Easter is universally seen as a key celebration which is a source of joy for the young and not-so-young alike. Alongside Christmas, it is the most important religious festival in France, commemorating, as I’m sure you know, the resurrection of Christ. In France, Easter Monday (the Monday after Easter Sunday) is a public holiday. But what things, animals and activities are associated with Easter? What are some of the most unusual customs and specialities found in France and elsewhere around the world?
When it comes to spelling, be aware that the French word for Easter has a capital P and an ‘s’ at the end: Pâques. You should write, for example: Cette année, nous fêterons Pâques en famille (‘This year, we’ll be celebrating Easter with the family’). Note that here, Pâques is a masculine singular noun. If you use an attribute adjective, it becomes a feminine plural noun, so you wish your friends and family Joyeuses Pâques ! (‘Happy Easter!’). The reason that this time of year is so popular is that it reflects our traditions and reminds us of happy memories from our childhood. Buona Pasqua in Italy, Happy Easter in Britain, Frohe Ostern in Germany, Felices Pascuas in Spain: whichever country you’re in, Easter is still a special time of year.
Some of the things that are inextricably linked with Easter traditions in the French collective subconscious include chocolate, bells, eggs, rabbits, chickens and lambs. A nod to the end of Lent and the arrival of good weather, the rabbit or hare are symbols of fertility that date back to Antiquity. Our German neighbours made the Easter hare, or Osterhase, a part of traditional Easter celebrations, even though chocolate bunnies are now replacing their fellow creatures in the shops – no doubt the result of globalisation.
Outside France, customs can sometimes be very different. Shall we take a trip to Australia to find out how they celebrate Easter? In the land down under, the traditional chocolate Easter bunny is increasingly falling out of favour. Many Australians prefer a small marsupial that is distinguished by its big ears and long snout – the bilby, an animal that is completely unknown in France. It is a protected species that is preferred over rabbits since the latter wrought havoc on crops in the nineteenth century. ‘The Easter bilby’ is also made of chocolate and is eaten together with friends or family.
As for the famous Easter bells, what’s the association there? According to believers, church bells are silenced in mourning during Holy Week. On Easter Sunday, to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, they return from Rome, flying through the sky and bringing sweet treats for children.
When it comes to food, people in France like lamb. Some opt for the traditional leg of lamb served with potatoes and green beans or flageolet beans, while others prefer different cuts, such as a shoulder or rack. In Provence, for example, it is agneau de Sisteron, young lamb from the local area of Sisteron, that takes pride of place on dinner tables. Young lamb is also showcased in Alsace, in the form of a dessert known as lammele or lamala. What’s that when it’s at home? Derived from the Alsatian dialect, lammele refers to a traditional biscuit made with eggs. It is shaped like a lamb using a special earthenware mould.
But the most unusual food tradition is probably one that comes from Central America – Nicaragua, to be exact. Here, where eating red meat on Good Friday is forbidden, a local custom dictates that people eat iguana meat with grilled corn and vegetables. Bon appétit!
Finally, why do we eat eggs at Easter? The Persians, the Egyptians and then the Romans had already introduced the custom of giving decorated eggs to celebrate the start of spring. The current tradition dates back particularly to the fifteenth century, when Catholics were not allowed to eat eggs during Lent. Stocks of eggs were thus decorated to be given or sold later on, during the Easter festivities proper.
One activity which is a favourite of children is the famous Easter egg hunt, carefully orchestrated by parents. In France, this fun event is organised in both towns and villages. Decorated eggs or sweets are hidden in gardens, so that the whole family can enjoy the start of the good weather. As in other countries, eggs are associated with springtime renewal and evoke the resurrection of Christ. In Sweden, the preferred tradition is Påskkärringar or ‘Easter witches’, making Swedish Easter a little like Halloween! Children who want to take part dress up as witches and go door-to-door in their neighbourhood for sweets, treats and coins.
Finally, since French people are particularly fond of figurative expressions and you are keen to expand your knowledge of the language of Molière, why don’t we take a look at some idiomatic phrases involving eggs and rabbits? As in English, the French expression mettre tous ces œufs dans le même panier (‘to put all your eggs in the same basket’) means committing all of your resources to the same project at the risk of losing everything if there’s a problem. More informally, if someone says to you va te faire cuire un œuf (‘go cook yourself an egg’), they’re not being very friendly. It’s a colloquial phrase that you might use if you’re annoyed and means something like ‘leave me alone!’ Finally, do you know what the expression poser un lapin à quelqu’un (‘to put down a rabbit for someone’) means? No clue? Well, it’s used when someone deliberately fails to turn up for a meeting or appointment, whether work or personal. Not easy to guess, I’ll grant you!