The food commonly eaten on Easter Sunday is rich in symbolism. The ingredients and dishes are rooted in two traditions: the Jewish Passover dinner, or Seder, and the pagan springtime festival of renewal and fertility. Easter food shows how these two traditions have combined to form our current concept of the holiday.
Bread and Wine
Growing up, Easter Sundays began with a church service that re-enacts the last supper of Christ, which was a Seder. The first “meal” that we ate on Easter Sunday was therefore a meager one: the sacrament of communion, an unleavened wafer and a sip of red wine.
It is said that when the pharaoh freed the Hebrews, they fled Egypt so abruptly that they didn’t have time to let their bread dough rise. To this day, for eight days at Passover, Jews abstain from leavened bread, in remembrance of the flight from Egypt.
Wine, too, has special significance at a Seder. In fact, several glasses of wine are poured during the meal, each representing a different stage of the Hebrew exodus.
At the last supper, Jesus created new meanings for these traditional foods.
Now as they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and when he had said the blessing he broke it and gave it to the disciples. “Take it and eat”; he said, “this is my body.”
Then he took a cup, and when he had returned thanks he gave it to them. “Drink all of you from this,” he said, “for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant…”.1
Jesus used bread to symbolize his body, and wine to symbolize his blood. Together they symbolize his bodily sacrifice to atone for the sins of mankind. The taking of holy bread and wine has been the central sacrament of the Catholic faith for centuries. Eating the body and drinking the blood is a way for followers to renew and participate in that sacrifice.
Roasted lamb is another regular dish at Seders. It represents the sacrificial lambs killed before the tenth plague in the exodus story. The final plague that Yahweh sent to Egypt was a mist that killed the firstborn male of every house. Before the plague descended, Hebrew families were instructed to slaughter a lamb and spread some of the lamb’s blood onto the door of their home. This served as a signal for the plague to “pass over” the house.
Lamb later became a special symbol in the Christian faith, as “Lamb of God” was a common epithet for Christ. Roasted lamb continues to be the most common Easter meal in sheep-rearing regions like Greece and Provence.
Beyond the specific religious connotations of lamb, there is a general connection between newly born animals and spring. Animals, both wild and farmed, give birth in the spring so that the arrival of their children corresponds to the start of the growing season. Beyond lamb, all manner of young animals have come to represent spring generally, and Easter specifically. Suckling pig, for instance, is a common Easter dish in Lorraine.2
Rabbit is a symbol of spring for a different reason. With a long breeding season, a short gestation time, and large litters, rabbits have been pagan symbols of fertility since ancient times. They often feature in Easter meals, especially in Germanic nations.3 Rabbit is not a common meat in North American homes, but it appears on our Easter tables in a different form, namely chocolate bunnies.
Eggs are an obvious symbol of birth and renewal, as they contain the beginnings of life. Before the advent of industrial agriculture, the first eggs of the season would have been laid around Easter, as hens stopped laying during the winter. Even if eggs could have somehow been coaxed out of chickens earlier in the year, they were forbidden during Lent through much of European history.
There are many elaborate Easter baking traditions involving eggs, notably from Mediterranean Europe, where Greek and Italian bakers make rich loaves of bread with coloured, hard-boiled eggs baked into them. Often the colour of the eggs is important. Red, for instance, represents Christ’s blood.
A more modest version of this baking tradition is found in the hot cross bun. Made from rich, yeasted dough with plenty of eggs and milk, traditionally these buns were scored with a cross before baking. The cross has been deeply symbolic for thousands of years, representing infinity, rebirth, and the sun, so there was a tradition in Europe of scoring bread with a cross long before the birth of Christ.4 In fact the cross was a symbol of shame for early Christians, a reminder of Christ’s betrayal and death. Over time the cross has come to symbolize resurrection. Modern hot cross buns are usually drizzled with a cross of sweet sauce.
Hot cross buns as we know them originated in England, where street vendors sold them around Easter, singing:
Hot Cross Buns!
Hot Cross Buns!
One a penny! Two a penny!
Hot Cross Buns!
This song is still commonly sung to children across the British commonwealth.
Eggs that don’t make their way into Easter breads are often used in crafts, like painted eggs. Eggs are either evacuated or hardboiled, then died or painted. Traditionally the colours were extracted from food: red from beets, and blue from cabbage, for example.
Despite these long and (ahem) colourful traditions, eggs increasingly only appear in one form: chocolate.
Another way that the Easter dinner table mimics the renewal in the field is in the use of vegetables. Spring provides fresh vegetables that haven’t been seen in months. Early-rising plants, like chives, onions, and asparagus are common at Easter dinner.
Easter food represents the complex history of the Christian faith from its roots in Judaism, its gradual break from several Jewish practices, such as dietary laws, and the assumption of many pagan holidays and symbols. Easter food, from the communion wafer to the chocolate egg, represents the amalgamation of the Jewish and pagan cultures in the form of Christianity.
A Button Soup Easter Dinner
Easter Dinner with Lisa’s family, featuring some of the traditional, symbolic ingredients and dishes discussed above.
- The Jerusalem Bible, Matthew 26:26-28
- Larousse, p. 959.
- Larousse, p. 442.
- Duncan, p, 123.
1. Jones, Alexander (Ed.). The Jerusalem Bible. ©1968 Doubleday and Company, Inc, Garden City, NY.
2. Various. Larousse. © 2001 Clarkson Potter Publishers, New York, NY.
3. Duncan, Dorothy. Feasting and Fasting. © 2010 Dundurn Press, Toronto, ON.
4. Civitello, Linda. Cuisine and Culture, Second Edition. ©2008 John Wiley and Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ.