food

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).

The world is your oyster - a tale of talking molluscs, bar brawls and Victorian vice…

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like oysters – they’re slimy, they look weird and they taste like the sea. So perhaps I was affected more than your average person when I recently had the task of analysing an assemblage of artefacts that provided an abundance of similarly decorated stoneware jars. These jars were all the same form, one which I had never come across before. A quick internet search determined that some collectors refer to these as ‘oyster jars’ - this was an unfamiliar term for me, and it piqued my curiosity. Further research revealed that the canning and pickling of oysters was a common enterprise in 19th century Canterbury and around the world!

DSC_5339 ed2

Now, not being a fan of them, the idea of other people not only eating oysters, but eating old oysters, wasn’t appetising. But I looked at a few recipes online and, actually, the concept didn’t seem so bad - vinegar and cayenne pepper form a part of my regular diet...

Pickled Oysters recipe from 1884 – Mrs Lincoln’s Boston Cookbook.

Normally, it is difficult to determine the original contents of a vessel without manufacturer labels. In fact, jars and bottles with wide mouths like the ones from my assemblage may have been used to store or pickle any number of food or condiment varieties, or even viscous household items like glue or shoe polish. This being said, the large number of oyster shells that were found in the rubbish pit alongside the jars did suggest that these two items were related in this instance - and it is possible that the 19th century family that lived in the associated Rangiora house pickled their own oysters.

 A more common 19th century oyster jar shape.

The canning and preserving of oysters has taken place since 1850 (Hunt 2010), and oysters have been a commonly consumed fresh food resource here and around the world since ancient times - their consumption can be traced to the ancient Greeks and Chinese, and they are commonly found in early Māori rubbish deposits (referred to by Māori as tio). European industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries made these slippery morsels readily available to everyone and saw them become the great unifier – enjoyed by the wealthy and the poor. It was during this period that New York became the oyster capital of the world and it is said that in any day during this late 19th century, six million oysters could be found on barges tied up along the New York harbour waterfront (Happillion 2016). The catch was sold to New Yorkers everywhere from street corners to high class restaurants and in every way imaginable – in the half shell, roasted and in stews.

So ingrained were oysters in 19th century popular culture they can be seen everywhere – we witness the lure of an oyster meal for both the working class and the upper class alike in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 The Walrus and the Carpenter poem, from Through the Looking Glass. In this classic children’s story, we see the overweight and well-dressed walrus swindle the hardworking carpenter out of his oyster meal, while tricking the unlucky and naïve oysters into taking part in a buffet where they’re on the menu. Perhaps not all of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland were based on nonsense?

An oyster buffet - before and after.

From the 1860s oysters were increasingly popular among European settlers in the colonies, and by the 1880s New Zealand joined the oyster craze with the emergence of the oyster saloon – otherwise known as the ‘oyster bar’, the ‘oyster house’ or the ‘raw bar’. Such establishments sought to offer the freshest and tastiest oysters available - generally claiming to provide fresh stock daily (New Zealand Tablet 7/8/1896: 14). Now this may not always have been the case – oysters were available locally in Christchurch and Lyttelton, but the ever popular Stewart Island beds were also supplying to Canterbury during this period (Star 17/4/1875: 1). It was during this time that Christchurch saw the emergence of several fine dining oyster options – Cashel Street’s Café De Paris provided not only the finest oysters night or day, but also quality beverages, operatic entertainment and a separate section for ladies. The establishment claimed to be ‘the best in the colony’ and its success lasted well into the 20th century.

Fresh! Press 10/3/1896: 1.

Press 15/09/1889: 8.

At the opposite end of the etiquette scale, the more typical oyster saloon quickly became synonymous with drinking – being one of the only places to purchase cheap food late at night, as an accompaniment to beer. The phrase ‘red light’ district’ was derived from New York oyster bars, which put up red balloons to indicate that the oysters had arrived, and in London, the lighthouse building at King’s Cross flashed a beam from its turret (Smith 2015). Unsurprisingly, these establishments also developed a reputation as houses of vice – news reports from this era are frequently linked to crime –anything from publicans supplying liquor without licences (Press 2/11/1901: 7) and the use of obscene language (Star 27/7/1885: 3) to violent encounters between patrons – male and female (Press 15/7/1881: 2). There are even reports of violence between patrons and establishment owners - take this report for example: three individuals named Maloney, Larsen and Creasey (these names reminded us of some sort of gangster pantomime), got into an altercation with an oyster bar proprietor, who stabbed Maloney in the side and wounded his side-kick (Grey River Argus 26/5/1898: 4). Such reports are accompanied by letters from concerned Cantabrians, who write into the paper questioning the appropriateness of such establishments being located “under the shadow of the cathedral spire” (Star 14/3/1882: 2).

Oyster bar associated with gluttony? (New Zealand Herald 1/4/1939: 5).

Further connections were made between the oyster’s aphrodisiac qualities and Victorian vice in the popular 19th century erotic magazine The Oyster, which was printed and distributed privately in London from 1883. This publication and its predecessor, The Pearl, were banned, and its author was prosecuted for the risqué content – which you can see for yourself did not consist of mere pictures of ladies’ ankles (reproductions of the issues are still available on Amazon. This is interesting stuff from before the times when science made the link between oysters being a food source high in zinc (which raises testosterone levels), as well as a source of rare amino acids that increase levels of sex hormones in men and women. Such nutritional values were also possibly known to 18th century Casanova - who reputedly consumed 50 oysters for breakfast daily, and claimed to have seduced 122 women. Or perhaps he was part of the tradition that saw oysters as an aphrodisiac due to their visual similarities with their form and that of the female anatomy…? (Schulman 2008).

Looking back further – Aphrodite (goddess of love and sex) was born from a mollusc shell and the ancient Roman physician, Galen of Pergamon, described oysters as aphrodisiacs because they were a food that was moist and warm… This being said, Galen said the same for all ‘windy’ foods (those which produce gas – if that’s what you’re into), and going even further back, Babylonians looking to increase sexual appetites bit the heads off partridges, ate their hearts and drank their blood, while the ancient Greeks dined on sparrow brains to produce a similar effect (Thring 2011; Camphausen 1999; Hoppe 2015). But I digress…

Aphrodite and her mollusk shell. Attic Red Figure, ca 370 - 360 BC, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Salonica, Italy.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, the reign of the humble yet hazardous oyster saloon was not to last. One can still frequent bars that specialise exclusively in oyster delicacies in cities larger than Christchurch, but over-consumption and the subsequent depletion of our local marine resources saw the end of the oyster as an abundant, ‘cheap and cheerful’ food source.  Our government began to intervene as early as 1866, with the Oyster Fisheries Act, which introduced licencing, a fishing season and the creation of artificial beds (New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 18/8/1865).

As a result, oysters eventually claimed their modern status as a luxury item, to be afforded and consumed by the wealthy, or saved for special occasions. The basic idea of the oyster saloon itself evolved into what we now think of as the fish and chip shop, where we are provided with a bevy of convenient and inexpensive (and fried) seafood options. So the tradition isn’t completely dead… But maybe don’t start a bar fight on your next visit your local fish n’ chippy.

Chelsea Dickson

References

Anonymous 2016. The Oyster Vol. 1: The Victorian Underground Magazine of Erotica (online) Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Oyster-Vol-Victorian-Underground-Magazine-ebook/dp/B000MAH5H4.

Camphausen, R. C. 1999. The Encyclopaedia of Sacred Sexuality. Inner Traditions International, Rochester.

Grey River Argus. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed May 2016].

Happillion, C. 2016. The History of Oysters. [online] available at: http://theoystergourmet.com/the-story-of-oysters.

Hoppe, D. Aphrodisiacs in History. Diana Hope, M.D., INCS. [online] Available at: http://www.drdianahoppe.com/aphrodisiacs-in-history-part-1/

Hunt A., L. 2010. Fruits and Vegetables, Fish, and Oysters, Canning and Preserving. Nabu Press, Charleston.

Lincoln, M., J., B. 1884. Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cook Book. Roberts Brothers. [online] Available at: http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/books/mrslincoln/linc.pdf

New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 18 August 1865 P326

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed May 2016]

New Zealand Tablet. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed May 2016]

Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed May 2016]

Shulman M., 2008. The Science of Aphrodisiacs In U.S News & World Report 19/05/2008. [online] available at: http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/sexual-and-reproductive-health/articles/2008/08/19/the-science-of-aphrodisiacs [Accessed May 2016]

Smith, D. 2015. Oyster: A Gastronomic History (with Recipes). Abrams, New York.

Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed May 2016]

Thring, O., 2011. Aphrodisiacs: the food of love? In The Guardian. [online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2011/feb/11/aphrodisiacs-food-of-love. [Accessed May 2016]