Writing in the 8th century, the Venerable Bede tells us that Eostre was the pagan goddess of dawn (hence the word ’east’). Her annual festival of Spring was held in April and known as Easter but by the time of Bede, Christians had replaced this with their own festival, ‘passover’ which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. However, the name ‘Easter’ stuck.
The Easter weekend started on Maundy Thursday, the day of the Last Supper. The word Maundy probably comes from the Latin mendicare – meaning to beg, as it was traditional to give bread and money to the poor at Easter. This is first recorded in 1213 when King John gave thirteen silver coins to thirteen poor people representing those at the last supper. The Queen continues this tradition today (however yesterday because of the Coronavirus lockdown the money was sent by post)
On Maundy Thursday the priest at each church would consecrate three sets of host (bread) one to be used that day, one for use the next day (Good Friday) and one to be placed in an Easter Sepulchre.
An Easter Sepulchre (a sepulchre is a tomb) represented the tomb where Jesus was laid after his crucifixion. As it was only used for a couple of days every year it would usually be made of wood but in some churches such as Eastbourne, Selmeston and Alfriston it was made of stone and built into the chancel to the north of the altar. The consecrated host (representing the body of Jesus) would be placed in the Easter Sepulchre on Good Friday and guarded by a succession of parishioners until Easter Sunday when it would be taken out and placed on the altar. The Easter Sepulchre at St Andrew’s Church at Alfriston is particularly fine and is decorated with medieval carvings said to represent our local Saint Llewenna and a beaver curled into a ball. Unfortunately this ‘empty tomb’ has been somewhat spoiled by including statues that once decorated the reredos (the screen behind the altar)
Bearing in mind that Easter Friday commemorates the crucifixion I have often wondered why it is called ‘Good’ Friday. Apparently ‘good’ may be a corruption of ‘God’ It was on Good Friday that hot-cross buns were baked in preparation for the end of lent on Easter Saturday. It was often a tradition that one bun would be saved until the following Easter for good luck. A hot-cross bun hung up in your home would protect it from fire until the following year. It was thought that hot-cross buns baked on Good Friday would never go mouldy. Sussex fishermen are said to have carried hot-cross buns as a protection against drowning.
Before the Bank Holiday legislation of 1871 Good Friday was one of only two holidays for workers (the other being Christmas Day) and although the church wanted to keep it as a holy day it was considered as a holiday by most people especially the young and a number of games would be played.
Sussex fishermen would also skip on Good Friday. A long fisherman’s rope would be used for this unusual pastime which was particularly popular in Seaford and Brighton and large crowds would gather to watch and participate. Skipping was allowed by the church on Good Friday as the rope was said to represent the one with which Judas hanged himself. I am sure many of you have been to the Rose Cottage pub at Alciston on Good Friday, to see the tradition of long-rope skipping.
Another game allowed on Good Friday was marbles. Sussex hosts the World Marbles Championships (at the Greyhound Pub at Tinsley Green near Crawley.) Records show that it was a custom to play marbles in the churchyard at St Leonard’s, Seaford on Good Friday and I have seen photos of the game being played in a traffic-less Market Square in the centre of Alfriston. Playing marbles in the churchyard may have symbolised the part of the passion play depicting Roman soldiers gambling at the foot of the cross.
Another popular Easter game particularly enjoyed in Sussex was “Kiss-In-The-Ring” – a large scale game of Ring-a-Roses where a group of young men and women would gather and form a big circle, hold hands and sing.
One girl would be selected to be ’Sally’ and would stand in the middle as the others held hands and sang. The girl would then be asked to select a sweetheart. She would choose a young man who would join her in the centre and the others would sing “Now you are married we wish you joy, First a girl and then a boy, Seven years after- son and daughter, Pray young couple kiss together” The couple would then kiss and select another girl to be ‘Sally’. I wonder if this popular game ever led to real life romance, although it was not approved by everyone; Henry Smith the vicar of Firle from 1864 to 1871 once tried to ban it. Apparently the last time this event occurred in Seaford was 1910, although the tradition lasted in Brighton until the Second World War.
In Eastbourne Good Friday was marked by music when the local Volunteer’s Military Band assembled at the Ordnance Yard in Seaside and marched along the seafront and around the town to Church. Good Friday marked the beginning of the Cricket season and in Eastbourne the railway employees had a match with the Passenger Department playing the Goods Department.
Easter also seemed the start of the tourist season and from the 1860 the newspapers were full of adverts for train services not on from London to the coast but also from the coast up to London with special trains running to the Crystal Palace. At Easter 1873 Brighton Aquarium had 27,000 visitors!
2020 will see a strange quiet Easter with no church services and few Easter eggs (This must be the first time in my whole life I have not had an Easter egg!) but whatever you are doing this Easter be it playing marbles, skipping, kissing or eating hot-cross buns I wish you a very Happy Easter!