1. Easter | 2. Ascension | 3. Whitsunday | Works Consulted
The lamb is the most significant symbol of Easter, not to mention one of the oldest. The reason is obvious. Jesus Christ is the Passover lamb of God, the unblemished male whose act of self-sacrifice keeps away the angel of eternal death. Accordingly, Christians often cooked a whole lamb for the Easter supper, resting it on a bed of evergreen and surrounding it with colored eggs, breads, meats, cheeses, etc. The Roman ritual even contains a special blessing for the Paschal lamb:
O God, who during the deliverance of Thy people from Egypt ordered through Thy servant Moses that a lamb be killed in the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ, and commanded that afterwards the blood of the same lamb be put on the door-posts of the houses: do Thou deign to bless and sanctify this meat, which we Thy servants desire to receive for Thy praise, through the resurrection of the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth unto endless ages. Amen.
Deus, qui per famulum tuum Moysen, in liberatione populi tui de Aegypto, agnum occidi jussisti in similitudinem Domini nostri Jesu Christi, et utrosque postes domorum de sanguine ejusdem agni perungi praecepisti: tu benedicere et sanctificare digneris hanc creaturam carnis, quam nos famuli tui ad laudem tuam sumere desideramus, per resurrectionem ejusdem Domini nostri Jesu Christi, qui tecum vivit et regnat in saecula saeculorum. Amen(p. 239).
Though the Easter egg has a pagan origin that long predates Christianity, it has become a quintessentially Christian way to commemorate the Pasch. The egg is a natural symbol of springtime and a supernatural symbol of Christ's triumphant emergence from the hard shell of His stone tomb. Under more ascetical times eggs were also one of the foods banned during Lent, so their presence on the Easter table marked a welcome dietary change and an end to the period of sackcloth-and-ash. Little wonder that from early times on gaily-painted eggs were a popular Easter gift.
As mentioned above, food blessings were considered quite important for the Easter supper, and the Easter egg was no exception. In several Slavic countries, for example, the meal begins with a blessed egg solemnly distributed by the father to his dinner companions. The Roman ritual also contains a special blessing for the humble Easter egg:
May the grace of Thy blessing, we beseech Thee, O Lord, come upon these eggs, that they may become a wholesome food for Thy faithful, who gratefully receive them in honor of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth unto endless ages. Amen.
Subveniat, quaesumus Domine, tuae benedictionis gratia, huic Ovorum creaturae: ut cibus salubris fiat fidelibus tuis, in tuarum gratiarum actione sumentibus, ob resurrectionem Domini nostri Jesu Christi, qui tecum vivit et regnat in saecula saeculorum. Amen(p. 239).
The popularity of pig dishes at Easter has much to do with an old superstition that the pig is a token of good luck; there was also a practical consideration regarding the ease of raising or obtaining a pig in pre-industrial Europe. It is therefore an age-old custom that the meat of this animal is eaten on festive occasions, be they holy days or weddings. In America, for example, the traditional Easter dish is baked ham. Though technically there is no religious reason for eating pig on Easter, perhaps we can speculate that it is nevertheless appropriate as a symbol of our Christian freedom from the Mosaic law, since the Old Law was fulfilled and the New Law ratified during the events that took place on the original Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Hare or rabbit is another popular Easter dish, though it too does not really have any religious significance. The Easter bunny has never been "baptized" as have other pagan spring customs, though it continues to be a popular part of the lore.
(¬ Not a Christian)
"And they told what things were done in the way, and how they knew [the risen Lord] in the breaking of bread" (Luke 24.36). From the two disciples' experience on the road to Emmaus to the "azymis [unleavened bread] of sincerity and truth" mentioned in the Easter epistle, bread serves an important role in illuminating the Paschal mystery. Not surprisingly, then, it also figures prominently in Easter banquets. Since almost every nationality has its own recipe for Easter bread (some of which involve a hard-boiled egg in the center), we are unable to rise to the occasion and the treat the topic exhaustively. Cookbooks such as Evelyn Birge Vitz's A Continual Feast (SF: Ignatius Press, 1985) may be consulted for further information.
The old Roman ritual contains a blessing for bread that can be given at any time of the year, though it was considered especially appropriate for Easter:
O Lord Jesus Christ, Bread of the Angels and Living Bread of eternal life, deign to bless this bread as Thou didst bless the five loaves in the desert: that all who taste it may receive health in body and soul. Thou who livest and reignest unto endless ages. Amen.
Domine Jesu Christe, panis Angelorum, panis vivus aeternae vitae, benedicere dignare panem istum, sicut benedixisti quinque panes in deserto: ut omnes ex eo gustantes, inde corporis et animae percipiant sanitatem. Qui vivis et regnas in saecula saeculorum. Amen(p. 240).
Like breads, pastries are a popular part of traditional Easter celebrations yet so varied and vast that we could not hope to mention them all. Again, cookbooks would be the best resource.
As mentioned above, traditional banquets on this day would gastronomically imitate Christ's ascension by making the main course something that could fly to heaven. Birds of almost every feather - pigeons, pheasants, partridges, and even crows - eventually found their way to the Ascension Day table.
Feasting on sumptuous banquets is also a traditional part of Pentecost, though interestingly enough, we discovered that many of the distinctive customs concern beer. Whitsun Ale, for example, is a special English brew for Pentecost, as is Pfingstgelage ("Pentecost beer") in Germany. We assume that this association has nothing to do with the implicit approval of an afternoon drink that is given in the story of the first Pentecost (Acts 2). When several Jews accused the Apostles of being full of the wrong kind of spirit(s), St. Peter did not indignantly denounce the practice of imbibing but instead replied that it was too early in the morning for a drink (Acts 2.15).
Like Ascension Thursday, birds are a favorite dish on Pentecost. Doves or dove-like birds (such as cornish hens) were especially popular.
NOTE: Most of the information for this essay has been taken from the books of Rev. Francis X. Weiser, S.J., listed below. We are biased toward Father Weiser's scholarship not only because of his expertise and fondness for the Roman liturgical tradition, but because he was pastor of Holy Trinity German Church in the 1940s.
The Meaning of Paschaltide
Paschaltide Schema | Paschaltide Customs
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