Irish Easter Traditions
Cake dances, herring funerals, and "cludogs" are all part of Ireland's varied Easter rituals
Easter is the most important date on the Roman Catholic calendar – far more important the Christmas from a religious standpoint. Because Catholicism has been the dominant religion in Ireland, Easter has been almost universally celebrated there for centuries. Over time, many traditions have grown up around the holiday that are peculiar to Ireland.
Although Easter doesn’t appear to be connected to a specific old Roman or Celtic holiday (unlike Christmas and Halloween), it seems related to a variety of old spring festivals that relate to the farming calendar. Given it’s timing in spring, around the Vernal Equinox, Easter is associated with old fertility celebrations which dovetail well into the Christian story of resurrection. Some of the popular non-religious traditions of the holiday – the Easter bunny and others - seem to have come down from these pre-Christian rites.
Lent, a season of fasting, begins 40 days before Easter. No meat is eaten during this time, though very observant people may choose an additional favorite food or pleasure like alcohol or smoking to give up as well. The last week of Lent, from Palm Sunday until Easter, is when fasting is observed most strictly.
Here’s a list of Easter traditions and beliefs. Some are religious, some purely social and some of seem based mainly on old superstitions:
- Cleaning the house completely (“spring cleaning”), sometimes as a preparation for an old ceremony where a local priest comes to bless the house.
- Planting a small quantity of seed (crops not flowers) to create a blessing on the family.
- Avoiding any possible bloodshed by doing no work with tools.
- Go To Confession and remain quiet for part of the day.
- Holy well water is said to have curative powers on this day.
- Mark one egg laid on Good Friday to be eaten on Easter Sunday.
- If a child is born in Good Friday and then baptized on Easter, he or she will have the gift of healing (a boy born on Good Friday will go into the priesthood).
- Anyone who dies on Good Friday will do directly to heaven.
- Visits should be paid to holy wells and graveyards.
- No fishing is done from boats – only sea food gathered on shore (seaweed; shellfish) will be part of the Easter meal.
- One should get a haircut, to prevent headaches!
- Attend church ceremony to have holy water blessed, then drink 3 sips of it for health and sprinkle on family members and sometimes even cattle on the farm for good luck.
- Attend Easter Vigil on Saturday night. The church will be decorated with purple banners. At 11 o’clock, all lights in the church are turned off and a Paschal candle is lit to symbolize Christ’s rising from the dead.
- Rise with the sun and dance in celebration.
- Butchers conduct a mock funeral in honor of a dead herring. This symbolizes then end of Lenten abstinence. A “herring procession” then marches to the local church. (Some also traditionally whip the herring as part of this odd rite. People were generally sick and tired of eating herring by the end of Lent.)
- Take down the “spoilin meith na hlnide,” a small piece of meat pinned up on the wall during Lent, and burn it to give a pleasant smell to the inside of the house.
- Boil and paint eggs, have rolling contests and egg hunt for children. (The idea of a rabbit laying colored eggs, which lead to the popular “Easter bunny” image, originated in Germany.)
- Conduct a “cludog,” where children gather eggs and roast them on a special device or contraption on the farm. Shells are saved and placed around the bottom of a May bush.
- Celebrate with a “cake dance,” a contest where the best dancer wins a cake.
- Close out Easter celebration with a bonfire where all gather round the celebrate.