Thursday, 5 April 2012

Easter starts here – but what does it mean?

Of course Easter has really been going on for almost a week, but in reaching Maundy Thursday – as we call ‘Holy Thursday’ in the UK – I found myself wondering just what traditions existed for the day.

Most scholars appear to agree that the English word ‘Maundy’ has come to us through a combination of Middle English and Old French, from the Latin mandatum.

This is the first word of the phrase “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos”.

You didn't think you were going to find yourself reading Latin here, did you?

Well, in case you can't translate it, it means: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you” and it's from John 13:34.

Now in the Bible, this was about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples and this has been ritualised by certain Christian denominations to see a priest or bishop wash the feet of 12 others during a mass.

On the other hand, some people believe the name of the day comes from the “maundsor baskets” or “maundy purses” of alms that the king of England distributed to certain poor at Whitehall before attending Mass on that day.

Of course, that explains why Brenda goes and hands out a bit of non-legal tender to some people at a church somewhere every Maundy Thursday. And did you know that the Maundy purses that HM gives away include a groat and a half groat?

Which won't help anyone much in these austere times.

Unrelated to such religious connotations is the good old fashioned wayzgoose.

Quite apart from being an absolutely fantabulous word, the wayzgoose started out as an entertainment given by a master printer for his workmen on or around St Bartholemew’s Day, which is 24 August.

That was partly because St Bart was the patron saint of leather workers and, therefore, book binders. It was also the end of summer and the start of the season of working by candlelight.

There is some speculation that the first wayzgoose bash was held in Mainz, Germany, at the Fust-Schöffer shop, after the first Gutenberg Bible had been printed – on 24 August, according to legend.

Later, wayzgoose came to refer to an annual dinner or outing for the staff of a printing works or the printers on a newspaper.

And in terms of the latter, it was often held on Maundy Thursday, since that was a day off because there would be no paper to print for the following day.

Back in the days I worked on a national newspaper, we regularly used to consider hiring a charabanc and going off on an extended pub crawl somewhere by way of marking a wayzgoose. But unfortunately, we never quite got around to it, and I don’t work in such an environment any longer.

But surely there’s some sort of Maundy food traditions?

Well, not really.

Some high-church Christians hold a form of seder – the traditional Jewish meal that starts the Passover – as this was what Jesus was doing at the Last Supper.

According to, the centrepiece is a white, frosted cake that’s been moulded in the shape of a lamb.

You’ll also have the symbolic foods – matzos in memory of unleavened bread, some wine, bitter herbs, “greens” (parsley or watercress) with salt water to dip both these in, and haroses, a dish of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine, which is chopped and mixed together to look like a mortar that the Hebrew slaves used.

You might also display the bone from a roasted leg of lamb – but you won’t have eaten any if you’re still strictly observing the Lenten fast. It symbolises the lamb the Israelites apparently sacrificed and ate on their departure from Egypt.

The bitter herbs is reflected in German culinary tradition, which sees either a chervil soup or a dish of eggs in green sauce – the sauce being made from a selection of herbs.

In fact, in Germany, Maunday Thursday is known as Gründonnerstag – ‘Green Thursday’, although the ‘grün’ bit might actually come from the word ‘greinen’, which means ‘to weep’.

But whatever the background, Germans often eat green-colored foods, such as the dishes mentioned above, on Gründonnerstag.

And that’s about it for Europe. Elisabeth Luard, in her European Festival Food doesn’t mention anything else, except an Hungarian paprika soup.

Indeed, for a festival that is preceeded by a month’s fasting, the main event seems pretty thin when it comes to big, set-piece meals to break that fast – apart from the lamb that I mentioned yesterday.

One of the few quirks to mention is that only us Brits apparently break the fast before Easter Sunday itself, with sweet, fruity hot cross buns being eaten before then.

So for the first evening of this short spring break, I don’t think there will be any food with a traditional meaning.

After the heatwave of last week, the temperature has dropped quite dramatically.

So tonight could well be something as warming and comforting as pie.

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