An essay about Easter traditions observed during the life of Jane Austen.
|Written for "Jane Austen Writing Challenge"
Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775 and died July 18, 1817. Her family was of The Church of England and her father was a reverend. They lived in the parsonage of Steventon Church. On Sunday mornings, her father would have read from The Book of Common Prayer. During this time period, Easter was celebrated somewhat differently from the way it’s celebrated now.
One of the most common foods eaten during that time were hot cross buns which were very popular as an Easter food and, were traditionally reserved for eating at Easter, Christmas, and funerals. Whereas now these buns aren’t relegated to being eaten just a few days a year in Europe. Hot cross buns, or cross buns as they were originally called, seemed to have been created in the early 1700’s. Originally the cross was cut into these spiced buns with a knife, rather than placed on with dough as is the case most common now. See the bottom of this essay for a hot cross bun recipe.
While many people in England continue to eat hot cross buns on Good Friday, during Jane Austen’s time they believed that a cake baked and hardened on Good Friday could be kept all year to protect the house from fire or it could be placed inside piles of corn to protect them from weevils, rats, and mice. Sometimes it was also grated to a powder and mixed with water to be used as medicine. These buns, baked on Good Friday, were considered very special, especially by pagans.
The Easter holidays or Easter season as they were sometimes called, include Easter through Ascension Sunday (the day Christ ascended into Heaven)—40 days. During these days Jane and her family would travel and visit other family and friends. Her characters did the same in her books. The most famous example is in Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam go to visit Mr. Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine DuBourgh, at Rosings Park. During this time, especially at church, they’d wear new clothes, a tradition that started during Roman times. They also adorned themselves with beautiful, ornate Easter bonnets which were an exciting change from the Lenten weeks. The Austen ladies may well have spruced up their bonnets with live flowers too.
Eggs were traditionally not eaten during Lent, except on Sundays so they were hard boiled to preserve them. (Other rich foods such as sugar, meat, and dairy were also abstained from.) The eggs were then eaten in abundance during the Easter holidays. Devilled eggs came about in the 1700’s so the Austen family may have tried these as well. The hard boiled eggs were often dyed red using red onion skins to represent the blood of Christ shed for our sins. Alternately, they might be decorated with gold leaf, paper, lace, or even painted and then given to lovers as a sign of affection. They never actually hunted for Easter eggs as we do now.
While there are changes in Easter traditions, many things are at least familiar to us and the way we celebrate now. Perhaps Jane Austen’s Easter wasn’t that different after all.
Recipe for Hot Cross Buns
For the buns
625g/1.3lb strong white flour, plus extra for dusting
1 tsp salt
2 tsp ground mixed spice
45g/1.5 oz unsalted butter, cut into cubes, plus extra for greasing
1 lemon, zest only
1½ tsp fast-action yeast
1 free-range egg
275ml/10fl oz tepid milk
125g/4oz mixed dried fruit
For the topping:
2 tbsp plain flour
vegetable oil, for greasing
1 tbsp golden syrup, gently heated, for glazing
For the buns, sieve the flour, salt and ground mixed spice into a large mixing bowl, then rub in the butter using your fingertips. Make a well in the centre of the mixture, then add the sugar and lemon zest and yeast.
Beat the egg and add to the flour with the tepid milk. Mix together to a form a soft, pliable dough.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Carefully work the mixed dried fruit into the dough until well combined. Knead lightly for 5 minutes, or until smooth and elastic.
Grease a large, warm mixing bowl with butter. Shape the dough into a ball and place it into the prepared bowl, then cover with a clean tea towel and set aside in a warm place for one hour to prove.
Turn out the proved dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knock back the dough. Shape it into a ball again and return it to the bowl, then cover again with the tea towel and set aside for a further 30 minutes to rise.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and divide it into 12 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, then flatten slightly into a bun shape using the palms of your hands. Cover the buns again with the tea towel and set aside to rest for 5-10 minutes.
Grease a baking tray with butter and transfer the buns to the tray. Wrap the tray with the buns on it loosely in greaseproof paper, then place inside a large polythene bag. Tie the end of the bag tightly so that no air can get in and set aside in a warm place for a further 40 minutes to rise.
Preheat the oven to 240C/475F/Gas 8.
Meanwhile, for the topping, mix the plain flour to a smooth paste with 2 tablespoons of cold water.
When the buns have risen, remove the polythene bag and the greaseproof paper. Spoon the flour mixture into a piping bag and pipe a cross on each bun.
Transfer the buns to the oven and bake for 8-12 minutes, or until pale golden-brown. As soon as you remove the buns from the oven, brush them with the hot golden syrup, then set aside to cool on a wire rack.
This recipe was taken from http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/hotcrossbuns_397