The traditions that surround each holiday we celebrate are often very strange. At Christmas time an old man brings the world gifts that we lay under a special tree. At Easter, we eat chocolate eggs as a treat and ham for dinner. There is even a day reserved in the calendar for pancakes! Yet why do these traditions exist and where do they come from?
Today let’s start simple and discuss the tradition of eating ham as a meal at Easter. At first glance, the tradition doesn’t make a lot of sense. Easter is about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A man that is the God of the Christian religion and who was a Jew himself. Eating meat that Jews don’t eat to celebrate the death and resurrection of a Jew seems strange. Some say that it is because Christians eat ham and Jews don’t that we eat ham but that is just a convenient explanation. The truth is far simpler.
Today we don’t really think of meats as having a season. Modern refrigeration techniques and global supply chains mean we can have whatever meat we want fresh or frozen and available whenever we like. However, in the old days, this was not possible. An animal’s season would depend on its growth cycle and how large the animal was. For pigs and cows, the best time to slaughter them was in autumn.
These animals were killed in autumn because they were big animals and it took a lot of time to butcher them. The cold weather coming in would preserve the meat for longer before they had time to properly preserve it by curing the meat. Then the meat would be cured and stored over the winter. Autumn was also a great time to butcher the pig as their diet at this time made them particularly tasty.
Before autumn pigs eat things like apples and acorns which are a perfect natural seasoning for pork and ham. Ham would then be stored over the winter. Because it was able to last a long time when cured it meant that other meats were already eaten. Often ham was the only meat left around Easter time. Therefore when a celebration came around, like Easter, it made sense to celebrate with a large ham feast.
In Europe around Easter, lamb is more common again because of the seasons. Lamb is fitting for Easter as Jesus was often called the ‘Lamb of God’. Yet it is far more likely that as young lambs were being killed about 2 months before the holiday and would be ready just in time for the Easter festivities that this was the reason they were the meal of choice.
Many celebrations that we know today can be linked to what was available at the time. For example, we also eat chocolate eggs during Easter and this is because eggs were at peak production time during the spring. In other cultures, eggs were eaten at the same time of year and celebrated even if they didn’t believe in Easter. In Iran, for example, their new year is around the same time as Easter and they celebrate by decorating eggs. The Easter bunny also makes a lot of sense as German pagans celebrated the spring equinox is a time of fertility. Because rabbits are known as a particularly fertile animal, they were chosen.
Whatever the celebration it is appears that the ritual is based on some clever reason, often to do with originally pagan rituals. After all, even Halloween is based on an old Irish pagan holiday. These celebrations have remained but evolved over many hundreds of years and show how theories and beliefs evolve over time.