Easter was meant to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus, which took place around the time of Passover. Traditions of Passover dictated that lamb be eaten is in commemoration of the lambs sacrificed by the Israelites during their enslavement in Egypt, so that the angel of death would spare their first born sons during the tenth plague. Likewise, Jesus is considered to be a sacrificial lamb of sorts; his death is said to have spared the world from the eternal death of hell. For these reasons, lamb was the meat of choice in early Christian Easter celebrations, and continues to be the meat of choice for modern day Easter celebrations in many countries.
Unfortunately, lamb was not always easy to come by in certain geographical regions. Obtaining lamb during the Easter season was particularly difficult in the northern regions of Europe in the days before refrigeration. In these areas pork was the meat of choice, and pigs were slaughtered during the fall months. The meat that was not immediately eaten was then cured so it could be utilized throughout the remainder of the year. It took several months to complete the curing process, meaning that meats cured in the wintertime would not be ready until the spring—right around Easter time in fact, when fresh meats were not yet available. So the tradition of eating ham for Easter was a matter of convenience for northern Europeans.
The tradition of ham on Easter may have travelled to the United States via northern European immigrants, but its continued popularity hinges on the fact that lamb has never been a commonly consumed meat in the US. While available, lamb can be difficult to find and/or prohibitively expensive for many. Meanwhile, pork is an extremely common meat in the US. Ham is easy to find, available in many different varieties, and is a much more economical choice.
But Why Did Christians Abandon Kosher Law in the First Place?
Matters of convenience aside, there is still that one small issue…
Jesus was Jewish. He observed kosher law. He would NEVER have eaten pork! So, isn’t eating pork on a day commemorating a Jewish mankind of a slap in the face? Or, ya know…highly blasphemous?!? Why do Christians eat pork at all (and other un-kosher food items)?
The answer to this question goes way back to New Testament days. Contrary to popular belief, Jesus did not found a new religion. He actually established a new sect of Judaism, at a time in history when Judaism was already fractured into many different sects. This new sect, unlike most others, allowed gentiles (non-Jewish folk) to become full members. Because Jesus preached about inclusivity, rather than exclusivity, this sect actually sought out converts from all religious and ethnic backgrounds.
The problem with a Jewish sect that was made up of primarily gentile converts, is that many of the new members had a hard time trying to adhere to Jewish laws—especially the dietary restrictions. These new Jews, mostly Romans and Greeks, had been eating pork and shellfish and cheeseburgers all their lives (ok, maybe not the cheeseburgers, but you get my drift). It’s not easy to give up all those foods when you’ve never had to do without them before.
Other Jewish sects, however, didn’t much like this refusal to obey Jewish law. They kinda figured this was cheating…in fact, they kinda figured that if you can’t follow the laws of a religion, you can’t really call yourself a member—so they told the followers of Jesus to get out.
Now, the followers of Jesus left, but they were a little miffed about their rejection. So in their pursuit to establish a new religion, they took as many strides possible to set themselves apart from Judaism. They changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, established new days of fasting so as not to coincide with Jewish fasting days, and threw out all of the old dietary restrictions (let them eat pork!). They began to proselytize far and wide—a tactic that became very successful when the emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the new religion of the Roman Empire. Now every member of the Roman Empire, and every territory that they occupied, were forced to convert to the new religion. In effort to make the change a little easier to the new converts however, new Christian holidays were established based on the old pagan holidays that were already being practiced.
Easter Came From Where??
Thanks to the Roman Empire, all Christian holidays, though created to celebrate the life of Jesus and the saints, were based on former pagan holidays. Easter is no different—even the name of the holiday is based on the name of a pagan goddess, Eostre. Eostre was a goddess of German/Anglo-Saxon tradition, who was symbolized by a rabbit who laid eggs (rather like the Cadbury bunny). This was a symbol of fertility and new life that comes to fruition at the beginning of spring. Early Christians, figuring the new life theme fit pretty well with resurrection, inserted the terrible, gut-wrenching story of Jesus’ torture and execution, ejected the goddess, but for some odd reason kept her name, the bunnies and the eggs. Go figure.
What's Your Tradition?
Through all its many incarnations and traditions, Easter is a significant holiday in America. Maybe you’ve never questioned why traditions are what they are. On the other hand, perhaps you have found yourself, head bowed over your plate of Easter ham, wondering “What would Jesus eat? Certainly not this…”
If ham is an Easter tradition for you, will you continue the tradition after learning more about its history? Or will you form a new tradition?