Western European Customs

With hare pie and sweetbreads, Easter’s a time for eating

Easter is a holiday celebrated by people across the world, and therefore involves many diverse customs - some religious, some interesting and some absolutely extraordinary. Western Europe plays host to some of these interesting and extraordinary Easter customs that certainly warrant mention.

Hallaton in Leicestershire, England, holds its own interesting and strange customs, in particular the Hare Pie Scramble and Bottle Kicking. According to their legend, a woman was saved by a hare that ran across the path of a raging bull on Easter Monday hundreds of years ago. To honor the hare, she gave a piece of land to the rector and asked him to distribute a hare pie and lots of ale to parishioners every year.

Nowadays, the town rector commemorates the legend by slicing the pie and throwing the slices out to the crowd; after the crowd eats, the scramble begins. For the scramble, the rector throws three bottles (actually three small iron-hooped barrels full of ale) into a field where two teams attempt to get them into opposite streams a mile apart.

In other locations across Europe, Carnivale celebrations take place prior to Ash Wednesday. These are likely the inspiration for the New Orleans version, since there are many similarities including brightly robed and masked festival goers. In Western Europe, partiers traditionally wore masks in an attempt to shield themselves from accountability for sinful actions committed during Carnivale.

Hot cross buns - so-named because of the cross baked into the top - are dense, moisture-less European Easter breads, particularly treasured in England. Some say the symbolism of the cross on top goes back to the Pagan goddess of springtime and dawn, Eastre. The cross is said to split the bun into four quarters, like the moon’s cycle, signifying the natural renewal and rebirth of the life cycle that was represented by Eastre.

Other dense sweetbreads are Easter favorites across Western Europe, including the pretzel - the twists of which resemble the crossed arms of a person at prayer. Historically, the crumbs of these sweetbreads would be collected and pulverized, then added to medicines throughout the year to make them more powerful.