Turning Year: Implications of a fixed Easter

Tossing pancakes in 1837 ' still a popular custom.
Tossing pancakes in 1837 ' still a popular custom.

How the year is rushing by. Find that skipping rope and practise tossing pancakes, because in less than a week it will be Shrove Tuesday.

After Shrovetide comes Lent, the 40 day period leading up to Easter, which, as we know, is a moveable feast. Easter Day is the first Sunday following the full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox. This year it will be on March 27.

Today we’re irritated by events that wander the calendar. We’ve got school terms and holidays to plan. Many of our surviving customs, originally held on saints’ days or other significant dates, have been shifted to the nearest weekend or bank holiday. So why not pin down Easter?

We came close in 1928 when Parliament passed The Easter Act, which was never put into practise. And in 1990 a Vatican proposal failed when other churches couldn’t agree. However, recently it was revealed that the Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Anglican and Catholic churches are in talks about fixing Easter to the second or third Sunday in April.

Not everyone is happy. Fixing the date would lose the connection between Easter and the Jewish Passover when Jesus’ trial and execution took place, and it would also break the last link with the lunar calendar.

In Whitby they have another concern: tourism. In 664, Hilda’s monastery at Whitby was chosen to host an important synod. Differences between the Irish Celtic church in northern Britain, and the Roman church based among the Saxons in Canterbury, had come to the boil. The disputes over practice included their differing ways of deciding the date of Easter.

In the end, it came down to this — was Rome more important than other centres of Christianity? King Oswiu of Northumbria had the final say. Roman custom should prevail, he said, because the founder of that church was Peter, chosen for the task by Jesus himself.

It was a key moment. The Celtic church retreated, the English church was linked with Rome, and the formula for calculating Easter was set for the next 1,352 years.

Tourists and pilgrims still visit the site of the historic Synod of Whitby, which is why residents and councillors are concerned. Fixing Easter would overturn a millennium of history.

Shrovetide

When customs and feasts marked the turning year, each event had its food. Shrovetide’s specialities came from times of strict fasting, because everyone had to eat up the foods forbidden during Lent.

Shrove Saturday was Brusting Day. Its traditional dish was brusting pudding, a thick, crumbly, rolled-up omelette. People scoffed gofers –hot buttered waffles – and gave pickled eggs as gifts.

Sunday was the Sabbath, so no celebrations until Monday when collops – thick slices of bacon – were served with a fried egg on top. Collop Monday’s other delicacy was a doughnut fried in lard.

Then it was Shrove Tuesday. The afternoon was spent in unruly pastimes, everything from mass football and tug-o’-war to quoits and marbles, but before that there was pancake tossing. The signal to start frying was the ringing of a church bell.

Scarborough’s current pancake bell is hung at the junction of Newborough and North Street, not far from the site of the medieval bell. Today it’s rung at noon before the pancake racing, and afterwards the crowd heads down to the Foreshore for the town’s unique custom – an afternoon’s long-rope skipping.