Have Fun Learning English
British Culture, British Customs and British Traditions
With dictionary look up. Double click on any word for its definition.
This section is in advanced English and is only intended to be a guide, not to be taken too seriously!
In the UK Easter is one of the major Christian festivals of the year. It is full of customs, folklore and traditional food. However, Easter in Britain has its beginnings long before the arrival of Christianity. Many theologians believe Easter itself is named after the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn and spring - Eostre.
In Britain Easter occurs at a different time each year. It is observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. This means that the festival can occur on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25. Not only is Easter the end of the winter it is also the end of Lent, traditionally a time of fasting in the Christian calendar. It is therefore often a time of fun and celebration.
The Friday before Easter Sunday and the Monday after are a bank holiday in the UK. Over Easter schools in the UK close for two weeks, just enough time to digest all the chocolate.
Maundy Thursday is the Thursday before Easter. Christians remember it as the day of the Last Supper, when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and established the ceremony known as the Eucharist. The word Maundy" comes from the French word, "Mande," meaning "command" or "mandate” and is taken from the command given by Christ at the Last Supper, "love one another as I have loved you.”
In Britain, the Queen takes part in the Ceremony of the Royal Maundy, which dates back to Edward 1. This involves the distribution of Maundy Money to deserving senior citizens (one man and one woman for each year of the sovereign's age), usually chosen for having done service to their community. They receive ceremonial red and white purses which contain coins made especially for the occasion. The white purse contains one coin for each year of the monarch's reign. The red purse contains money in place of other gifts that used to be given to the poor.
In the 17th century, and earlier, the King or Queen would wash the feet of the selected poor people as a gesture of humility, and in remembrance of Jesus's washing the feet of the disciples. Suffice to say that doesn't happen any more, in fact the last monarch to do this was James 2.
This is how the Royal Mint explains Maundy history:
"...The Royal Maundy is an ancient ceremony which has its origin in the commandment Christ gave after washing the feet of his disciples on the day before Good Friday. The commandment, or mandatum, 'that ye love one another' (John XIII 34) is still recalled regularly by Christian churches throughout the world and the ceremony of washing the feet of the poor which was accompanied by gifts of food and clothing, can be traced back to the fourth century. It seems to have been the custom as early as the thirteenth century for members of the royal family to take part in Maundy ceremonies, to distribute money and gifts, and to recall Christ's simple act of humility by washing the feet of the poor. Henry IV began the practice of relating the number of recipients of gifts to the sovereign's age, and as it became the custom of the sovereign to perform the ceremony, the event became known as the Royal Maundy. In the eighteenth century the act of washing the feet of the poor was discontinued and in the nineteenth century money allowances were substituted for the various gifts of food and clothing. Maundy money as such started in the reign of Charles II with an undated issue of hammered coins in 1662. The coins were a fourpenny [groat], threepenny, twopenny and one penny piece but it was not until 1670 that a dated set of all four coins appeared. Prior to this, ordinary coinage was used for Maundy gifts, silver pennies alone being used by the Tudors and Stuarts for the ceremony. Today's recipients of Royal Maundy, as many elderly men and women as there are years in the sovereign's age, are chosen because of the Christian service they have given to the Church and community. At the ceremony which takes place annually on Maundy Thursday, the sovereign hands to each recipient two small leather string purses. One, a red purse, contains - in ordinary coinage - money in lieu of food and clothing; the other, a white purse, contains silver Maundy coins consisting of the same number of pence as the years of the sovereign's age. Maundy money has remained in much the same form since 1670, and the coins used for the Maundy ceremony have traditionally been struck in sterling silver save for the brief interruptions of Henry's Vlll's debasement of the coinage and the general change to 50% silver coins in 1920. The sterling silver standard (92.5%) was resumed following the Coinage Act of 1946 and in 1971, when decimalisation took place, the face values of the coins were increased from old to new pence. The effigy of The Queen on ordinary circulating coinage has undergone three changes, but Maundy coins still bear the same portrait of Her Majesty prepared by Mary Gillick for the first coins issued in the year of her coronation in 1953..."
© Royal Mint, 2007.
In 2013, there was a break with traditions as the Queen handed out the Mandy money in York. The pope washed the feet of 12 prisoners in a youth detention centre near Rome, another break with tradition from the usual the foot-washing ceremony, normally performed on lay people in one of Rome's basilicas.
On the Friday before Easter, Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is a day of mourning in church and special Good Friday services are held where Christians meditate on Jesus's suffering and death on the cross, and what this means for their faith.
Calling it 'Good Friday' may seem a bit bizarre, but some people think that it was once called God's Friday or Holy Friday.
Symbols of Easter
Many of the symbols and traditions of Easter are connected with renewal, birth, good luck and fertility.
Of course as it is a Christian festival one of the main symbols is a cross, often on a hill. When Jesus was crucified, the cross became a symbol of suffering. Then with the resurrection, Christians saw it as a symbol of victory over death. In A.D. 325, Constantine issued a decree at the Council of Nicaea, that the Cross would be the official symbol of Christianity.
The week of Easter begins on Palm Sunday. Why Palm Sunday? Well, in Roman times it was customary to welcome royalty by waving palm branches, a bit like a ticker-tape parade. So, when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on what is now known as Palm Sunday, people welcomed him with palm branches carpeting the streets and waving them. Today, on Palm Sunday, Christians carry palm branches in parades, and make them into crosses and garlands to decorate the Church.
Easter eggs are a very old tradition going to a time before Christianity. Eggs after all are a symbol of spring and new life.
Exchanging and eating Easter eggs is a popular custom in many countries. In the UK before they were replaced by chocolate Easter eggs real eggs were used, in most cases, chicken eggs. The eggs were hard-boiled and dyed in various colors and patterns. The traditionally bright colours represented spring and light. Sadly, nowadays if you gave a child in Britain a hard-boiled egg on Easter Sunday, you would probably end up wearing it!
An older more traditional game is one in which real eggs are rolled against one another or down a hill. The owner of the egg that stayed uncracked the longest won. Even today in the north of England, for example as at Preston in Lancashire, they still carry out the custom of egg rolling. Hard boiled eggs are rolled down slopes to see whose egg goes furthest. In other places another game is played. You hold an egg in the palm of the hand and bang against your opponent's egg. The loser is the one whose egg breaks first.
Nowadays people give each other Easter eggs made of chocolate, usually hollow and filled with sweets. On TV you will see adverts for Cadbury's Creme Eggs, a very sweet confectionery. The catchphrase for the adverts is "How do you eat yours?" And Britain children hunt for (chocolate) Easter eggs hidden about the home or garden by the Easter bunny.
Rabbits, due to their fecund nature, have always been a symbol of fertility.The Easter bunny (rabbit) however may actually be an Easter hare. The hare was allegedly a companion of the ancient Moon goddess and of Eostre.
Strangely the bunny as an Easter symbol seems to have it's origins in Germany, where it was first mentioned in German writings in the 16th Century. The first edible Easter bunnies appeared in Germany during the early 1800s, they were made of pastry and sugar.
In the UK children believe that if they are good the "Easter Bunny " will leave (chocolate) eggs for them.
Sadly hare hunting (hare coursing) used to be a common pastime at Easter. But this might please some of the more fundamentalist Christians, who consider the fluffy fellow to be unchristian.
Morris dancing is a traditional English form of folk dance which is also performed in other English-speaking countries such as the USA and Australia. The roots of morris dancing seem to be very old, probably dating back to the Middle Ages.
In the dance men dress up in costumes with hats and ribbons and bells around their ankles. They dance through the streets and one man often carries an inflated pigs bladder on the end of a stick. He will run up to young women in the street and hit them over the head with the pigs bladder, this is supposed to be lucky (men)!
Easter was once a traditional day for getting married, that may be why people often dress up for Easter. Women would make and wear special Easter bonnets - decorated with flowers and ribbons. Even today in Battersea in London there is a special Easter Parade, where hand-made bonnets are shown off.
Hot cross buns, now eaten throughout the Easter season, were first baked in England to be served on Good Friday. These small, lightly sweet yeast buns contain raisins or currants and sometimes chopped candied fruit. Before baking, a cross is slashed in the top of the bun. After baking, a confectioners' sugar icing is used to fill the cross.
An old rhyme was often sung by children awaiting their sugary treat:
"Hot cross buns,
hot cross buns,
one a penny, two a penny,
hot cross buns.
If you do not like them,
give them to your sons,
one a penny, two a penny,
hot cross buns."
A traditional way of breaking the Lenten fast is to eat some simnel cake. These are raised cakes, with a crust made of fine flour and water, coloured yellow with saffron, and filled with a very rich plum-cake, with plenty of candied lemon peel, and dried fruits.
An old Shropshire tale has it that long ago there lived an honest old couple, Simon and Nelly, and it was their custom to gather their children around them at Easter. Nelly had some leftover unleavened dough from Lent, and Simon reminded her there was some plum pudding still left over from Christmas. They could make some treats for the visiting family.
Nell put the leftovers together, and Sim insisted the cake should be boiled, while she was just as certain that it should be baked. They had a fight and came to blows, but compromised by doing both. They cooked the cake over a fire made from furniture broken in the scuffle, and some eggs, similarly broken, were used to baste it. The delicacy was named after this cantankerous couple. Or, so it is said.
Some customs to do with Easter have now, thankfully, died out. For some reason the humble shoe appeared in several of them.
Easter Day Customs at Durham, 1826
On Easter Sunday it was a common custom, for a number of boys to assemble in the afternoon, and as soon as the clock struck four, scoured the streets in parties, and accosted every female they happened to meet, with "pay for your shoes if you please," at the same time, stopping to take them off; which, if they did, and did not immediately get a penny or twopence, they actually carried them off. Often the boys collected, at least, a dozen odd shoes; but generally, something was given, which in the evening they either spent in public houses or divided.
On Easter Monday, the women claimed the same privilege towards the male sex. They began much earlier in the day, and attacked every man and boy they could lay hold of to make them pay for their shoes; if the men happened to wear boots, and would not pay any thing, the girls generally endeavoured to seize their hats and run off. If a man caught the girl with the hat, it was usually thrown or handed about to the great amusement of spectators, till the person was baffled out of sixpence to redeem the right of wearing it again.
Easter Day Customs at Rippon, 1790
On Easter Sunday, as soon as the church services were over, the boys ran about the streets, and laid hold of every woman or girl they could, they would then take their buckles from their shoes. This farce was continued till the next day at noon, when the females began and returned the compliment upon the men, this did not end till Tuesday evening. At one time, no traveller could pass through the town without being stopped and having his spurs taken away, unless redeemed by a little money, which was the only way to have your buckles returned.
Easter Day Customs at Twickenham and Paddington, date unknown
To the Editor of the Every Day Book:
According to a Mr. Lysons, "There was an ancient custom at Twickenham, of dividing two great cakes in the church upon Easter-day among the young people; but it being looked upon as a superstitious relic, it was ordered by parliament, 1645, that the parishioners should forbear that custom, and, instead, thereof, buy loaves of bread for the poor of the parish with the money that should have bought the cakes. It appears that the sum of 1 pound per annum is still charged upon the vicarage for the purpose of buying penny loaves for poor children on the Thursday after Easter. Within the memory of man they were thrown from the church-steeple to be scrambled for; a custom which prevailed also, some time ago at Paddington, and is not yet totally abolished."
A correspondent's images that the Paddington custom of throwing bread from the church-steeple, which exists also in other parishes, was derived from largesses bestowed on the poor by the Romish clergy on occasion of the festival, and that it has continued since the Reformation, and, therefore, since the institution of poor rates, without due regard to its' original object.
A correspondent, . . . mentioned this custom in Cheshire: "Children go round the village and beg for eggs for their Easter dinner; they accompany it by short song. . . the burthen of it is addressed to the farmer's dame, and asking "an egg, bacon, cheese, or an apple, or any good thing that will make us merry," ends with "And I pray you, good dame, an Easter egg."
In Cumberland and Westmorland and other parts of the north of England, boys begged on Easter eve for eggs to play with and beggars asked for them to eat. These eggs were boiled, and coloured with the juice from herbs, broom-flowers, etc. Once the eggs were prepared, the boys would go out and play with them in the fields; rolling them up and down, like bowls, upon the ground, or throwing them up, like balls, into the air.
Sugar Cupping In the Peak of Derbyshire
To the Editor of the Every Day Book:
"Sir--The pleasure and instruction I have derived from the perusal of your interesting miscellany, induced me to offer to your notice a custom in this neighbourhood denominated Sugar-cupping, which, like similar remnants of the "olden time" is gradually running into disuse. Last Sunday, being Easter-day, I walked to the "Dropping Tor", the rendezvous of the "sugar cuppers", but, owing, to the extreme inclemency of the weather, no one was there, nor was it, I believe, once visited during the day.
From frequent inquiry of the oldest persons in the neighbourhood, I can learn nothing but that, on Easter Sunday, they were used, when children, to go to the "Dropping Tor", with a cup in one pocket and a quarter of a pound of sugar in the other, and having caught in their cups as much water as was desired from the droppings of the spring, they dissolved the sugar in it, and drank it. The natural consequences resulting from the congregation of a quantity of 'young men and maidens" followed, and they returned home. . . . I conjecture this custom to be peculiar to this part."
Adapted from Hone's Every Day Book