Easter has always been an important annual event for Irish people, whether they consider themselves to be religious or not. The winter weather has finally disappeared and spring has been put in its place, opportunities for some family fun are all around, everyone gets at least one day off work, and of course it has important historical, cultural and religious roots too. Easter in Ireland is always an enjoyable occasion, and like most things, we have our own unique traditions and customs to celebrate it ranging from the entirely practical to the wonderfully peculiar.
Easter Sunday has a different date on the calendar every year, just to make things that little bit more confusing. It takes place on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (which is always on March 21st) - or in plain English, that’s any Sunday between March 22nd and April 25th each year. Once the date has been determined, people will then prepare for the preparations leading up to Easter - that’s right, even the preparations require some planning! Read on to find out everything you need to know to celebrate Easter the Irish way...
Religious Easter Traditions
Ash Wednesday and Lent
The first Easter lead-up ceremony is Ash Wednesday, which takes place 46 days before Easter Sunday. On this day people attend a special mass at church, during which the priest makes the mark of the cross on their foreheads with ashes. The ashes come from the burned branches of last year’s Palm Sunday ceremony, which we’ll explain in due course.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, which is a symbolic recreation of a bible story in which Jesus spent 40 days in the desert fasting while being tempted by Satan. People with strong religious beliefs will fast from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday, eating only the plainest of foods, abstaining from alcohol, and electing to give up some other vices that they would otherwise indulge in (such as sleeping late or watching their favourite TV show, for example).
In decades past everyone would have strictly adhered to Lent, even giving up meat and dairy products and attending mass daily. Nowadays things aren’t so strict, but many people - even non-believers - still elect to give something up as an endurance challenge or a means of self-improvement. Lent lasts for 46 days rather than 40 since for health reasons people are expected to have one day a week (usually Sundays) when they can eat meat and get the nutrition they need. St. Patrick’s Day is also widely regarded as a ‘day off’ from fasting in order to honour Ireland’s patron saint.
‘Easter Week’ is what the week leading up to Easter Sunday is generally known as by most native Irish people. It kicks off with the aforementioned Palm Sunday, which commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a few days before his death and resurrection. As he made his way into the city his throngs of followers laid down cloaks and palm branches on the path for him to walk on; this was a custom reserved solely for a person worthy of the highest honour and meant that they were declaring him as their unofficial king.
On Palm Sunday Irish mass goers take part in a procession carrying palm branches to the altar of the church. Next up his Holy Thursday, another day for attending mass, this time to remember the story of the Last Supper when Jesus shared a final meal with his disciples the evening before his crucifixion and predicts his betrayal. The next day is Good Friday, the most sombre day of the entire Easter celebration, which marks the crucifixion of Jesus.
People will drink only water and only have one meal of fish in the afternoon, eating only two small amounts of plain food like bread in the morning and evening. It is intended as a day of rest and reflection for Catholics; nobody goes to work, pubs and businesses remain closed, and not too long ago even television and radio stations went off air. At the Good Friday mass the Stations of the Cross are held, during which a cross is carried around the church to the 12 ‘stations’, or stages of the crucifixion story.
On the evening of Easter Saturday, the Easter vigil is held after sunset - the church is decked out with purple banners and all lights are extinguished, replaced by a single candle that represents the beginning of the resurrection of Jesus. The next morning on Easter Sunday, families gather again for Easter Sunday mass, celebrating his return from the dead. As Lent is now over, when mass is ended each family has a huge feast with all of the foods forbidden during lent; especially meat and sweet treats!
While for members of the Catholic church Easter is an important time with many ceremonies and masses to attend, for non-church goers there are sometimes equally as many secular traditions to take part in. First and foremost is everyone’s favourite Tuesday - Pancake Tuesday! Few people realise that this is directly related to Easter; it was the last chance to use up all the delicious ingredients that would be forbidden from the next day, Ash Wednesday, until Easter Sunday.
What’s the best way to use up all those eggs, milk, flour, butter and sugar? Pancakes of course! These days Pancake Tuesday has become an institution in its own right, but for centuries it has been indirectly associated with Easter traditions. Despite the decline of the church’s influence in Ireland in recent years, the long held tradition of pubs and off-licences closing on Good Friday is still adhered to, so many people have no choice but to make alternative plans. Traditionally, this comes in the form of house parties or trips to the cinema, and is often preceded by a sharp rise in off-licence sales the day before!
Good Friday is also viewed by many as an opportunity to undertake some spring cleaning, usually because many homes have large family gatherings on Sunday. It is also commonplace for people to shop for new clothes and indulge in some personal grooming and pampering for the same reason. On Easter Sunday the biggest tradition is one that takes place on just about any other Irish occasion too: a big family feast. Popular choices are roast lamb and leek soup, but these days Easter feasts can and do include anything and everything. After dinner kids (and big kids) are given chocolate eggs to celebrate.
This tradition is by far the most popular of all Easter traditions, with over 5 million Easter eggs sold in Ireland each year. All of the biggest chocolate brands produce all kinds of eggs, with Cadbury’s producing the much coveted creme eggs only between January and Easter Sunday every year. If the weather allows, kids undertake outdoor treasure hunts to find their eggs, resulting in lots of excitement and then subsequent temporary sugar crashes. Easter Monday is a public holiday and many working adults also get a day off work on Good Friday too.
Therefore many families use the time off as an opportunity for a holiday, either to visit family elsewhere in the country or to get away from it all for a few days. Horse races are also popular around this time, with the popular Cheltenham racing festival often falling a week or two before Easter. Of course, many of the traditions popular in the rest of the world are also present in Ireland, including the Easter Bunny, painting eggs, picking spring flowers, and symbols such as fluffy yellow spring chicks and lambs, the colours yellow orange and white, ribbons and bows on everything, and so on.
As with most Irish occasions, some of the traditions associated with Easter are just downright weird! Here is a selection of our favourites…
The Herring’s funeral
Since many people will have eaten fish, fish and more fish during the 46 days of lent, it’s no surprise that they’re quite sick of it by Easter Sunday. As a joke, local butchers host a ‘funeral’ for one of the most common types of fish - herring - so that people can bid it a not so sad farewell until the next time Lent comes around!
For farming and rural homes where chickens are kept, any eggs laid by hens on Good Friday are marked with a cross and put away until Easter Sunday. On Sunday morning at breakfast, each member of the household must eat one of the ‘holy’ eggs as a blessing.
Spoilin meith na hInide:
During Lent, a small piece of meat is kept and hung up on a wall, as a symbol of temptation. On Easter Sunday, the piece is taken down and burned in the fire to give the house a tantalising aroma ahead of the feast to come later in the day.
The tradition of the Cluideog involves the children of the household in rural areas, who take some fresh eggs out to the corner of their land and roast them on a makeshift cooking contraption. It is not known why this is done, although it may be a throwback to some old Irish piseogs (spells or curses). And a few more: If you get a haircut on Good Friday, it is said to prevent headaches. Children born on Good Friday are supposedly born with the gift of healing. People who pass away on Good Friday are given automatic admission into heaven. Many families conduct a cake dance - whoever has the best dance gets the first slice of cake. Rural families sow a small amount of seeds to symbolise spring, growth, and rebirth.
For the majority of Irish people, Easter is also associated with the 1916 Easter Rising, in which Irish rebels such as Michael Collins, Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, and many more banded together to rebel against British rule in the country, sparking several years of intense and bitter fighting that eventually lead to Ireland’s independence. Every year during the Easter celebrations a commemoration is also held honouring those who fought and died during the Rising, usually involving military processions, gun salutes, and a reading of the Proclamation of Independence. 2016 marks the centenary of the Rising, so next year’s Easter celebrations are set to be truly unique.
Claddagh Design and the Cross
Keeping with the easter theme, Claddagh Design has produced many pieces of jewelry on the theme of a Cross, incorporating many celtic designs. For example: