History Facts

How to Celebrate Easter: Medieval Style!

Happy Easter everyone!

With it being the Easter weekend, I thought it would be a good idea to delve into our modern traditions, and see why today is so special.

A lot will know that today is one of the most important days in the Christian tradition, if things were normal (e.g. no more social distancing), people would be going to church in the morning, visiting friends and family, and having a big family meal.

It’s a day of celebration, a time to spend with family, to indulge in those many chocolate treats that the Easter bunny might have left for you, or maybe you’ve decorated some Easter eggs with your kids.

These are traditions, which were kind of similar to what was done in the Middle Ages…

You might be wondering now though but how does Chocolate eggs and bunnies have anything to do with the resurrection of Jesus Christ (remember the whole point of what Easter is about)? Well, Easter is full of odd traditions, and some of them have been around for so long that we’ve stopped paying attention to where they have come from.

There are plenty of articles on the internet that talk about eggs and ancient pre-Christian fertilely rites, but since I’m a massive fan of the Middle Ages (and the words “Medieval Style” are in the title of this post) that’s what I’m just going to talk about.

How was Easter Celebrated During the Medieval Times?

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So let’s go back to basics and look at how Easter would have been celebrated, why this celebration was so important to them.

As you are probably aware, there are the three days before Easter – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – these days were called the Triduum and would have been marked by column services called Tenebrae, which would have been held in almost complete darkness.

During this time, parishioners would also have been denied the Eucharist during these days (the body and blood of Christ).

Unsurprisingly, medieval people would have spent a lot of these days in the church.

Maundy Thursday, would have been a quiet solum service. The altars would have been stripped down and covered in twigs and branches to symbolise the stripping and scourging of Jesus.

Good Friday is a day of mourning, and also a day when you should not use iron tools or nails (did you know that)? Back in Medieval times though, many people would have began by ‘creeping up to the Cross‘. This is exactly what it sounds like – medieval people would approach bare footed and on their knees.

There would have been no Eucharist on Friday, the Passion story would have been from the Gospel of John, and the service was held in almost complete darkness. There would have been one candleholder (called a Hearse), that would have been gradually put out to show that darkness was falling on the world.

Only the centre most candle remained lit, this candle represented the light of Christ. Can you imagine there just being one candle in the room you are in? The shadows that it creates, stretching across the room? Now imagine that you are in a church, with people kneeling in almost darkness, and the priest’s voice praying the darkness saying:

Miserere mei Deus secundum misericordiam tuam iuxta multitudinem miserationum tuarum dele iniquitates meas multum lava me ab iniquitate mea et a peccato meo munda me.

(Psalm 51:1-2)

Although many of them would not have known latin, they would have understood the meaning. It was after all the most important day in the church after all. Plus, it even became illustrated thanks to the courtesy of church windows.

It makes sense though that come Easter Sunday that people wanted to celebrate. It was a time to be joyful. The day started with a service that would have began at dawn. The congregation would have gathered outside the church and would have sung hymns. Then the priest would have led them into the church, the Eucharist would return and the people would be dismissed in grace and forgiveness.

They would then go and enjoy a big lunch with their friends and family. It was certainly a joyful day.

So where did these other traditions like lent, Easter eggs etc. come from?

Why Do We Have Easter Eggs?

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When you think of Easter, the first thing that probably comes to mind is colourful eggs and chocolate eggs. Nothing says “Easter” quite like the incredible edible. But why has chocolate Easter eggs become such a staple part of our Easter tradition?

This tradition of collecting, dyeing, decorating and eating eggs actually comes from a tradition that dates back thousands of years, long before the time of Jesus Christ – so why do we use them to celebrate a day that is so religious?

Well to truly understand it, we need to look at where this tradition actually came from. Many ancient cultures, including the Greeks and Egyptians, saw eggs as a sign of fertility and new life. So this is what eggs started off being seen as (normal eggs though, not chocolate eggs).

From this tradition, the idea of eggs was used later by Christian missionaries. They observed the community members hunting for eggs in spring. So they used eggs as a tool to describe Christ’s new birth in resurrection.

They would dye the eggs based on what colors meant to the church: yellow for resurrection, blue for love, red for the blood of Christ. Or, they would paint various scenes from the Bible on eggs and hide them; the child who found the egg would come back and tell the story painted on that egg.

So this is where the egg idea comes from…

Church Service at the Crack of Dawn

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The proper way to celebrate Easter Sunday, is to go to a church service at the crack of dawn – but why does it have to be so early? Well the simple reason, is a religious reason obviously. It was early at dawn on Easter morning when Mary opened Jesus’s tomb to find it empty.

This isn’t even a random thing either, this is a tradition that dates back to 1732, when the first service was held in Germany by the Moravian Church. A group of men met outside the town’s graveyard to sing hymns and praise, and then the next year the entire congregation joined in.

By 1773, the first sunrise service for Easter was held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. And from there, the tradition stayed.

Lent was of Huge Importance For Medieval People

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The reason that we have such a big feast on Easter Sunday, is because of Lent.

Lent was something that medieval people would have taken part in. They were required to fast for 40 days (excluding Sundays). This is still a tradition that people take part in today, except it is more common for people to give up indulges such as caffeine, chocolate, television, or social media.

We don’t actually know the exact end date for Lent, as it actually depends on whether the church is following Western or Eastern practices, but obviously it tends to end near Easter.

It should come as no surprise then, that when the fast was over, on Easter Sunday, people wanted to enjoy themselves and have a feast. It’s clear that people like indulging at certain times and digging into something that are sweet or savoury – dishes that they would have missed out on.

Where Did the Word “Easter” Come From?

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Although Easter is a common word now, the question really is, was it a word that medieval people used? The answer is no. Although the celebration of Easter is an international event, very few cultures actually refer to this holiday by its famous name.

In fact, early Christians called Christ’s resurrection “Pesach,” the Hebrew word for Passover. Today, most languages use a variation of that name: “Pesach” in French, “Pascua” in Spanish, “Pasqua” in Italian, “Pashkë” in Albanian, and “Pask” in Swedish.

What I found interesting though, is that the English word “Easter” – a word which plenty of people use but have no idea where it comes from, actually comes from a strange source. It comes from an Anglo-Saxon goddess names Eostre (funnily enough, as I typed that, my auto correct tried to change it to Easter).

The festival of Eostre always took place around the spring equinox, so early Christian missionaries in Europe gradually melded the festival’s name, timing, and some of its symbols, into the Christian celebration.

How Did Medieval People Actually Celebrate Easter?

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So, we know that they fasted for forty days and basically after eating nothing but fish, it was clear that medieval party were ready for a feast at the end of their fast!

In some cases, the lord of the manor would give a feast for their servants – this idea comes from when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and then served them. They didn’t feast just because they wanted a day off either, feasting was a serious business in the Middle Ages, there was no expense spared in giving people a good time.

It was also a day when people wore, or received, new clothes (a tradition which I think we should bring back – an excuse to actually go clothes shopping sounds pretty good to me).

Interestingly, in medieval Wales, the terms of who got what when were explicitly laid out in the Cyfraith Hywel Dda. The king and queen gave livery or their own clothes to certain court officers every Easter, Christmas, and Whitsun—the three major festivals of the medieval Christian calendar—and those officers, in turn, handed theirs down to the next in line. The king gave clothing to the head of the warband, who gave a set to the steward, and so on down.

So where did eggs become a part of their celebration? Well since they had to fast during Lent, eggs would have been off the table for them. Instead of wasting them though, they would have been boiled to preserve them. Only being able to be consumed on Easter Sunday.

Anyone who has chickens knows that the collection of eggs can quickly build up, so it is no surprise that eggs planned a huge part in the Easter celebration (and it’s easy to see why they play a huge part in our Easter celebration today).

With the huge number of eggs left over, parents would have hidden them for their children to find, not only to keep them entertained, but also to teach them a valuable religious lesson: it was meant to represent the disciples finding the risen Christ in the tomb on Easter morning. The children, then, would have contests involving rolling them downhill, because this is what you do if you happen to be a child with a hill and a vaguely-round-shaped thing.

Also, eggs really did play a huge part in Easter during 1276! Eleanor and Simon de Montfort bought 3700 eggs for their celebration, and in 1290 Edward I’s accounts show that he paid to have 450 eggs decorated with gold leaf! Considering how keen the medievals were on food made to look like other things, a passion for decorating eggs may not seem especially surprising.

The Easter Celebration Didn’t End on the Sunday!

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Easter didn’t just end on the Sunday though. Since medieval people had been fasting for forty days, they needed more than one day to celebrate. So the Monday and Tuesday were days that were also used to celebrate Easter.

The Monday following Easter Sunday was known as ‘Hock Monday‘. This involved the young women of the village capturing the young men. The men could then only be released once the ransom was paid – this was normally a donation to the Church.

The same thing happened on ‘Hock Tuesday’, in which the young men did the same to the women.

Funnily enough, Edward I and II were both caught in bed on Hock Monday by their Queens’ ladies. Whatever the Church officially thought of celebrating the salvation of the world by tying people up in bed, it seems to have remained relatively discreet on the subject. Maybe it’s a tradition that ought to be revived?

If capturing unsuspecting members of the opposite sex is not your thing (or the same one, since you know it’s modern times now, and not medieval times), then you can always recreate a medieval Easter by painting, hiding, or even rolling eggs down a near by hill.

Don’t have any eggs on hand? Then go online and buy some new clothes.

Or better yet, relax and enjoy a huge feast!

I know what I’ll be doing later this Easter – an excuse to eat a load of food yes please! But my question to you is what will you be doing this Easter? Do you have a fancy for doing something with eggs later, or have you planned a big feast to enjoy with your family?

Whatever you decide to do later… Pasg hapus (happy Easter)! 

7 thoughts on “How to Celebrate Easter: Medieval Style!

  1. I didn’t know that iron tools weren’t used on Good Friday and I didn’t know about Hock Monday. I don’t think that’s a tradition I’d want to be involved in! 😀

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  2. What an interesting post. Easter has a complex history, as I would have suspected. This was a lot of fun to read. I’d never heard of Hock Monday! I wonder if it was a precursor for Sadie Hawkins dances?

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  3. I really enjoyed this history lesson on Easter – especially the information about Easter Eggs! Thanks for sharing.

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  4. Loved getting a closer look at the complex history behind the origins of Easter! The eggs back in the day were much more intricately and meaningfully painted than nowadays. As we move away from the beginning of something but want to keep celebrating, the holiday changes. Sometimes the tradition stays the same but the ‘whys’ get lost, so I loved reading this and learning some more of the ‘whys’.

    The days after Easter sound interestingly fun, though I can understand why it is/was kept discreet! On a side note, it is fascinating how the pronunciation of words change! Words hard on the tongue of a non-native speaker often get warped into an easier pronunciation. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing!

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  5. So much fascinating information here! I had no idea about the history of Easter and learned so much. I love attending a sunrise service but haven’t been able to the past few years!

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