Hot Cross Buns, a symbol of Easter. Photo: Andrew B47, Flickr
Of course, few holiday observers plan to serve up scrambled eggs, bacon and toast on Easter Sunday: Diners will instead indulge in stout pink hams, hot cross buns, sweet yeast cakes, currant biscuits, cream-filled chocolate eggs, smoked kielbasas and gaudily decorated hard boiled eggs, paying homage to traditions forged in medieval Europe. While Americans have modified many of their inherited menus, the essential elements have changed little since the first Christians devised their holiday meals.
The familiar dyed Easter egg, which annually rolls along the White House lawn and frustrates little girls armed with white wicker baskets, is a carryover from the Pagan holiday that preceded the Christian festival. The egg is a symbol of rebirth and rejuvenation, and references the return of spring as eloquently as it reminds Easter celebrants of the resurrection story. Unlike bread and pork, which aren't kosher for Passover, the egg figures into both Christian and Jewish springtime holidays.
But egg-shaped confections are unique to Easter, and – until just over a century ago – found almost only in France. A dazzled reporter for the New York Evangelist in 1862 chronicled the candy egg mania that seized Paris in the weeks before the holiday.
"Egg-shaped articles are to be had in every conceivable variety of material," the correspondent wrote. "One would think that the imperial eagle of France had summoned all the birds of air to come to Paris, build their nests in shop windows, and there deposit their eggs...here you have chocolate eggs full of cream where the yolk should be; there you have sugar eggs filled with liqueur."
With the introduction of machines to manufacture chocolate, candy became a fixture of Easter celebrations on both sides of the Atlantic. But sweets weren't a new addition to the holiday, which Brits had long marked by eating hot cross buns.
Food historians speculate the buns' linkage to Easter may predate their being embellished with crosses. The custom's most likely rooted in Tudor law, which banned the sale of spiced fruit buns except at burials, on Christmas and on Good Friday. Crosses were almost certainly being carved into the seasonal treats by the 1700s, when James Boswell mentioned them by name in his Life of Johnson. But other sources suggest Greeks and Romans also had a habit of crossing their buns; in 19th century Naples, museum goers could gaze upon two small cross buns salvaged from the ruins of Pompeii.
Alan Davidson believes the religious symbol harkens back to ancient blood offerings; "sacrificing" bread was apparently considered a more humane practice. "It is a curious history, this symbol of the Cross upon bread!," the New York Observer exclaimed in 1872. "In its origin, a heathen offering, clearly condemned by the word of God!"
While the hot cross bun was peculiar to the British Isles, Christians across Europe traditionally celebrated the holiday with bread products of their own: An eggy bread called kulich prevailed in Russia, anise bread was favored by Italians and babkas appeared on Polish tables.
Easter observers approached unanimity on entrée selection, though, with lamb or ham the featured dish at nearly every European feast. Lamb was probably selected to honor Christ, recognized by followers as the "lamb of God," but ham was a hit at spring festivals way back when most Europeans were Pagan. Ham fans believed the meat would bring them good fortune.
In early America, where pork was plentiful, the ham tradition was enthusiastically upheld. In 1895, a Harper's Bazaar reporter described an eastern shore delicacy known as "stuffed ham," in which a skinned ham was plumped with cabbage sprouts, stale bread cubes, pepper and parsley before baking.
"When brought upon the table, and its thin pink slices fall on the dish all veined with green hues, it is as pretty as a picture," the writer explained.
Home cooks in the 1930s found more sugary ways to doctor their hams, bathing them in ginger ale; marshmallows and lemon juice; pineapples and pickle brine; pears and honey and cinnamon applesauce. The exact recipe was irrelevant, counseled the Chicago Tribune's Mary Meade in 1939.
"The Easter ham holds the same place of honor on the dinner table that milady's hat does in the Easter Parade," Meade explained. "Like the hat, the ham is something you can hardly do without."
Easter bonnets, of course, have been on the wane for decades. But while Americans today may pluck inspiration from various culinary traditions, eggs, bread and the Easter ham remain the holiday's central ingredients.