EASTER AND LENT IN IRELAND: Part One
Easter in Ireland is a time of new beginnings; a sign that summer is just around the corner after a cold, bleak winter.
It’s a gloriously long weekend with a real sense of spring-time renewal and enjoyed by many people whether religious or not.
Donegal skies are sunny here this morning with a slightly biting wind carrying the musical bleats of newborn lambs dotting nearby fields.
Outside my window, daffodils are dancing along the hedgerows and many more are getting ready to burst open.
Let me tell you a little of Easter and Lent Traditions in Ireland and some of my Glasgow childhood Easter memories.
EASTER IN IRELAND
From early times the people of Ireland have celebrated the start of spring.
Imbolc in the Celtic Calendar marked the “quickening of the day” and stirrings of new life.
The Celts rejoiced that the land had once again become fertile.
Birds began to lay eggs again.
Flowers bloomed and baby animals were born.
February 1st is traditionally the great festival to honour Brighid – so loved as a pagan goddess she was woven into Christianity as St. Bridget.
She is the goddess of healing and poetry.
When Christianity was introduced to Ireland, around the time of Saint Patrick, many of the customs became connected with the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion, which is commemorated on Easter Sunday.
And the old beliefs around the rebirth of nature joined with the idea of his resurrection.
Easter is the most important date on the Roman Catholic calendar – far more important than Christmas from a religious standpoint.
Because Catholicism has been the dominant religion in Ireland, Easter has been almost universally celebrated here for centuries.
The theme of renewal after deprivation or great suffering is a story the Irish understand.
And, over time, many traditions have grown up around the holiday that are peculiar to Ireland.
Many households would prepare their homes for Easter Sunday by doing what would be better known as “spring cleaning” to prepare the house for Easter Sunday.
In old times the house had to be cleaned and white-washed – usually in preparation for the inevitable visiting of family and friends but also for when the priest came to bless the home.
Walls still get white-washed, windows are polished and halls swept clean.
Furious amounts of dusting take places and the new flowers of spring are collected and placed in vases.
The day before Ash Wednesday has many names including Pancake Day, Fat Tuesday, and Shrove Tuesday, but in Ireland we have called it Pancake Tuesday for as long as I remember.
The object of the day is over-indulgence before the sacrifices we were expected to make during Lent.
Some people promise to give up sweets (or candy), their favourite food, television, cigarettes or alcohol.
Pancake Tuesday was the last day to use up meat, eggs and dairy produce before the Lenten abstinence when they were not allowed to be eaten.
As no marriages were allowed during Lent, Irish matchmakers frantically worked to arrange as many marriages as they could before or on Pancake Tuesday.
Unmarried daughters, were allowed the day off work to prepare the batter and toss the first pancake.
Their success, or otherwise, predicted their chances of romantic success in the year to come.
I’ve never been able to flip a pancake in my life and any attempts resulted in a soggy, lumpy mess of batter on the kitchen worktop or floor. Maybe that’s why I never got married.
But, a large part of childhood fun was in us being allowed to try to flip them.
On an ordinary day we might have been told off for making a mess, but for some reason, splattering pancake batter all over the kitchen, each other and ourselves was a source of entertainment for the adults.
Neither set of my grandparents had any money but my mother’s parents were particularly poor and when I think that they frequently didn’t have enough ingredients for simple pancakes, it makes me sad.
And that for my grandparents and their ancestors, pancakes were seen as a treat and an indulgent luxury.
My childhood pancakes were flat, thin and cooked in fat with a small sprinkling of sugar over them.
Regular crusty sugar and not the softer caster sugar.
When I lived in Canada and the US in my late teens and early twenties, the mind boggled at soft, fluffy buttermilk pancakes.
With gentle squeezes of lemon juice and sprinklings of caster sugar.
Or truly delightful maple syrup.
Or fruit toppings such as banana, or jam.
Or the “take your breath away”, chocolate hazelnut spread.
Ash Wednesday is a moveable date, timed to occur 46 days before Easter.
As Christians were forbidden to fast on Sundays, a day of worship and rest, the 6 Sundays are excluded and Ash Wednesday begins the traditional 40 days of fasting.
On Ash Wednesday, ashes are placed on the foreheads or heads during mass, serving as a sign of repentance and mourning, and a stark reminder of mortality.
Traditionally, the ashes used came from the burning of the palms the year before and were mixed with an anointing oil to help them stick to our skin.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” said the priest as we lined up before him.
He dipped his right thumb in the silver bowl containing the ashes and smudged them on our foreheads in the rough shape of a cross.
We were not allowed to wash off the ashes, nor would we have dreamt of doing so.
It was a competitive time between us children to see who would get the biggest, darkest and longest lasting cross on their foreheads as if that were a sign of special blessings from heaven.
Incidentally, Ash Wednesday has been a No Smoking Day since 1983.
I have clear childhood memories of the HUGE decision to be made about what I was going to “give up for Lent”.
We all chatted about it at home and at school .
When we had made the decision about what we were going to give up, we told our teachers and parents, and kept a watchful eye on each other to make sure no-one was cheating.
At least, where anyone could see them.
I now confess that I was a master of carefully unwrapping early Easter eggs, then painstakingly rewrapping them and enjoying the forbidden fruits of stolen chocolate and sweets while hiding in the bathroom.
Sure, the pain of guilt was overwhelming at times, but it was simply impossible to last the distance.
The guilt was calmed quite a bit by a feeling of pride and righteousness when queuing up in an obedient line to give the money saved from not buying sweets to “the black babies in Africa”.
I closely watched as the teacher, often a nun, marked out each week on a special card for the purpose, the amount I donated in large, pre-decimal currency pennies.
Today, the money saved is donated to the more appropriately named Trócaire (Mercy) Box.