by Heather Elvidge
As children hunt for hidden chocolate eggs, they’re recalling an old custom to celebrate spring.
One reason why eggs – real ones, that is – became so popular at Easter was because there were plenty of them. Hens didn’t know that eggs couldn’t be eaten during Lent, so they kept on laying them. Those surplus eggs had to be hard-boiled or pickled, and saved until the fast was over.
Eggs given as gifts were coloured with plant dyes. Onion skins or gorse gave yellow; spinach, green; tea, brown; and beetroot, pink. Leaves or strips of cloth, tied around the shells before boiling, produced delicate patterns. More formal designs were marked out in candle wax.
Egg rolling took off in the north around 1800. It was really popular in the villages of the North York Moors, probably because of the seriously steep slopes. Many eggs met their end on Easter Monday, chased down hillsides by screaming youngsters.
The usual plan was to see whose egg would go furthest before disintegrating, although goals were sometimes marked at the bottom of the slope to make it more challenging.
Any eggs left in a reasonable state were eaten. People made sure to crush the shells completely; a witch could use a half-shell to sail out to sea, and whistle up a storm.
Walking the faith
Re-birth, beginnings, dawn – that’s what Easter is about. The festival has to be held in spring because Jesus’ trial and execution took place around the time of the Jewish Passover.
But in calling the festival Easter, we are almost on our own. Other languages use words derived from Pesach, the Hebrew name for the Passover. So why don’t we? The reasons are obscure, and the observations of that great Northumbrian scholar, Bede, didn’t help.
Writing in the early eighth century at Jarrow, Bede declared that Easter was called after a Saxon goddess. As no other reference to this goddess has been found, it seems possible that Bede was being a bit creative. According to current thinking Easter is probably linked to the Saxon word eastre, meaning dawn, or spring, the dawn of the year.
Leading up to Easter is Holy Week, when Christians focus on Jesus’ journey to the cross. Today, some do this by taking on a physical, as well as a spiritual, challenge.
No longer a medieval relic, pilgrimages have been revived all over Europe. Britain has many old routes; the Northern Cross Pilgrimage - now in its 37th year - makes use of pathways trodden by the Northumbrian saints.
Last year 80 people did the walk in atrocious weather. This year five groups set off on April 12, starting from Carlisle, Melrose, Lanark, Edinburgh, and Hexham.
Each group is heading for Lindisfarne, carrying an eight-foot wooden cross along routes posing different levels of difficulty.
Experienced walkers cover 10 to 15 miles a day but there are easier walks for others, including families with children.
These modern-day pilgrims eat pub lunches and sleep in village halls, pausing during the day to reflect on life and the sacredness of the landscape. On Good Friday they will cross the sands to reach Holy Island, a centre of Christianity since before Bede’s time. At the Easter Sunday service those wooden crosses will be decorated with flowers.