This coming Thursday marks the two hundredth anniversary of the earliest possible date for Easter Sunday in the Western Christian calendar in half a millenia. Easter will not fall that early in the year again for more than two hundred and fifty years. That very early Easter date caused significant angst for some of our more superstitious Regency ancestors, and at least a few of them believed it was responsible for the demise of one of the members of the royal family later that year. Regardless of its early date, the Easter of 1818 was accompanied by the many other superstitions which surrounded this springtime holiday.
The earliest Easter . . .
Easter is one of the most important holy days of the Christian calendar. However, unlike Christmas, it does not fall on a fixed date each year. This is primarily due to the fact that early Christians felt it was important to observe Easter at the same general time as the Jewish celebration of Passover, since it was believed that the Last Supper and the Resurrection occurred during that spring celebration. The date for Passover is calculated according to the Hebrew calendar, which is based on both the solar and lunar cycles, which therefore changes the date of Passover each year. At the First Council of Nicaea, held in 325 C.E., the council members decided that Easter should always fall on a Sunday, and also developed a special set of tables to be used to calculate the correct date for Easter each year. The tables were revised over the centuries, but they were all based on the formula that Easter should fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. This formula would ensure that Easter would always fall in the spring time, and fairly close to Passover. For a time, Easter fell on the same Sunday for all Christians. In 1582, Western Christians, along with Protestants, adopted the Gregorian calendar while Eastern Orthodox Christians retained the Julian calendar. From that point, Easter for Western Christians and Eastern Orthodox Christians typically fell on different Sundays each year, depending upon the calendar which was used to calculate it. There are rare occasions when Easter Sunday falls on the same date for both Western and Eastern Orthodox Christians.
There was also a split between English and non-English speaking cultures in terms of the name of this important religious holy day. In Greek, Latin, and most Latin-based languages, this feast day was known as Pasha, a word which was also linked to the name of the Jewish festival of Passover. However, the name Easter, which is used in England and other English-speaking countries, is believed to have derived from Eostre, the Old English name of an ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn and spring. It was believed that each spring, Eostre was able to breath life back into the land, bringing an end to winter. For centuries, lavish pagan feasts had been held in her honor in the early spring. As was very common among early Christians, they simply adopted the names, and often, some of the pagan practices, which were familiar to their converts as they spread their message across the world. In Britain, though this springtime Christian holy day is most often called Easter, it is also known as Resurrection Day, for the event which it celebrates. Both names were in use in Regency England.
In 1818, Easter Sunday fell on 22 March, the earliest possible date on which Easter could occur, based on the formula laid down by Christian fathers. This was just one day after the vernal equinox, as the first spring full moon coincided with both observances that year. Most people during the Regency, of all Christian sects, were well aware that this was the very earliest date on which Easter could fall. Many of them were also aware that Easter would not occur that early again for another 467 years, since Easter would not fall on 22 March again until the year 2285. [Author’s Note: For those who might be interested, the very latest possible date for Easter Sunday is 25 April.]
This very early Easter date created a rare coincidence which some people believed was a strong portent of some serious misfortune which would befall England. This coincidence not only caused Easter Sunday to fall very close to Lady Day, it actually caused Easter to come three days before Lady Day (25 March). (A very ancient tradition held that the Crucifixion took place on 25 March, the same date as Lady Day. Though this specific date is not recorded in scripture, there were many in England who were aware of the supposed date.) A doggerel couplet which was well known during the Regency captures the attitude of many people toward the fell portent of the juxtaposition of Easter and Lady Day:
When my Lord falls in my Lady’s lap,
England, beware of some mishap!
Though no significantly terrible things took place in Britain in the spring of 1818, quite a number of highly superstitious people believed that this very close Easter Sunday/Lady Day occurrence was directly responsible for the death of Queen Charlotte, on 17 November of 1818. It must be noted that Queen Charlotte celebrated her seventy-fourth birthday, in May of 1818, and she had been in failing health since the unexpected death of her beloved granddaughter, Princess Charlotte, in early November of 1817. Even so, there were some very superstitious people who were convinced this early Easter, in close conjunction with Lady Day, hastened the Queen’s passing.
The typical superstitions of Easter held sway in the Regency, even when the holy day came so early. Holy water left over from an Easter Sunday service was thought to be a powerful curative for a wide range of ailments. It was believed that babies born on Easter Sunday would have a particularly fortunate life, while babies born on Good Friday and baptized on Easter Sunday would have the gift of healing. As some people still do today, it was the custom to have a new outfit, or at least one new article of clothing or an accessory, for Easter Sunday. In some areas, people wore the same set of clothes throughout Lent, then discarded them and donned a new outfit for Easter Sunday. Wearing new clothes on Easter was also supposed to bring the wearer good luck for the coming year. A related superstition was that anyone who did not wear at least one new article of clothing or accessory on Resurrection Day would be at risk of having their clothes soiled by bird droppings or might be spat upon by passing dogs. The most dire punishment could be an attack by crows which would peck out the offender’s eyes. That may be why a new bonnet or a hat was one of the most popular choices for something new on Easter Sunday.
The first recorded sunrise service on Easter Sunday was held in 1732, in the German state of Saxony. By the end of the eighteenth century, the practice had spread throughout Europe. It is generally supposed that sunrise services on Easter Sunday are linked to the fact that the tomb of Jesus was opened by Mary Magdalene at dawn on Easter morning, to find it empty. However, another explanation of the origin of those early morning services may be the old superstition that the sun itself celebrates the resurrection of Christ by "dancing" as it rises on Easter morning. A number of people in centuries past have reported seeing the sun appear to dance as it came over the horizon on many an Easter Sunday morning. Another sun-related superstition was that if the newly-risen sun was viewed through a dark glass on Easter morning, it was possible to discern the image of a lamb, a symbol strongly associated with Christian iconography of the Easter season. Other nature-oriented superstitions held that if the wind was blowing on Easter Sunday, it would continue to blow throughout the rest of the year, and that a Resurrection Day rain shower would ensure a good crop of grass that year, but the hay crop would be poor.
Long before the Regency, there have been some foods which were especially associated with Easter. Eggs are the quintessential food of Easter and have been for centuries. Eggs have traditionally been considered representative of rebirth and immortality. In addition, eating eggs during Lent was forbidden as part of early Christian practice. In order to prevent them from spoiling, it was common practice to cook them, usually by boiling or roasting. These cooked eggs were then eaten on Easter Sunday morning, one of the first foods enjoyed as the Lenten fast was broken. Eggshells have been decorated for millenia, so it is no surprise they were also decorated as part of many Easter celebrations. Early Christians in the Middle East stained their eggs red as a reminder of the blood shed by Christ on the cross. This practice first spread into Russia, before it was then adopted by Christians in most countries of Europe. When the practice spread, eggs were dyed in colors other than red, most often green and yellow. As the tradition grew, eggs might be dyed or painted in other colors, and decorated in a wide array of designs. In Britain, eggs were sometimes wrapped in onion skins before they were boiled, which gave them a mottled gold appearance. Bright colors became increasingly popular over the years, since Easter was almost certainly the most important celebration of the spring season. A few centuries later, in hopped the Easter Bunny.
The Easter Bunny, also known as the Easter Rabbit or the Easter Hare, is believed to have originated in Germany, in the seventeenth century. However, there is also a suggestion that a rabbit or hare was sacred to Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. Rabbits’ ability to breed prolifically made them a natural symbol of fertility as well as the new life associated with both spring and the Easter season. The early Lutherans gave the Easter Hare a role similar to that of Santa Claus, asserting that he was the one to determine whether or not their children had been good or bad in the weeks leading up to Easter. If they were very good, they would merit a special treat at Easter. The Easter Hare himself would bring the treats for the good children, and perhaps not surprisingly, he brought them pretty colored eggs. Traditionally, the Easter Hare carried his colored eggs in a basket, and delivered them on the night before Easter Sunday, placing them in "nests" which the children had made with their caps or bonnets. In the early nineteenth century, Easter rabbits made of sugar and pastry were being made in most of the German states. By the eighteenth century, the tradition of the Easter Hare had been carried to the United States by German immigrants, though it is not clear if that same tradition had migrated to Britain by the early nineteenth century. For more than a century, that busy and clever Easter Bunny has delivered and/or hidden his colored eggs for good children to find on Easter morning, but there is no clear evidence that he did so in Regency England.
Easter eggs had acquired their own set of superstitions, most of which were related to how they should be eaten or the disposal of the shells. An egg shell should be broken open at the larger end, since opening it at the smaller end could result in the failure of one’s greatest hopes. There were two options with regard to the meaning of an egg with a double yolk. It might be a portent of a death, but it could also foretell a wedding. There were some superstitions regarding the handling of the egg shells once the eggs had been eaten. Empty Easter egg shells should be completely crushed before they were discarded. There were two reasons for this. If the shell was mostly intact, a witch could use it to gain power over the person who had eaten that egg. Alternately, witches would steal intact Easter egg shells to use them as boats. They would then sail about the sea in their egg shell boats, wrecking any ships they encountered. However, discarded Easter egg shells should not be thrown into the fire, since if the shells were burned, that might stop the hens from laying more eggs.
In addition to eggs, there are other foods which are also associated with Easter. Ham was a traditional spring food, even in pagan times and was often included in the feasts which honored the goddess Eostre. Hogs were often slaughtered in the fall, and the meat was allowed to cure all winter. Thus, ham was readily available for celebratory meals in the springtime. As was common, the early Christians were happy to adopt local traditions as they made new converts, so ham became a traditional part of the Easter Sunday meal. A particularly English Easter food is hot cross buns. It is believed they were first made by a baker-monk during the twelfth century, who marked a cross on his rolls in honor of Good Friday. In Tudor times, a law was passed in London which forbid the sale of these specially marked rolls except for certain burials, at Christmas and on Good Friday. By the eighteenth century, cross buns were small, sweet rolls, usually garnished with raisins or currants, with a cross marked across the top of each. In many Regency bakeries, the cross was incised with a knife, then drizzled with melted butter to ensure the cut remained when the buns were baked. It was not until the early nineteenth century that these small buns were regularly sold hot, thus incorporating the word hot into their name. By the Regency, hot cross buns typically sold for two pennies and were one of the most popular foods enjoyed from Good Friday through Easter. Hot cross buns backed on Good Friday were thought to have magical powers, and it was said that a hot cross bun made on Good Friday would stay fresh for up to a year without getting moldy. Yet, another superstition held that a stale, hardened hot cross bun would protect the house in which it was kept from fire. Sailors often took hot cross buns with them to sea, as the presence of the bun was believed to prevent shipwreck.
Whether or not the Easter Bunny was popular in England in the early nineteenth century, Easter eggs certainly were, and not just for eating. Regardless of how the children got their eggs, they did like to play with them before they ate them. One of the most popular and traditional games was egg rolling, sometimes called "pace-egging" in certain areas. The word "pace" is derived from paschal, the Latin name for Easter. Even before the Regency, various large estates held egg rolling contests each year for the local children. As is done today, many of those egg rolling contests were held on the Monday following Easter Sunday. The rules to egg rolling games varied slightly from region to region, but essentially, each player rolled an egg down the slope of a grassy hill. Usually, the winner was the child whose egg rolled the farthest. In some areas, it was also required that the shell did not break as the egg rolled along. In those cases, the egg which rolled the farthest, with an unbroken shell, was the winner. In other areas, the eggs were not rolled, but smacked together. Each player held their egg in the palm of their hand, and smacked them together. The losing player was the one whose egg shell was the first to break. There was also a superstition attached to this game. Any player whose egg made it to the bottom of the hill unbroken could expect to have good luck in the coming year.
Egg rolling and egg smacking were not the only games enjoyed by children during the Easter season. Across most of Britain, Lent marked the beginning of the season for playing marbles. The ground was usually still sodden and muddy in the early spring, leaving no place to play a number of games which required teams, large balls and open fields. Therefore, boys would play marbles throughout the period of Lent, since they could usually find small patches of dry ground on which to lay out and play their marble games. It was very common for boys to be encourage to play marbles on the afternoon of Good Friday, since it was a fairly quiet game which would occupy the children on that very solemn day. In most areas of England, the marble-playing season ended on Good Friday, though in some areas, marbles continued to be played through Easter Monday.
[Author’s Note: Very few decorated Easter eggs have survived from the Regency period. Typically, two or three of the most beautiful eggs were kept in a glass container, placed somewhere in the house where they could be easily seen. But in most cases, these eggs were only kept for a year and were replaced by the next Easter’s eggs. However, a few decorated Easter eggs, which were created for the children of the poet, William Wordsworth, do survive. They are part of the collection in the Wordsworth Museum of Dove Cottage in Grasmere. There are no pictures of these Easter eggs online, but visitors to the museum will be able to see them.]
Dear Regency Authors, if you happen to set a romance in the spring of 1818, could the very early Easter of that year play a part in your story? Might one of your characters be one of those very superstitious people who believed that Easter coming so close to Lady Day meant some great calamity would befall the country? How will your other characters manage that fear? Or, might the very early Easter spoil some of the festivities of the season, since the ground might still be frozen, or very wet and muddy for games like egg rolling or marbles? What might happen if egg rolling is moved indoors in order not to disappoint the children? Could one of the characters be interested in science, particularly astronomy and figure out that the next time Easter would fall on that very early date would be in the year 2285? How else might the early Easter of 1818, or Easter customs in general, add some historical context to a Regency romance?