Anyone looking to make a truly traditional Easter meal is bound to have some of the classic staples on the table, from butter lambs to ham and hard-boiled eggs decorated in myriad colors. Easter has been celebrated around the world for centuries, and over the centuries some foods have become so firmly associated with the Easter holiday that many families can't imagine Easter dinner without them.
But why is a ham the traditional centerpiece, and why eggs? As with many traditions, going far enough back in history provides some interesting explanations.
The original main dish of the Easter holiday was lamb. Christ was also known as the Lamb of God, and the lamb's appearance on the Easter dinner table was in tribute. However, when Christianity expanded its influence into the pagan areas of Europe, certain compromises were made to make the conversion of the pagan people more seamless. Pigs were seen as a symbol of luck by the pagans, and ham was marketed by the Christians as the central Easter dish. The marketing stuck, and today the main meat dish is pig-based.
Chocolate Easter Bunnies
Remember the pagan roots for this Easter tradition as well. Easter is seen as a strictly Christian holiday, and one of the frequent questions is what rabbits have to do with Christianity. The answer is absolutely nothing. The rabbits can also be traced to the time when Christianity was reaching into pagan lands. The pagans saw the rabbit as a symbol of fertility and of spring, and since Easter was a spring holiday, the rabbit was embraced as a symbol of Easter. Like the transition from lamb to ham, this melding of cultures, religions and symbolism created the holiday that is celebrated today.
Hot Cross Buns
Rest assured that Christianity adopted the symbolism of the hot cross buns into their own mythos. The cross on the hot cross buns is symbolic of Christ's cross, and the buns are almost always seen only around the Easter holiday. In fact, for many years in Tudor England, hot cross buns were only legally sold on Good Friday, Christmas and for funerals.
The bread is often baked on Good Friday, and is considered to contain enough good fortune to last the rest of the year. Loaves baked on Good Friday are often kept in the house, and superstitious sailors often took loaves with them on long journeys.
The recipe has changed over the centuries, but bread with the distinctive cross design date back much farther than the Tudors. European pagans often baked bread with the now familiar cross in honor of their own goddess of the spring, Eostre.
Making hot cross buns is a necessary Easter ritual, but there's also plenty of other traditional Easter breads to fill in the rest of the meal. Kugelhopf is a buttery German pastry that is half bread, half cake and takes its name from its distinctive shape. Sour cream babka is a staple on Russian and Polish tables, a light bread filled with nuts and dried fruits, most traditionally sour and candied cherries. Another Russian traditional bread is Kulich, a bread that usually includes raisins, almonds, rum and brandy. A braided loaf of spicy bread is often seen on Greek tables along with Lambropsomo, a bread that is topped by hard boiled eggs.
The tradition of breads is one that can be traced back to the Last Supper, with the breaking of the bread in that famous last meal.
No Easter dinner is complete without the accent of beautifully decorated hard boiled eggs. This is another tradition that comes from the crossing of Christianity and the beliefs of other countries. The egg has long been a symbol of life and fertility around the world. It's not even clear when China began a tradition of giving children red eggs on their birthdays to help guarantee a good year, and the use of eggs reaches across Europe as well. In Germany, eggs are frequently seen hanging from trees and bushes, and in Russia and Poland there is a long tradition of painting beautifully crafted, delicate Easter eggs.
When Christianity came to Europe, the desired symbolism of the egg was already there. Eggs were the beginning of new life, and quickly came to symbolize the immortality that is celebrated each year with the holiday that remembers the rising of Christ.