Someone asked me the other day about the custom of eating ham on Easter. I'm a theologian by trade, not a butcher...so...probably not the best person to field questions about ham.
curious, and often follow my curiosity...which is probably why you read this
. So, let's jump in. And while we're curious about Easter ham, what about Easter lilies, the Easter bunny, Easter eggs, the Easter sunrise service, and the Easter vigil...
And while we're at it, where does the name
come from? I'm sorry to report to all those who prefer their Christianity straight up...with no impurities...that the word
Easter has nothing to do with the Bible. It is instead derived from
the ancient Germanic goddess of the dawn. What we now know as the month of
was once named after her. She was not only associated with the dawn, but with new life, lengthening daylight, the return of spring, and life reproducing itself.
When Christians took over the British Isles (about 700 years after the
Easter) they simply baptized the festivals they found, tacking the appropriate biblical stories onto the fun times people were already having. Since the goddess Eostre reigned over a month of massive fertility, it is easy to see how rabbits and eggs were part of any gala celebrating her.
Since Eostre made it to the Isles before Christianity, it's not as though the Easter bunny and colored Easter eggs vandalized the empty tomb. It's the other way around: the resurrection narratives butted their way into a fertility carnival.
For those who want unblemished Christianity, I must be honest and tell you that the Easter ham is not biblical. This may not bother you if you are a vegetarian. But those who want to be purely holy on Easter need to know: Jesus ate fish on Easter, not ham. (Luke 24: 41-42.) The ham goes with the goddess. In April, in the north, long after the fall butchering has occurred, about the only meat choices left in the smokehouse were remainders of the hog: ham. That's why "Easter ham" rolls off our tongues easily, while "Jesus's ham" just doesn't seem very Lord's Supperish.
Easter lilies began appearing in American churches just before the Civil War. The custom spread rapidly, due to the flower's many references in the Bible. There are also numerous legends about the lily. One legend states that whenever Jesus walked the earth, every flower he passed bowed its head in deference to him: all except the lily. But after Jesus was crucified, the lily also bowed its head in awe of his passion and resurrection.
In the Victorian era, with its excessive moral scruples, many churches cut the stamens and pistils out of the lily, for fear that their phallic appearances might take people's minds off rising from the dead. (???...I know, I can't quite figure some of those Victorians out either!) Such efforts have been dropped in the modern era, as anyone who tries to fight the erotic in religion is bound to eternal frustration. Easter lilies are a $40 million business in the U.S. these days...and they all come with a complete set of pistils and stamens.
The first recorded Easter Sunrise service was in 1732 (the year of George Washington's birth) in the eastern German town of Hernhut. On the night before Easter Day, all the unmarried men in town gathered for an all night prayer meeting. As the sun rose, they marched to the cemetery to sing hymns of praise to the risen Christ. The next year, the whole community joined them. The all night prayer meeting quickly fell by the wayside, but the idea of gathering in a cemetery to sing hymns to the risen Christ on Easter morning spread around the world.
Few churches still have the Easter sunrise service, and it is interesting to observe the decline of an ideal. First, the all night prayer was aborted. Folks still gathered outside for the sunrise in cemeteries (a reminder that resurrection defies death) to sing praises to God. Then the services got moved indoors for convenience, especially to avoid the springtime cold...or rain. Then pastors decided to ease their Easter Sunday workload by delegating the sunrise service to the youth group. And since no sane person really wants to see teenagers trying to perform before an audience at 5:30 a.m., most of those services got moved back until 7 a.m., or later. And then everyone started asking, "What's the point?" And now, few churches still observe the custom of the sunrise Easter service. (But those that do often feature a breakfast that follows...usually of eggs and ham.)
The only Easter custom that is likely found in the Bible is the Easter Vigil. The early Christians gathered on a Saturday night for their religious rituals.
The Lord's Day
, the day Jesus was raised from the dead, officially started at sunset on what would be our Saturday evening...since according to Jewish custom (and the early Christians were all Jews) the new day began at sunset. Christians would gather in a home, (no church buildings in those days) to sing, pray, read scriptures, share communion, and listen to teachings.
Acts 20 records one such evening occasion featuring the apostle Paul presiding. He spoke until midnight, and "many lamps lit the house." Verse 9 tells what happened next: "A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up as dead. But Paul went down, and bending over him took him into his arms, and said, "Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him."
That event probably didn't happen on Easter, but the Easter Vigil is a remnant of those early nighttime services of the church: a weekly remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, and the place Christ plays in God's salvation story for our world. And so at our Easter Vigil, we light the Christ candle, tell Bible stories, celebrate all baptisms, welcome new people into the church, share communion, and eat fish at a banquet (rather than ham.)
What then shall a self-righteous Christian do then with the promiscuous Easter bunny, the erotic Easter lily, the gluttonous Easter ham, the materialistic Easter bonnet, the anachronistic Easter sunrise service, the childish Easter egg hunt, and the lackadaisical church-goers who only show up on Easter and Christmas?
Well, maybe we should just take a deep breath...then remember Paul's words, "We have this treasure in
no such thing as a pure Easter, or a pure Christmas, or a pure Christian...or a pure church. The good stuff only comes to us in
vessels: clay pots, breakable, stained, pre-used, inconveniently shaped, not originally intended for
our purposes, belonging also to others whose joys and stories often compete with our own. There is nothing we CAN do...except enjoy it all!
Blessings of abundant life to each of you this Easter.