Written by Heather Elvidge
Easter is a holiday weekend when most of us like to get out of doors, so we’re hoping for more than a glimpse of sun. Yet Easter is a moveable feast that doesn’t always bring good weather.
Maundy Thursday service commemorates the Last Supper
Folklore says that rain on Good Friday and Easter Monday – it has to be both days – means a good year for grass and a bad year for hay. In other words, a wet summer. However things turn out, there’s an old saying to cheer us up: “East wind in spring, a good summer shall bring.”
There’s always grumbling when bitter winds and hailstones blight an early Easter. But this is a religious festival, not a secular event. The first Church Council set the formula in 325: Easter Day would be on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox.
Today, churches at Easter are dressed with bright spring flowers, but this wasn’t always the case. From the Reformation in the sixteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, no flowers were allowed in churches, or in graveyards. Only leaves were permitted; at funerals mourners carried sprigs of rosemary or rue.
Previously, medieval churches had been garlanded with box, yew, hazel, willow and wild daffodils, which used to be called Lent Lillies. Flowers were carried in procession, while floors were strewn with scented blooms, herbs and rushes.
It’s impossible to know exactly when flowers crept back into churches, although there is evidence that people placed blooms inside coffins, where they couldn’t be seen. But it took Queen Victoria to make flowers acceptable again. Following the example of the royal family, wreaths began to appear on coffin lids and graves in the 1870s.
On April 2, the Queen will attend the Maundy Thursday service in Sheffield Cathedral – carrying a traditional nosegay of flowers.
The custom of carrying a nosegay, meaning something pleasant for the nose, dates back to medieval and Tudor times. Fashionable women, and men, carried scented posies of flowers and herbs to ward off disease and unpleasant odours. A nosegay was essential for monarchs and clergy involved in the Maundy ceremony, because it meant getting very close to their poorest and unhealthiest subjects.
The Maundy Thursday service commemorates the Last supper, when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples to set an example of humility. Clergy in the early church began to do the same, and the ritual spread into some European courts.
The first English monarch to take up the towel was King John, in 1210. Just imagine, the king who was forced to put his seal on Magna Carta dabbing reluctantly at the feet of 13 Knaresborough paupers. It wasn’t a sudden attack of piety, simply an attempt to impress the Pope, who had excommunicated him.
James II was the last royal to get his hands wet. Foot washing was abandoned in the 1730s and the custom was converted to a charitable dole, the Royal Maundy.
Today, the clergy nominate recipients for their charitable work in the community. As the number is related to the sovereign’s age, the Queen will distribute purses of special Maundy coins to 89 women and 89 men. Her nosegay still contains the customary herbs among the daffodils and freesia.