From orange chasing to football matches, with the Easter period approaching we investigate some of our lesser-known traditions.
Whilst the stories of hot cross buns, Easter eggs, and Simnel cake are well known, there is a huge array of more unlikely customs that a look into our history reveals.
We cannot delve into our Easter past without stumbling upon egg-related stories. A more exerting variation of the traditional Easter egg hunt are the egg chases that take place across the country. Chasing, or hunting, eggs is a clear reference to the story of the resurrection; not only do eggs represent new life, but the emphasis on their discovery is evocative of revealing Jesus’ empty tomb. Chasing after hard-boiled eggs down a hill, known as Pace egging, is a tradition that is said to derive from the Pagan festival of Ēostre that welcomed Spring and new life. Like so many of our traditions, existing Pagan celebrations were appropriated with a Christian message to bring the Christian calendar into established practices. Pace egging has thus also come to represent the stone that covered Jesus’ tomb being rolled away.
Bedfordshire has a unique take on this tradition with oranges, rather than eggs, being chased on Dunstable Downs. Oranges were pelted from the heights, with those chasing after them aiming to hold onto their fruit until the bottom. Some even went to the lengths of donning top hats to attract the attention, and the fruit, of the pelters. However, the shortage of oranges during the Second World War halted the tradition temporarily. Orange chasing was reborn after the war but increasing health and safety concerns and waning support from local businesses meant the custom could no longer be sustained. With the build-up of heavy scrubland on the Downs making the chase virtually impossible, the last revival attempt in 1985 looks unlikely to be repeated.
In addition to the chases, pace egg plays are a tradition that was rediscovered in the post-war revival of folklore. The plays have roots in Celtic, Syrian, and Egyptian cultures, and the word ‘pace’ itself is thought to be from the Latin ‘pasch’ (passion or Easter); typifying the melange of roots that contribute to ostensibly Christian traditions. As a battle between good and evil, with St George fighting the Slasher, the comical Toss Pot representing the Devil, and revival by a Quack doctor, the plays reflect the resurrection and older themes of new life. The pace eggs themselves, originally boiled in onion skins to give them a golden appearance, were given out at the end of the plays.
Maundy Money is another Easter tradition, with royalty distributing alms for the poor on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday). This tradition of giving relief such as clothing and food to the poor dates to the thirteenth century; royalty would also wash the feet of the poor, following Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Charles II started the custom of giving coins (a four, three, two, and penny pieces), and this became the dominant form of Maundy aid. With the coming of the eighteenth century, washing the feet of the poor disappeared, whilst gifts of food and clothes disappeared the following century. Today, those receiving Maundy Money are pensioners chosen for their services to Christian churches or the community. The number of pensioners receiving the Maundy money is determined by the age of the monarch, with one man and one woman for each year. This custom is unique in that it is the only award where the monarch travels to those receiving the money.
Finally, from chasing eggs and oranges we arrive at the tradition of Shrovetide football. This dates to the mob football played over fields and through rivers in the early middle ages. In Ashbourne, Derbyshire, their football match takes place over Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. The River Henmore divides the townspeople into two teams: the Up-Ards and the Down’Ards, coming from North and South of the river. The game is different in that the aim is to score an own goal; with each goal a millstone set three miles apart across the town. The scorer must stand in the river and tap the ball against the millstone three times to win. Far from whoever has possession of the ball, the scorer is elected en route and is typically an Ashbourne resident. This unique take on football has been given the Royal epithet since 1928, which was formally renewed in 2003.
Looking into some of our more obscure Easter customs shows that the way we mark Easter incorporates our Pagan and Christian traditions, as well as the variety of community activities across the whole of the United Kingdom.
Written by Daniel Bowles, Museum Volunteer