For our family, spring really is a time of renewal. It takes a couple of fortnights for us to recover from the crazy Christmas gingerbread season, when we work well into the wee morning hours for weeks on end. Easter Sunday is a time when the whole family gathers – usually at Susan’s house or her mother’s house (Melissa’s grandma) for a sumptuous brunch following church. Sadly, Grandma recently began celebrating Easter in heaven, so Easter is now always at Susan’s house.
She sets a beautiful festive table with a special candy or personalized treat at each place setting – and an Easter Gingerbread House or two. After a rousing Easter egg hunt for the grandchildren, brunch is served. It’s usually egg-based; either quiches or made-to-order eggs whipped-up by sister Maili (Chef Maili). Together mother and daughter cook sausages and bacon for a savory feast. And yes, the table is laden with bakery items: almond butter rings, apple strudel, iced Easter cookies, and wonderful hot cross buns.
Easter, of course, is a celebration of spring and for Christians, the resurrection of Christ. Like so many Christian holidays, Easter incorporates many pagan rituals…the clever way in which Christians eased (and we use that term lightly) pagans into the fold. For Catholics, the season of Lent – the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, was a time of strict dietary restrictions except on Sundays. It seems the Puritans were pretty skeptical and associated Easter with popery…so they weren’t too eager to jump on board the Easter rituals ship.
But folk traditions (as opposed to religious traditions) abound. The word Easter derives from North Umbrian Old English ‘Eostre’ – a fertility goddess from German and Anglo-Saxon paganism who is the focal point for spring feasts in the month of April. Her symbol? A rabbit. We can thank the Pennsylvania Dutch for the Easter Bunny (the Easter Hare) who delivered colored eggs to good children and rabbit pellets to bad children…that would be an unwelcome surprise in the old Easter basket!
It seems there is not a single authentic Easter dinner like those we find at Christmas or Thanksgiving. Ham and lamb are popular – and eggs and the shape of baked goods tend to play important roles. Eggs symbolize birth, and yeast-enriched breads are often shaped with a feminine theme – as round buns (think round belly of a pregnant woman) or in loaves shaped into rings…with a hole in middle…these breads or sweet breads are often embedded with eggs. The Greeks have their tsoureki, the Corsicans their caccavelli, and the Venetians their focaccia pasquale. The ancient Romans took their symbolism to more blatant heights, and produced baked goods that probably wouldn’t go over well in a family bakery.
So on a more Puritanical note, we’ll underscore our love for hot cross buns – a favorite in Britain, and a favorite at The Solvang Bakery. For centuries, poor British children and the elderly would sell hot cross buns for the local bakeries on Good Friday. It was such a popular tradition that it generated the well known nursery rhyme,
Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
One ha’ penny, two ha’ penny,
Hot cross buns!
If you have no daughters,
Give them to your sons
One ha’ penny,
Two ha’ penny,
Hot Cross Buns!
It was thought that even a crumb of bread baked on Good Friday would cure any ailment, so people would dry a bun and save it to ward off future maladies.
Our hot cross buns are made from a yeast-based sweet roll dough with added spices, currants, and candied citron pieces. The cross, signifying a crucifix, is made from vanilla icing.
What are your family’s traditions? We’d love to hear in the comments below.
Whatever they are, we hope it involves delicious food and the warmth of loved ones.
The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, Edited by Andrew F. Smith
Sweet Invention, A History of Dessert, by Michael Krondl
Rare Bits, Unusual Origins of Popular Recipes, by Patricia Bunning Stevens