As the daughter of a clergyman, Jane Austen would scarcely have missed a service at the small Anglican Church in Steventon where her father served. She would have been intimately familiar with The Book of Common Prayer, as Her father would have used this as a guide in planning his services throughout the year. It gives the prayers and rites necessary to a clergyman and scripture readings for each service. The suggested reading for Easter is in John 20, appropriately, the “Easter Story” of how Jesus’ disciples and friends went to grieve over his body in the garden tomb where it had been laid, only to find the Lord, Himself, alive and waiting to ascend to his Father in Heaven.

With this proof of Christ’s deity, the rest of His message to all peoples can be embraced, “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” Salvation by Grace was a concept which was gaining ground in the Georgian world as evangelists like John Wesley and George Whitfield preached a break from the tradition of attending church for the sake of being seen and encouraged a personal relationship with Christ as offered through the scriptures. Austen, at first (in a letter to Cassandra in 1809) claims to dislike Evangelicals, though she declines to say why, but later on in life seems to question this belief with a sort of envy of their assurance of Salvation: “I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be evangelicals, and am at least persuaded that they who are so from reason and feeling must be happiest and safest.” (a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, 1814).

History of Easter
When Christian Missionaries spread throughout Europe in the early centuries after the resurrection of Christ they found that many pagan rites and rituals existed in the early spring, at the same time that they were celebrating the resurrection of Christ. One of these involved the Saxon Goddess, Eostre. When writing his Historia Ecclesiastica, Bede, the famed historian, noted that the month we know as April was named Eostre Month. From her name came a name for the time of year, Easter, and, as with other holidays such as Christmas and Hallowe’en, certain established rites surrounding her worship such as hares and colored eggs were absorbed into the modern celebration of the season.

It is interesting to note that the Puritan fathers (Those who colonized North America in the years before Jane Austen’s birth) looked on Easter as a pagan holiday and refused to celebrate using any of these devices. Nevertheless German settlers brought their customs with them and the idea of white rabbits bringing baskets of treats and eggs to good boys and girls caught on in the popular imagination. After the American Civil War (1861-1865) it gained popularity becoming the modern festival of candy consumption and Easter Egg Hunts.

Easter is known as a moveable feast, as it is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox, instead of on a set day each year. A table for calculating Easter Sunday was included in each book of the Common Prayer and, somewhat unbelievably, it takes 5,700,000 years for the cycle of dates to repeat itself!

During Jane Austen’s day, the Easter Season (Easter and the 40 days following it, until Ascension Sunday, when Christ’s final ascension into heaven is celebrated) or the Easter Holidays as they are sometimes referred to, were a time of traveling and visiting Family. Every mention of Easter in her letters and novels involves travel, including her most notorious use in Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Darcy arrives at Rosings Park, to visit his aunt, Lady Catherine DuBourgh.

The idea of wearing something new for Easter has its roots in Roman tradition (it was good luck to have something new to wear in the spring) and early Christianity where new converts would celebrate their baptism by wearing white for a week. The first Easter bonnets were spring bonnets which would be delightful to wear after the dark clothes of winter and somber tone of Lent.

Lent
Easter is preceded by 40 days of fasting, known as Lent. This is not a full fast and is broken every Sunday, making Lent actually fall on the 46 days preceding Easter Sunday. According to common definition, the forty days represent the time Jesus spent in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan. The purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer—through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial— for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to the Passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.*

During Lent, it is customary to give up eating rich, fattening foods and live on only the simplest of meals. These foods would include sugar, eggs, meat, dairy products and other fats. Many traditions have sprung up around Lent including Mardi Gras in the United States (which means “Fat Tuesday” in French.) This is traditionally held as the last day of partying before Lent begins. In England the day before the beginning of Lent is known as Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday and is a time for using up all those ingredients you won’t be using during Lent, before they go bad.

Easter Eggs and other Specialty Foods
Eggs have long been a symbol of fertility and new life and giving them as gifts in the spring, often colorfully decorated, is a centuries old custom among many people groups. Since they would not have been eaten during the weeks preceding Easter, it was common to hard boil them (in order to make them last) and have them in abundance during the week of Easter. It is said that Christians dyed their eggs red using red onion skins in order to remember the blood of Christ shed in their place.

Beautifully decorated eggs became an art form across Europe, from the Pysanky created in the Ukraine and Faberge’s gorgeous creations for the Tsar’s family in Russia, to homemade tokens created as gifts from lovers to their beloved, often trimmed in paper, lace, gold leaf, and paint or dyed with natural colors. Dyeing them in pale, pastel colors seems to come from Egypt, though tales of multicolored eggs spring from the legends surrounding Eostre, as well.

It would be hard to imagine Easter without the traditional dinner of Ham or Lamb. While both may seem a bit odd considering that it is a holiday focused on a Jewish Man, known as the Lamb of God, there are good reasons for it. First of all, a meal of meat was a delightful celebration following the deprivations associated with Lent. What better way to celebrate this most auspicious of days? Easter is inextricably linked with the Jewish Passover celebration, as it was the festival which Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem celebrating when he was arrested and crucified. Central to the Passover celebration is the eating of the Passover Lamb—ironically, Passover and the Passover Lamb are pictures of Christ the once and for all sacrifice needed to wash away the guilt of our sins.

Practically, Easter was celebrated in spring, just as the first lambs were born and they would be readily available on farms and in markets. The same reasoning holds for hams, which would be the last of the cured meats, set aside for winter. Spring was the time to use them up in preparation for the fresh meat which would soon be available. Due to the doctrine of grace, early Christians did not hold to the kosher diet observed by Jews and some other religions, such as Islam, which forbid the eating of Pork. Eating ham in celebration of Easter was, therefore, an allowed indulgence.

Perhaps the most famous Easter food is the Hot Cross Bun. The first mention of these in association with Easter comes from Poor Robin’s Almanack (1733): “Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs, with one or two a penny hot cross buns”. Typically, the cross marked on the top of the bun symbolizes the cross on which Jesus died, and they are eaten on Good Friday as a build up to Easter Sunday. English tradition holds that a bun baked on Good Friday brings good luck to the household and will not mold. Many were kept throughout the year until the next batch would be made.

Although Egyptians and Romans celebrated some spring rites with small loaves baked with crosses imprinted on top, the traditional “spiced buns first became popular in Tudor days, at the same period as the larger spice loaves or cakes, and were no doubt usually made from the same batch of spiced and butter-enriched fruit dough. For a long time bakers were permitted to offer these breads and buns for sale only on special occasions, as is shown by the following decree, issued in 1592, the thirty-sixth year of the reign of Elizabeth I, by the London Clerk of the Markets: That no bakers, etc, at any time or times hereafter make, utter, or sell by retail, within or without their houses, unto any of the Queen’s subject any spice cakes, buns, biscuits, or other spice bread (being bread out of size and not by law allowed) except it be at burials, or on Friday before Easter, or at Christmas, upon pain or forfeiture of all such spiced bread to the poor… In the time of James I, further attempts to prevent bakers from making spice breads and buns proved impossible to enforce, and in this matter the bakers were allowed their way.”**

Like their cousin, the Chelsea bun, hot cross buns were sold in great quantities by the Chelsea Bun House, writes, Alan Davidson in Oxford Companion to Food, “ In the 18th century large numbers of people flocked to Chelsea during the Easter period expressly to visit this establishment.”

The first mention of egg shaped candies comes in 1820 from Guglielmo Jarrin, a self described “ornamental confectioner”. In his book, The Italian Confectioner, he describes hollow comfits, filled with trinkets. At that time a comfit was a spice, dried fruit or nut covered in a candy coating, similar to a Jordan almond. The creation of these eggs was a difficult business and would have been attempted by only the most skilled confectioner.

During the Victorian Era, the celebration of Easter became more elaborate, adapting imagery from the pagan festival and other spring symbols (such as chicks). Candy making also became easier and more standardized due to the Industrial Revolution and many of what we now think of as traditional Easter candies were developed including the chocolate Rabbit (90 million sold annually, according to the National Confectioners Association) and Jelly Bean.

Many of these candies find their way into Easter Baskets. These, too hearken back to the days when the faithful would bring baskets of spring seedlings to the temple to be blessed by one of Goddess’ priests. A variation on this involves a Catholic tradition of taking the Easter food or eggs to mass to be blessed.

There is not a lot of information about how the Austen’s celebrated the season. What little we do know is drawn from Jane’s letters and what was typical for the period. While it is assured that Jane Austen celebrated Easter, her holiday was probably a quiet one. She would have observed Lent and broken the “Fast” on Easter with a special dinner with her family. She may have dyed eggs and probably ate them in abundance once Lent was concluded. Mrs Austen is known to have had chickens at Chawton Cottage and it is unlikely that they would have allowed the eggs to spoil. Likewise, Austen mentions Lambs at Steventon, as well as Hams that her mother cured so either might have been eaten at Easter dinner. In her letters, she mentions using the Easter Holidays as a time to travel, and visiting friends along the way to one of her brothers’ houses. As a religious holiday celebrated by a religious family in the early 1800’s, it is unlikely that she ever associated the holiday with rabbits or candy.

*Historical Information from Wikipedia and The Food Timeline

**English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Elizabeth David [Penguin Books:Middlesex UK] 1979

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