The Fast & The Feast
How Ireland perfected the journey from abstinent Lent to the celebratory feast of Easter.
Throughout the history of Western civilization, spring’s arrival was always a time for feasting and gaiety. After months of cold stormy weather, long nights and gloomy days, shoots of new grass would herald the onset of another year’s planting cycle. In pre-Christian Ireland, the spring festival was called Bealtaine. Like all of Ireland’s most ancient celebrations, its date was determined by lunar reckoning. It took place on the full moon between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice, usually occurring early in May. Several days before the event, household fires were extinguished and people were forbidden to rekindle them until Druid priests lit a ceremonial bonfire to welcome the returning sun on the Hill of Tara, stronghold of Eire’s High King.
When Christianity began to supplant old Europe’s pagan customs, a new spring celebration was introduced: Easter. As the feast that celebrated Christ’s resurrection from the dead, it too symbolized the annual season of rebirth and regeneration. And like Bealtaine, the Easter ceremony included a fire ritual, the lighting of a Paschal flame.
Also like Bealtaine, Easter’s date is determined by lunar reckoning, and occurs on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox. It can fall at the beginning of April, or at the end of the month. In 433 A.D. Easter must have been very late indeed, for when a Christian missionary recently arrived from Rome lit a Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane, just a few miles from Tara, he violated the Druid ban on lighting fires before Bealtaine. It was an offense punishable by death.
The offender, Patrick, was brought before High King Laoghaire at Tara for judgment where the gathered Druids were certain that this interloper would be executed. Much to their horror, the missionary plucked a tiny shamrock from the hillside and so eloquently compared its trefoil leaf pattern to the three-in-one mystery of Christianity’s Divine Trinity that Laoghaire spared his life and granted him safe passage to preach the new doctrine throughout the island.
According to Christian tradition, the days preceding Easter were the most solemn period of the year. Believers were directed to repent their sins and purify themselves in mind and body to prepare for Christ’s resurrection. Initially, the faithful observed a “black fast” from Good Friday to Easter. No one ate anything at all. As time passed, people’s piety lessened and church leaders sought a device to restore their devotion.
The number forty had great biblical significance. The Israelites wandered forty years in the wilderness. Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai. Christ fasted forty days in the desert. Late in the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great extended the pre-Easter fast to 40 days, excluding Sundays which were feast days, and decreed the form of fasting that became Church law. “We abstain from flesh meat and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese and eggs.” Fish, especially salted herring, was the mainstay of Ireland’s Lenten diet, and it is only recently that the Irish have stopped thinking of seafood as penitential fare.
For centuries, Irish Catholics rigidly adhered to Lenten fast laws every day except Sundays. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday were such strictly observed black fast days that babies were left to cry three times before they were given milk. Pancake Night, the eve before Ash Wednesday, was the last chance to feast. Everyone ate piles of pancakes made from surplus butter, milk, eggs and cream that had to be used up before Lent began. It was customary for each household’s eldest daughter to toss the first pancake; a chancy feat, for if the pancake fell to the floor, the poor girl would have little hope of marrying during the coming twelve months.
One notable day was exempt from Pope Gregory’s dictum: March 17th, the Feast of Saint Patrick. Then everyone had a bit of meat for dinner and all Lenten abstinences were suspended. Even men who had sworn off alcohol as part of their penance were allowed to sip from the “pota Phadraig,” Patrick’s pot. The accompanying toast was “Good luck and long life to the Council of Trent, it took away meat but left us the drink.”
During Holy Week, meals were most austere. Breakfast consisted of dry bread and tea mixed with bull’s milk (water and oatmeal husks). Plain potatoes with salt were eaten at dinner, and for supper there was black tea and more dry bread. On Good Friday, if anyone ate at all, the meal consisted of barley bread, cress and water. Most folk spent the day in church, and work was discouraged. Conversely, Good Friday was a lucky day to plant crops, so farmers always made it a point to sow a little grain or some potatoes.
After the lean weeks of Lent, Easter was a day for eating, drinking and rejoicing. Those who could afford to roasted spring lamb, veal and chicken, but for many poorer folk the day’s favorite dish was boiled bacon, cabbage and potatoes! When millions of emigrants fled to America during the Famine, they brought the memory of this festive meal with them, where, substituting corned beef for boiling bacon, it became a popular dish for Saint Patrick’s Day.
Lent’s huge store of eggs was a big feature of the day’s celebration. Eggs laid on Good Friday were marked with a cross and eaten Easter morning for luck. Women boiled eggs with herbs and lichens to color the shells, then children collected the colored eggs from neighbors and had their own party called a cludog. Eggs were also incorporated into cakes that were the star attraction at Easter evening cake dances. Before the dance, a decorated cake was placed on top of a butter churn. At the evening’s end, the best dancers were chosen to take down the cake and divide it among all the guests.
One of Ireland’s most curious Easter customs was made popular by butchers – those unfortunate tradesmen whose products had been banned during the long Lenten fast. To celebrate the general population’s return to meat eating, butchers and their apprentices organized herring funerals! Doesn’t that just take the cake?
An Old Irish Way to Dye Easter Eggs
Save the papery skins of brown onions until you have a big bagful, or ask your supermarket’s produce manager to let you collect loose skins from the onion bin. Tear the skins into bits and place piles of them in 8-inch squares of cheesecloth. Place a raw egg in the center of each pile, and tie the cheesecloth around it in a tight bundle, making sure the egg is completely covered by the onion skins. Place the eggs in a large pot with enough cold water to cover. Heat until the water begins to boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for approximately 20 minutes. Remove the pot from the stove, and let the eggs sit in the water until they are cool enough to handle. Carefully unwrap the eggs, dry them, and let them cool.
Alternatively, you can just place onionskins and raw eggs in a pot of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove eggs from water and let cool.
The eggs tied up in bundles with minced onionskins will have a tie-dyed mottled appearance; those colored by the alternative method will be a solid color. Place both versions in a decorative bowl or basket to use as your Easter centerpiece. The onionskins impart no flavor to the eggs, and their rich coppery colors will make a most unusual spring centerpiece.
Easter Sunday Soda Bread
4 cups all-purpose flour
1⁄4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
4 tablespoons butter, cold
2 cups golden raisins
1 1⁄2 cups buttermilk
1 large egg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Heat oven to 350°F. In a food processor, combine flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and caraway seeds. Pulse briefly. Add cold butter, then pulse until the mixture looks like coarse meal. Remove to a large bowl and stir in raisins. In a small bowl, whisk together buttermilk, egg and baking soda until well combined. Pour buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture all at once, and stir with a fork until all the liquid is absorbed and the dough begins to hold together. Using your hands, press the dough into a round, dome-shaped loaf about 8 inches in diameter.
Transfer loaf to a parchment lined baking sheet. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolk and cream together. Brush the egg wash over the loaf. Cut a cross approximately 1 inch deep into the top. Bake about 1 hour, rotating halfway through, until the loaf is a deep golden brown and a skewer inserted into the center comes away clean. Remove from oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool. Makes one large loaf or two small. – Personal Recipe
Creamed Eggs with Mushrooms
1 1⁄2 pounds fresh mushrooms, sliced
2 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
2 cups cream
salt & pepper to taste
3⁄4 cup sherry (optional)
8 hard boiled eggs, sliced
Saute the mushrooms in 2 tablespoons butter. Set aside. In a medium saucepan melt 6 tablespoons butter, stir in flour, add cream, salt and pepper. Simmer until thickened. Add sherry if desired. Add mushrooms to sauce, stir to combine. Place sliced eggs on buttered, lightly toasted slices of soda bread. Pour mushroom sauce over. Serve immediately. Makes 8 servings. – Personal Recipe