A time of new beginnings and a sign that summer is just around the corner following a cold, bleak winter, Easter in Ireland is usually enjoyed by many people, whether religious or not. It is a gloriously, long weekend with a real sense of spring-time renewal.
The Donegal skies are beautifully sunny here this morning although there is a gentle but slightly biting wind carrying with it the musical bleats of the newborn lambs safely shepherded in nearby fields.
Outside my window, daffodils are dancing along the hedgerows.
Others are lifting themselves towards the sun from garden containers I planted with bulbs, and hope, three years ago. It has been a source of joy to see them come to life again each year with no additional help from me.
And many more along the hedgerows are getting ready to burst open.
From the earliest times, people in Ireland have marked the start of spring. They celebrated that the land had once again become fertile, birds began to lay eggs again, flowers bloomed and baby animals were born. When Christianity was introduced to Ireland, around the time of Saint Patrick, many of these customs became connected with the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion, which is commemorated on Easter Sunday. Hence, the pagan beliefs around the rebirth of nature joined with the idea of Jesus’ resurrection.
Easter is the most important date on the Roman Catholic calendar – far more important than Christmas from a religious standpoint. Because Catholicism has been the dominant religion in Ireland, Easter has been almost universally celebrated here for centuries.
As www.irishcentral.com says:-
“Religiously, of course, it’s a time of solemn reflection and renewal, and even the least religious Irish person will acknowledge that the story of Christ’s death and resurrection still holds an enduring power that speaks strongly to the Irish experience, whether you’re a believer or not.
It’s because the theme of renewal after deprivation or great suffering is a story the Irish understand in their bones”.
Over time, many traditions have grown up around the holiday that are peculiar to Ireland
Many family households would prepare their homes for Easter Sunday by doing what would be better known as “spring cleaning” to prepare the house for Easter Sunday.
In old times the house had to be cleaned and white-washed – usually in preparation for the inevitable visiting of family and friends but also for when the priest came to bless the home.
Walls still get white-washed, windows are polished and halls swept clean. Furious amounts of dusting take places and the new flowers of spring are collected and placed in vases.
The day before Ash Wednesday has many names including Pancake Day, Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gra and Shrove Tuesday, but in Ireland we have called it Pancake Tuesday for as long as I remember.
The object of the day is over-indulgence in anticipation of the sacrifices that are expected to be made over Lent. Some people promise to forego sweets (or candy), their favourite food, television, cigarettes or alcohol.
In traditional homes, Pancake Tuesday was the last day to use up meat, eggs and dairy produce before the Lenten abstinence when they were not allowed to be eaten.
As no marriages were allowed during Lent, Irish matchmakers frantically worked to arrange as many marriages as they could before or on Pancake Tuesday. In homes where there were unmarried daughters, they were allowed the day off work to prepare pancake batter and toss the first cake. Their success, or otherwise, predicted their chances of romantic success in the year to come.
I have never been able to flip a pancake in my life and any attempts have resulted in a soggy, lumpy mess of batter on the kitchen top or floor. But, a large part of the childhood fun was in us being allowed to try to flip them. On an ordinary day we might have been told off for making a mess, but for some reason, splattering pancake batter all over the kitchen, each other and ourselves was a source of entertainment for the adults.
Neither set of my grandparents had any money but my mother’s parents were particularly poor and when I think that they frequently didn’t have enough ingredients for simple pancakes, it makes me sad. And that for my other grandparents and their ancestors, pancakes were seen as a treat and indulgent luxury.
My childhood pancakes were flat, thin and cooked in fat with a small sprinkling of sugar over them. Regular crusty sugar and not the softer caster sugar. When I lived in Canada and the US in my late teens and early twenties, the mind boggled at soft, fluffy buttermilk pancakes, with gentle squeezes of lemon juice and spinklings of caster sugar, or truly delightful maple syrup, or fruit toppings such as banana, or jam, or the “take your breath away”, chocolate hazelnut spread!
This year, the Lenten season began on Wednesday, February 10th known as Ash Wednesday, and ended on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, on March 26.
Ash Wednesday is a moveable date, timed to occur 46 days before Easter and tied to the Easter date. As Christians were forbidden to fast on Sundays, a day of worship and rest, the 6 Sundays are excluded and Ash Wednesday begins the traditional 40 days of fasting.
The historical development of Ash Wednesday includes the origin of the name – traditionally ashes are placed on the foreheads or heads during mass, serving as a sign of repentance and mourning and a stark reminder of mortality.
Traditionally, the ashes used came from the burning of the palms the year before and were mixed with an anointing oil to help them stick to our skin.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” were the words spoken by the priest as we lined up before him to have him dip his right thumb in the silver bowl containing the ashes and then smudging them on our foreheads in the rough shape of a cross.
We were not allowed to wash off the ashes, nor would we have dreamt of doing so. It was a competitive time between us children to see who would get the biggest, darkest and longest lasting cross on their foreheads as if that were some sign of special benediction from heaven.
Incidentally, Ash Wednesday has been a No Smoking Day since 1983.
I have clear childhood memories of the HUGE decision to be made about what I was going to “give up for Lent”. We all chatted about it at home and at school and when we had made the decision about what we were going to give up, told our teachers and parents and kept a watchful eye on each other to make sure no-one was cheating. At least, where anyone could see them. I now confess that I was a master of carefully unpackaging sweets and early Easter eggs, painstakingly wrapping them again and enjoying the forbidden fruits of stolen chocolate and sweets while hiding in the bathroom. Sure, the pain of guilt was overwhelming at times, but it was just impossible to last the distance.
The guilt was calmed quite a bit by the feeling of pride and righteousness when queuing up in an obedient line to give the money I had saved from not buying sweets to “the black babies in Africa”. I closely watched as the teacher, often a nun, marked out each week on a special card for the purpose, the amount I donated in large, pre-decimal currency pennies.
Today, the money saved is donated to the more appropriately named Trócaire Box.
According to www.catholic.org,
“Palm Sunday is the final Sunday of Lent, the beginning of Holy Week, and commemorates the triumphant arrival of Christ in Jerusalem, days before he was crucified.
Palm Sunday is known as such because the faithful will often receive palm fronds which they use to participate in the reenactment of Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem. In the Gospels, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a young donkey, and to the lavish praise of the townspeople who threw clothes, or possibly palms or small branches, in front of him as a sign of homage. This was a customary practice for people of great respect.
Palm branches are widely recognized symbol of peace and victory, hence their preferred use on Palm Sunday.
The use of a donkey instead of a horse is highly symbolic, it represents the humble arrival of someone in peace, as opposed to arriving on a steed in war.
A week later, Christ would rise from the dead on the first Easter.
During Palm Sunday Mass, palms are distributed to parishioners who carry them in a ritual procession into church. The palms are blessed and many people will fashion them into small crosses or other items of personal devotion. These may be returned to the church, or kept for the year.
Because the palms are blessed, they may not be discarded as trash. Instead, they are appropriately gathered at the church and incinerated to create the ashes that will be used in the follow year’s Ash Wednesday observance.
The colors of the Mass on Palm Sunday are red and white, symbolizing the redemption in blood that Christ paid for the world.”
This is the day to remember the death of Jesus and is the strictest day of fasting, prayer and penitence in the Easter calendar. The older generation would have fasted until midday and broken their fast with only 3 mouthfuls of bread and three sips of water to celebrate the Holy Trinity.
Eggs laid on Good Friday would be marked with a cross and eaten on Easter Sunday. Sometimes, the eggs would have been hardboiled and painted with different colors and designs. Nowadays, of course, and in my childhood thank goodness, the only important eggs were the chocolate variety!
Older Traditions included:-
- Doing no work with tools to avoid the possibility of any bloodshed.
- Planting a small amount of crop seeds to create a blessing on the family and the household.
- The belief that if a person died on Good Friday they would go directly to heaven.
- Going to confession and remaining in reflective silence for part of the day.
- Visiting graveyards.
- Going to Holy Wells as the holy waters were said to have curative powers on Good Friday.
- The belief that a child born on Good Friday and baptised on Easter Sunday would have the gift of healing. If the child were a boy, he would enter the priesthood.
- Doing no fishing from boats. Only seafood and seaweed gathered from the shores were to be part of the Easter meal.
It’s not a public holiday in Ireland but it is a Bank Holiday and many businesses are closed for the day including pubs, although some hotels licensed to sell alcohol remain open.
Holy Saturday would be a day that Irish people take a vow of silence but also attend a special ceremony to have their Holy water blessed but would also attend the Easter Vigil which usually starts at 10pm with the Church decorated in purple colored banners to celebrate the arrival of the King. All lights in the Church are extinguished at 11pm with a new flame being presented to the altar of the church which is a Paschal candle, a symbol of the Risen Christ and the celebrations of the Holy Flame.
Bridget Haggerty writes in irishculturesandcustoms.com:-
” ‘Easter Water had the power to prevent illness and guard against danger, so one member of every household would be sure to bring some home.
Every person in the family drank three sips of water in the name of the Blessed Trinity. It was also sprinkled on the house, its occupants, the outbuildings, livestock and growing crops. The rest of the Easter Water was safely stored away for future use, and according to tradition, it would remain fresh for ever.
A turf cinder from the Paschal or Easter Fire was also believed to bring prosperity and to protect against the danger of fire if it was brought to the church and blessed.”
But come Easter Sunday, everyone was out celebrating. The traditional belief was that Christ was resurrected, there was a great relief that the abstinence of Lent was finally over and the pubs were open!
Many towns and villages hold processions of some sort, while in the countryside, Easter Sunday is usually a high point of the social calendar with events such as horse races and horse fares.
Pubs are usually packed, and as the following Monday is also a Bank Holiday, many people don’t have to worry about work in the morning.
This year has many organised events throughout the country to mark 100 years since the Easter Rising
Easter Sunday in many homes was very similar to any other Sunday or religious day in Ireland. Families got together dressed in their new clothes and attended mass together in their local church.
After attending mass on Easter Sunday everyone would make their way back home to start the Easter feast which was usually made up of servings of potatoes, vegetables, meat, stuffing and bread.
Older Traditions included :-
- Rising with the sun and dancing in celebration.
- Butchers rejoiced and conducted a mock funeral in honor of a dead herring. This symbolised the end of Lenten abstinence when most people were sick and tired of eating herring and other fish. A “herring procession” marched to the local church just as if it were a real funeral.
- Boiling and painting eggs to have rolling contests and egg hunts for the children. (The idea of a rabbit laying coloured eggs, which lead to the popular “Easter Bunny” image, originated in Germany.
- Celebrating with a “cake dance,” a contest where the best dancer won a cake.
- Closing out the Easter celebration with a community bonfire.
My childhood memories of 1960s Easter Sundays are based in Glasgow where I was born and lived until I was 12. But, my parents are Irish and we followed the Irish customs. I remember the excitement of getting dressed in my nicest clothes with fervently polished shoes to go to Easter Mass. I loved mass at that time and sang the hymns as loudly as my childhood voice would allow. The mixed smells of incense, burning candles and flowers were comfortably embracing and familiar.
Me, my mammy and daddy and two sisters (at that time) would soon be going home for a lovely Easter dinner.
And while I enjoyed the mass, a little not so holy part of me was distracted by the siren call of the chocolate Easter eggs waiting for me at home.
Beir Bua Agus Beannacht,