Spring has sprung, apparently, and Easter is on its way. In the UK, we know the Christian festival of Easter is coming because there are Creme Eggs in the shops, and it becomes socially acceptable to gorge yourself on chocolate, provided it’s in the shape of an egg, a rabbit or a chick. However, other countries have some more interesting Easter traditions and customs.
The flying bells | France
In France, and the Netherlands and Belgium, there is a really sweet story that gets told to children at Easter time. It is said that all the church bells fly away on the Thursday before Easter (or the Saturday, if you are Dutch or Flemish) to go to Rome for a few days. This is a way of explaining why the bells are silent, in mourning for Jesus, for a few days.
Not only do the bells fly to Rome, they also return with gifts of eggs, chocolate rabbits and other Easter paraphernalia! It’s reminiscent of the story of Santa Claus, however we all know that is real, whereas believing bells can fly is simply ridiculous. I mean, wouldn’t they make an awful noise when they fly off?! People would definitely notice that!
The eternal flame | Greece
Easter is a really big deal in Greece, as it is in many countries. The Greeks do all the things you would expect – special food, special church services, festivals, fireworks, eggs (red ones specifically, to represent Christ’s blood) – but they also have something others do not – the eternal flame! (To be clear, I do not believe this eternal flame has any association with the Bangles song of the same name.)
The eternal flame is an actual, real flame, brought all the way from Jerusalem to Greece by military jet on Easter Saturday. This is a really big deal. The ceremony is even televised, and if the weather’s bad, well, let’s just say tensions run high! Once the flame is safely in Greece, the hundreds of priests that have been waiting at the airport light their lanterns with the flame and take them back to their respective churches.
This flame plays a big part in the hugely popular Resurrection service (it’s so popular that many churches actually overflow). Everyone heads to their local church before midnight where they wait in darkness and in silent prayer holding unlit candles; the only light comes from the lantern at the altar. At midnight the priest lights the main church candle with the eternal flame in the lantern and cries out “Christos Anesti”, which means “Christ is risen”.
The priest takes the candle to the people closest to him and they light their candles with it and pass it back until everyone has a lit candle. The congregation will say to each other “Christos Anesti” to which the response is “Alithos Anesti” which means “he is truly risen”. Then everyone disperses, slowly, protecting their flame, back to their homes. When they get there they make a cross on their door using the smoke from the flame to ensure their home will be blessed for the year.
Chocolate bilbies | Australia
Last year wasn’t a good one for the Easter bunny in Australia. His popularity is waning, but who on earth can dislike the Easter bunny? Bilbies, that’s who! The bilby is a native Australian animal; it’s a marsupial that can grow to around the same size as a rabbit. They have long ears, a long muzzle, soft silky fur and a pouch like a kangaroo.
The problem is that rabbits (who were introduced to Australia years ago) are eating away the bilbies’ habitats. Poor things! Last year, it was estimated that there were only 600 left in the wild. Take a moment to think about how big Australia is… 600 suddenly seems like a very, very small number, doesn’t it? So last year, a campaign was developed to replace the Easter bunny with the Easter bilby, in a bid to raise the little guy’s profile. It seems to be working as he has been embraced by many schools and chocolate manufacturers too. Long live the Easter bilby!
Splash, whip and spritz | Slovakia
Well, this is possibly the strangest of our Easter traditions, but let’s safely appreciate it from a distance now, because I do believe it is dying out (much to the relief of Slovak girls). On Easter Monday, a mob of males (usually young men) make their way round to the homes of the females in their lives.
Firstly they try to get them wet, either by dunking them in a pond (NO, thank you), throwing a bucket of water over them (again – NO, thank you) or more commonly these days, asking the host for a cup, filling it with water then throwing it in her face! (I see this is the best option, but it still wouldn’t go down well with me.) It’s thought to be all the more amusing if you can soak the girl off-guard. There’s an incentive to get up early on Easter morning, if you don’t you might just get an unusual wakeup call!
The second part of this delightful tradition involves lightly whipping the legs of the lady with a special willow whip adorned with ribbons. It used to be the case that each victim added a ribbon to the whip so by the end of the day you could see how many women the man had err… harassed? Terrorised? Irritated? I’m not sure what to call it to be honest! Thirdly, and this must come as a relief, the guy spritzes the girl with perfume. That bit is OK, I suppose…
I don’t think this Easter ritual is particularly popular with women, however sometimes they do play along; running, hiding, squealing in mock protest. However, it’s definitely popular with males; not only do they get to be nasty boys, they get a treat in return! When calling at the homes of their victims, it’s traditional that they are greeted with a chocolate egg, a shot of alcohol or a kiss! That’s a flaming cheek in my book! You’re lucky if the mob visits you early on in the day, because by the end of it, they are drunk and very rowdy!
But riddle me this, I hear you cry – what is the point of all this? I think it has something to do with bestowing health, radiance and beauty upon the woman, as the willow is selected because it is one of the first trees to respond to spring and is considered to be beautiful. Please, if you have any further information on this strange tradition, please do get in touch!
A butter lamb | Poland
Moulding things into chicks, rabbits and lambs for Easter is normal. We do it with chocolate. Poland really likes the lamb, however. They have sugar lambs, lamb cakes (no, not a meat cake – just a cake decorated with a little lamb) and butter lambs. By this I mean a lamb made entirely of butter.
These lambs can be bought ready-made in the supermarket, in which case they are quite small, but they can also be bought, handmade, from delis or made from scratch at home, in which case they can be really quite big. That’s a lot of butter. I believe making them at home is quite a complex affair; making sure the butter is at the right temperature to mould, sculpting a lamb’s face, getting a fur texture… I wouldn’t even know where to start!
Sometimes the lambs are intricately decorated and they wear a ribbon sash or a little cross. The butter lamb makes up part of a basket of food that is taken to church on Easter Saturday to be blessed. Each item of food is representative of something: eggs represent the resurrection, salt represents tears and purification, ham represents joy and abundance, horseradish represents the bitter sacrifice of Christ and lamb (or the butter lamb) represents Christ himself, gentle and mild.
Photo credits: Stefan Thiesen, valeyoshino, Klearchos Kapoutsis, mikecogh, Opusztaszer, quinn.anya, Ben Garney and waitscm