Church and Chocolate: A History of Easter in New Zealand

One of our final blog posts of 2016 took a look at the history of Christmas in New Zealand. In the same festive spirit, this week it seems appropriate to explore the tradition of Easter – from the time when the idea first arrived here with the European settlers until today.

As is the case with Christmas, we all know that Easter was primarily regarded in New Zealand as a religious holiday. But it wasn’t always a ‘holiday’ as such - Good Friday was regarded by Catholics and Anglicans (the two religious groups who recognised Easter in 19th century New Zealand), to be the most solemn day of the year. Good Friday represents the crucifixion day of Jesus, and was traditionally preceded by a (very un-festive) 40 days of Lent, which involved fasting, celibacy and no celebration to speak of. Possibly not unexpectedly, this practice didn’t really catch on with other religious groups in New Zealand – even Anglicans didn’t adhere to Lent with as much fervour as the Victorian Catholics (Clarke 2007: 123-124).

Of course, this doesn’t mean that colonial New Zealand was more secular than the home country, just that attitudes toward religious belief valued the idea of religious freedom. Even though Anglicans were the largest religious group in 19th century New Zealand, they made up less than half of the pakeha population, and it was hard for any one church to impose their ideas onto communities with such diverse views (Clarke 2007: 120).

It also must have been difficult to get into the spirit of a festival that was supposed to celebrate the start of spring – during New Zealand’s autumn. The name ‘Lent’ comes from ‘lengthen’ (West Germanic), and ‘lencten’ springtime (Old English), reflecting the start of spring when the days become longer (Clarke 2007: 120). It made good sense for the Europeans to fast at the end of winter, when food supplies were lowest, but in the southern hemisphere, Easter falls at the end of summer, when food was most abundant (Clarke 2007: 120) - and we know kiwis are just as sensible as the Europeans, right!?

The evolution of the Easter break turning into just that – a break, happened in New Zealand before the same occurred in the motherland. New Zealand was first to introduce Easter Monday as a day off work, which was a result of the Easter holiday being slowly adopted by New Zealand Presbyterians, Baptists and Congregationalists in the 20th century, as they mixed with Catholic and Anglican communities (Swarbrick 2012). With the introduction of the five day, instead of six-day working week, the introduction of Easter Monday as a holiday offered the opportunity of an extended break for holiday makers (Clarke 2007: 161). It was declared to be the “second carnival day of the year” in 1881, “the close of the summer and the precursor to the winter season.” (New Zealand Herald 19/4/1881: 4). This idea was also a carryover from Lent, when feasting, sport and recreation followed the end of the fasting (Clarke 2007: 151). Travelling out of town for the long weekend was well ingrained in our national psyche by at least the early 20th century - the advertisement below represents one of many that were directed toward Easter holiday makers.

Holidaying was not the only leisure activity typically enjoyed by the Easter crowds. Sports like hunting were popular activities among men and boys of most backgrounds (Star 21/4/1897: 4). It was possibly so desired by the colonists because hunting was very restricted by England’s poaching laws during the 19th century and long before – at a time when this activity was only available to the wealthy (Clarke 2007: 155). In New Zealand, anyone could hunt or fish within the (much more lax), game laws, and licences were so affordable that most people had the opportunity to shoot or fish legally (Clarke 2007: 155). But let’s not forget sports that involved women! Racing and golf tournaments over the Easter break were also plentiful.

Military training camps were also a weekend activity undertaken by Easter revellers. These represented the predecessors to today’s territorial forces, and included 50 to 100 volunteers per camp (Clarke 2007: 156). During the mid 1880s, 8000 men were part of this nation-wide force. Some Māori participated alongside Pākehā, and some made up distinctively Māori corps, such as the Thames Native Rifle Volunteers (formed 1874; Clarke 2007: 156). But it wasn’t all target practice and taking orders - these groups were as much social clubs as serious military forces (Clarke 2007: 156).

Demonstrations were held by the cops each Easter at a few locations around the country. The weekend schedule consisted of drills on Thursday and Good Friday, a parade on Sunday, and the celebrations culminated on Easter Monday with a major field exercise or sham-fight (Clarke 2007: 157). But all the fun wasn’t just to be had by the men-at-arms, many spectators attended, and some camps included contests, bands and balls (Clarke 2007: 158).  Nearby hotels also made roaring trades in the evening from associated celebrating (Clarke 2007: 159).

But what about the chocolate? And the bunny who brings the chocolate? Like Easter itself, the tradition of the humble Easter egg has its birth in Europe too. During the middle ages, eggs were included in the long list of foods that were forbidden to be consumed during Lent – until Henry VIII relaxed these uncomfortable rules to only exclude meat (good old Henry – that guy loved to make changes; Clarke 2007: 120). The chocolate covered treats that we know today are a 20th century invention, as is the fluffy bunny who carries them. However, both ideas do have their roots in history which pre-dates Christianity – the name ‘Easter’ derives from the pagan fertility goddess ‘Eastre’ - who was a figure of worship relating to spring harvest rituals and celebrations. She was associated with rabbits (due to the speed in which they multiply), and eggs are also commonly associated with fertility and rebirth (Holloway 2014).

The little chocolate balls of joy began life in Germany and France during the late 18th century, but their association with Easter didn’t become widely spread until the late 19th century when technological advances allowed for mass production. Instead, it was common to decorate eggs - probably often with coloured dyes. Such festive eggs were given as gifts to children at Easter time, and the happy recipients would play games with them such as rolling them down hills (Clarke 2007: 148). Does that sound familiar to anyone else? It immediately reminded me of the annual Jaffa Roll down Baldwin Street, Dunedin (the word’s steepest street). I couldn’t find any links between these two activities, but doesn’t the idea seem very reminiscent?

Unfortunately, we have never found any evidence of these festive eggs on a Christchurch archaeological site. The closest things we’ve found are decorated egg cups, which were commonly used as part of a breakfast table setting. Less commonly, we also come across undecorated ceramic eggs – thought to have been used in chicken coops to encourage hens to lay their eggs in a common place. It’s probable that real eggs were the ones that were decorated at home for the season (Clarke 2007: 148), although it’s also possible that pre-decorated ceramic eggs may have had their place among the Eastertide celebrations of the wealthy.

Eggs and bunnies aren’t the only Easter traditions that have origin in pagan belief. This article published in the Evening Post outlines the hot cross buns classical roots - linked with fertility, hunting and the Moon:

We can’t argue that today the common belief is that hot cross buns reflect the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross. This was also obviously the common conception of our ancestors, but it seems that some of our predecessors had a few different ideas regarding the origin of the tasty treats:

This article also touches on the superstition that hot cross buns were baked on Good Friday because it was considered lucky. Bread that was baked on this day was thought by some to not spoil and have magical healing properties. Again, this superstition pre-dates Christianity (Clarke 2001: 150). But regardless of their mystical powers or where they came from, there’s no denying that hot cross buns were enjoyed by the masses here in the 19th century - much as they are today. Nineteenth century newspapers were filled with advertisements for hot cross buns, stating that no pre-orders were too small, nor too large.

They were so well loved that one’s Thursday night pre-orders were not always safe. Newspaper report an 1890s Easter crime spree - describing thieves who followed a baker’s delivery man doorstep to doorstep, stealing the buns on Easter morning (New Zealand Times 5/4/1890:5). How disappointing! So, if I could leave you with a piece of advice this Eastertide – maybe don’t store your hot cross buns on your back doorstep this year guys!

Happy egg day, you eggs.

By Chelsea Dickson

 

References

Alison Clarke, 2007. Holiday seasons: Christmas, New Year and Easter in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press.

Holloway, A. 2014. Ancient Origins: The Ancient Pagan Origins of Easter. [online] Available at: http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/ancient-pagan-origins-easter-001571?page=0%2C1

Swarbrick, N. 2012. 'Public holidays - Easter, Christmas and New Year', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/public-holidays/page-2 (accessed April 2017).