Saturday, March 26, 2016

Handball with Twelve Old Women and Other "Peculiar" Easter Customs

Good Friday procession in Jelsa, Croatia. The cross bearer traditionally sprints the final steps. 

These are taken directly from the Catholic Encyclopedia, published in 1907-13, and now transcribed and hosted on the web by New Advent. For those of you who haven't seen or used the Encyclopedia, it is an amazing resource. It is orthodox (as one might assume from the date) but doesn't hesitate to present the range of arguments for still controversial questions--such as whether there could be a pope who was a formal heretic. None other than Hilaire Belloc described the Encyclopedia as "one of the most powerful influences working in favor of the truth."

This quirky discussion covers both orthodox and no so orthodox traditions, from the sacred and spiritually healthy to the bizarre and even perverse. Of course, we wouldn't call Easter eggs or the Easter Rabbit "peculiar." Then again, the world would be a much better place if that leporine entity were summarily shot.    

I like the dry last sentence of the "Handball" section--"All these customs disappeared for obvious reasons."

Have a blessed Holy Saturday! The greatest day of the year is only twelve hours away...      
Peculiar customs of Easter time 
Risus Paschalis 
This strange custom originated in Bavaria in the fifteenth century. The priest inserted in his sermon funny stories which would cause his hearers to laugh, e.g. a description of how the devil tries to keep the doors of hell locked against the descending Christ. Then the speaker would draw the moral from the story. This Easter laughter, giving rise to grave abuses of the word of God, was prohibited by Clement X (1670-1676) and in the eighteenth century by Maximilian III and the bishops of Bavaria. 
Easter eggs 
Because the use of eggs was forbidden during Lent, they were brought to the table on Easter Day, coloured red to symbolize the Easter joy. This custom is found not only in the Latin but also in the Oriental Churches. The symbolic meaning of a new creation of mankind by Jesus risen from the dead was probably an invention of later times. The custom may have its origin in paganism, for a great many pagan customs, celebrating the return of spring, gravitated to Easter. The egg is the emblem of the germinating life of early spring. Easter eggs, the children are told, come from Rome with the bells which on Thursday go to Rome and return Saturday morning. The sponsors in some countries give Easter eggs to their god-children. Coloured eggs are used by children at Easter in a sort of game which consists in testing the strength of the shells. Both coloured and uncoloured eggs are used in some parts of the United States for this game, known as "egg-picking". Another practice is the "egg-rolling" by children on Easter Monday on the lawn of the White House in Washington. 
The Easter rabbit 
The Easter Rabbit lays the eggs, for which reason they are hidden in a nest or in the garden. The rabbit is a pagan symbol and has always been an emblem of fertility. 
In France handball playing was one of the Easter amusements, found also in Germany. The ball may represent the sun, which is believed to take three leaps in rising on Easter morning. Bishops, priests, and monks, after the strict discipline of Lent, used to play ball during Easter week. This was called libertas Decembrica, because formerly in December, the masters used to play ball with their servants, maids, and shepherds. The ball game was connected with a dance, in which even bishops and abbots took part. At Auxerre, Besançon, etc. the dance was performed in church to the strains of the "Victimae paschali". In England, also, the game of ball was a favourite Easter sport in which the municipal corporation engaged with due parade and dignity. And at Bury St. Edmunds, within recent years, the game was kept up with great spirit by twelve old women. After the game and the dance a banquet was given, during which a homily on the feast was read. All these customs disappeared for obvious reasons. 
Men and women 
On Easter Monday the women had a right to strike their husbands, on Tuesday the men struck their wives, as in December the servants scolded their masters. Husbands and wives did this "ut ostendant sese mutuodebere corrigere, ne illo tempore alter ab altero thori debitum exigat." In the northern parts of England the men parade the streets on Easter Sunday and claim the privilegeof lifting every woman three times from the ground, receiving in payment a kiss or a silver sixpence. The same is done by the women to the men on the next day. In the Neumark (Germany) on Easter Day the menservants whip the maid servants with switches; on Monday the maids whip the men. They secure their release with Easter eggs. These customs are probably of pre-Christian origin. 
The Easter fire 
The Easter Fire is lit on the top of mountains (Easter mountain, Osterberg) and must be kindled from new fire, drawn from wood by friction (nodfyr); this is a custom of pagan origin in vogue all over Europe, signifying the victory of spring over winter. The bishops issued severe edicts against the sacrilegious Easter fires (Conc. Germanicum, a. 742, c.v.; Council of Lestines, a. 743, n. 15), but did not succeed in abolishing them everywhere. The Church adopted the observance into the Easter ceremonies, referring it to the fiery column in the desert and to the Resurrection of Christ; the new fire on Holy Saturday is drawn from flint, symbolizing the Resurrection of the Light of the World from the tomb closed by a stone (Missale Rom.). In some places a figure was thrown into the Easter fire, symbolizing winter, but to the Christians on the Rhine, in Tyrol and Bohemia, Judas the traitor. 
Processions and awakenings 
At Puy in France, from time immemorial to the tenth century, it was customary, when at the first psalm of Matins a canon was absent from the choir, for some of the canons and vicars, taking with them the processional cross and the holy water, to go to the house of the absentee, sing the "Haec Dies", sprinkle him with water, if he was still in bed, and lead him to the church. In punishment he had to give a breakfast to his conductors. A similar custom is found in the fifteenth century at Nantes and Angers, where it was prohibited by the diocesan synods in 1431 and 1448. In some parts of Germany parents and children try to surprise each other in bed on Easter morning to apply the health-giving switches. 
Blessing of food 
In both the Oriental and Latin Churches, it is customary to have those victuals which were prohibited during Lent blessed by the priests before eating them on Easter Day, especially meat, eggs, butter, and cheese. Those who ate before the food was blessed, according to popular belief, were punished by God, sometimes instantaneously. 
House blessings 
On the eve of Easter the homes are blessed (Rit. Rom., tit. 8, c. iv) in memory of the passing of the angel in Egypt and the signing of the door-posts with the blood of the paschal lamb. The parish priest visits the houses of his parish; the papal apartments are also blessed on this day. The room, however, in which the pope is found by the visiting cardinal is blessed by the pontiff himself. 
Sports and celebrations 
The Greeks and Russians after their long, severe Lent make Easter a day of popular sports. At Constantinople the cemetery of Pera is the noisy rendezvous of the Greeks; there are music, dances, and all the pleasures of an Oriental popular resort; the same custom prevails in the cities of Russia. In Russia anyone can enter the belfries on Easter and ring the bells, a privilege of which many persons avail themselves.


  1. Had my Easter food blessed today.

    1. I hope you had a great Easter, Netmilsmom, and will have a restorative Eastertide.

  2. You need to keep in mind that the cross bearer in the picture above has been carrying the cross in an all night procession, barefoot, for more than 25 km.