England, Easter and Holy Week in

England, Easter and Holy Week in

Over the centuries the people of England invented numerous Easter customs and accumulated a variety of Easter-related folk beliefs. Many of these customs and beliefs have fallen out of fashion, though some still exist, and at least one, the hot cross bun associated with Good Friday, has become an international Easter food.

Palm Sunday

Many English churches distribute palm crosses to their parishioners on Palm Sunday (see also Cross). In past centuries parish priests blessed greenery on Palm Sunday. In the eighteenth century walking out into the countryside to gather greenery was a popular Palm Sunday custom. People referred to these outings as "going a-palming" or "going a-palmsoning." When they returned home they hung the green fronds in their homes for good luck. This practice survived into the early twentieth century as a child's custom, then disappeared entirely.

Maundy Thursday

English royalty invented a special Maundy Thursday custom still practiced today, the distribution of Maundy money. This custom began as a footwashing ritual, in which English monarchs washed the feet of poor men on Maundy Thursday as a gesture of humility and a sign of their willingness to follow the example set by Jesus. In England historical records reveal that King John (1167-1216) was the first English monarch to perform this ritual. King John and his successors washed the feet of thirteen men. King Edward III (1312-1377) added a new twist to the ritual by tying the number of people whose feet he washed to his own age. He also gave them gifts of food, money, and clothing. After the time of King James II (1633-1701) the English monarchs discarded the custom of washing the feet of the poor, although they continued making gifts of food, clothing, and money. In time the customary gifts were replaced by money. Queen Victoria (1819-1901) limited her gift giving to specially minted coins called "Maundy money." The current English monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, carries on this version of the tradition. The number of recipients equals her age in years.

Good Friday

Hot cross buns are a traditional Good Friday treat in England. These buns consist of sweetened bread dough enhanced with spices, citrus peel, and currants or raisins. After baking the cooled buns are decorated with a cross made from sugar icing.

Among the English a preference for eating hot cross buns on Good Friday can be traced back at least as far as the eighteenth century. In 1733 Poor Robin's Almanack printed the following verse:

Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs With one or two a penny hot cross-buns Whose virtue is, if you believe what's said, They'll not grow mouldy like the common bread.

In the nineteenth century researchers recorded many English folk beliefs concerning hot cross buns. According to these beliefs, these small loaves of bread would neither mold nor decay. Some assumed this to be true of all bread baked on Good Friday. Moreover, according to folk medical lore, hot cross buns had the power to cure disease, especially intestinal disease. Some people hung hot cross buns in their homes all year long as a means of protecting the household against illness, lightning, fire, and other misfortunes.

Other old superstitions connected with Good Friday include the belief that it is unlucky to wash clothes on this day. Those who did would find their laundry spotted with blood. Another superstition assured people that water dipped in silence before the rising of the sun would stay fresh and pure all year long. Folk belief also taught that Good Friday was a lucky day to plant seeds because Jesus had been put in the ground on this day. It was also considered an especially lucky day to sow parsley, beans, peas, and potatoes. Other actions destined to bring luck on Good Friday included eating salt fish, moving bees, pruning roses, jumping rope, and spinning tops. On the other hand, those who used a hammer and nails, set out to sea, went fishing, shod horses, and plowed fields on this day were certain to attract ill luck.

In medieval times English kings blessed gold or silver rings, known as "cramp rings," on Good Friday. The rings were then used to treat epilepsy and palsy. Rooted in ancient beliefs that the ability to heal accompanies royal blood, this practice began with Edward II (12841327). The ceremony resembled in part the Veneration of the Cross. The king knelt on a specially laid carpet and crept, on his hands and knees, towards the crucifix at the front of the church. A bowl, containing a number of rings, lay beside the crucifix. When the king reached the bowl, with his almoner (an official in charge of distributing alms) kneeling beside him, he said a prayer over the rings. By 1522 the monarch no longer crept to the cross but rather simply knelt before it. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) discontinued the custom for unknown reasons.

In past times Ash Wednesday kicked off the English marbles season. Throughout Lent men and boys played competitive marble games with one another. The marbles season ended on Good Friday, which was known as Marble Day in Surrey and Sussex, regions where the game was particularly popular. After that time anyone caught playing marbles might be forced to forfeit them. Some researchers believe that the practice of playing marbles on Good Friday may have come from Holland or Belgium. At least one writer suspects that the game of dice that the Roman soldiers played at the foot of the cross (Mark 15:24, Luke 23:35, John 19:24) inspired the association between marbles and Good Friday.

The village of Tinsley Green, near Crawley in Sussex, hosts a marbles championship every year on Good Friday. The competition dates back to the year 1600, when, according to legend, a local girl convinced her suitors to compete for her favor by playing a game of marbles. Today the tournament winner is declared the "Champion of Great Britain" and receives a silver cup.

Easter Sunday

Easter egg hunts take place on Easter Sunday. Adults hide the eggs in the garden before the children arrive, and youngsters compete to see who can find the most eggs. The Easter Bunny is not the traditional bringer of eggs and candy in England, though today English children are aware of his existence. Egg-tapping games are also popular on Easter Sunday. According to an old English folk belief, the sun dances with joy as it rises on Easter morning (see also Easter Sun). In past times people would get up early to witness this miracle. Some would climb to the top of a hill to catch a clear view of the sunrise. Others would watch the rays of the rising sun reflected in a pond or bowl of water.

Easter Monday and Tuesday

Another egg game, egg rolling, is a traditional Easter Monday pastime. In this game children set their eggs rolling at the top of a hill and see whose egg will go the farthest. In the past some English children also went pace egging on Easter Monday. This old custom, in which youngsters went door to door in costumes begging for eggs, began as a means for poor people to enhance their Easter feast. It died out in the twentieth century but has been revived in a few places.

In the eighteenth century Easter Monday and Tuesday served as the occasion for fun and rivalry between the sexes in northern England and Scotland. One Easter Monday custom permitted men to "heave" or to "lift" any woman they came across. They did so by picking her up or putting her in a chair and lifting her up into the air. On Easter Tuesday women heaved the men. This custom died out by the late nineteenth century. Easter Monday is still a legal holiday in England, however.


During the late Middle Ages English Easter celebrations continued long after Easter Sunday (see also Easter Week). They ended on the Monday and Tuesday following Low Sunday, or the second Monday and Tuesday after Easter. These two days were known as Hocktide, Hobtide, the Hoke Days, or the Hock Days, and served as an occasion for various financial and legal transactions as well as boisterous fun and games pitting one sex against the other. Hocktide festivities disappeared long ago, except in the town of Hungerford, which continues to celebrate Hock Tuesday.

Further Reading

Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. Volume 1. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1990. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1999. Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.

Web Site

Photos of Tutti Day in Hungerford on the Hungerford Chamber of Commerce web site:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002