In the Catbird Seat/Joe Kirkish
This week is usually filled with happy plans for the Easter table and in buying fancy new duds to suggest the season of Lent is almost over; but if you had been born in Ireland, once dominated by stringent religious codes and had Holy Week to face, here’s what you would have endured:
Lent, the five week period leading to Holy Week, would be a time of deprivation, religious contemplation, and fasting. In the old days, Holy Week was once a full seven-day period of extreme denial, with meals including little more than black tea, dry bread, plain potatoes, and perhaps a little porridge until Good Friday, when some families denied themselves all but dry bread and water in recognition of the day of Christ’s suffering and death.
Coming after so many weeks of partial-fasting & eating of herring to replace meat, Holy Weed was meant to be difficult so difficult that by the mid-19th century the final days of Holy Week were officially shortened to two days before Easter.
Still, Good Friday brought many self-assigned restrictions, symbolic of the suffering that Jesus endured prior to His death. Because that traumatic death was on a wooden cross, no woodworking or building could be done on Good Friday. Fasting was a widely known practice, but with the addition to fasting the people of old Ireland would remain absolutely silent from noon until three on Good Friday. Mass was included as a holy observation, along with a visit to ancestral grave sites. In general, the day was spent with reverence and respect for the memory of Christ, and for the community’s coming together to show respect with suffering and contemplation.
Incidentally, since during medieval times, all bread baked on Good Friday was marked with a cross in remembrance of Christ’s crucifixion. The custom survives on today’s Hot Cross Buns and modern soda bread.
Easter Saturday was less stringent usually a day of preparation for Easter Sunday. Visiting with relatives and food preparations added to a sense of excitement for the coming day, lightening the oppressiveness of the past five weeks of fasts and food restrictions and whatever other personal abnegations that were self-assigned all accompanied by a ritual blessing of the home with holy water by the parish priest, who would go from house to house, blessing each, then taking time to visit the pastures and bless the family livestock. It was in preparation for a new season, with families walking through their homes and gardens to reflect on their present lives.
In older times, butchers, happily anticipating that they would soon be selling meat again, often organized processions which involved hanging a dead fish from a pike and carrying it through the streets.
A ceremony that persisted into the 20th century known as Whipping the Herring was popular; everyone was encouraged to whip the fish as the procession led to the nearest river where the fish was discarded.
Easter Sunday, after church services, was a day of feasting and drinking. Lamb, veal and chicken were popular treats, though among the poorer families corned (salted) beef with ham or boiled bacon was served with cabbage and potatoes.
Easter eggs, and plenty of them, were popular as a symbol of new life. A common man’s breakfast might begin with the consumption of no less than six eggs served fried or boiled. Children celebrated with a “cludog” – a gathering with neighborhood children to search out gifts of food and flavored water, in a field or at a fireside, then to cook their eggs (often colored with herbs and weeds in boiling water). There was fun in rolling eggs down the hills of budding green foliage, and enjoying a Cake Dance, all in honor of the beginning of summer. At home, enjoying barm brack (current-studded bread) or a cake became the focus of a ceremony that would begin with the ceremonial displaying of the cake on white Irish linen, followed by the eating of it, music and dancing.
The Cake Dance was one of the most popular and widespread of Irish Easter traditions that continued into the 20th century. A dance contest would be held, the winners being those couples who danced longest or were judged most sprightly. They were declared to have the right of “taking the cake” and could then share it with their friends.
In general, Easter Sunday that began with a special Mass would be concluded happily, having been spent with loved ones in celebration, leaving Lent behind and looking optimistically toward to a brand new season.
HAPPY EASTER or PASSOVER!
Rotten tomatoes averages: “The Croods,” A-; “Burt Wonderstone,” C-