How did Regency clergyman's daughter Jane Austen celebrate Easter?
|As the daughter of a clergyman, Jane Austen would have viewed Easter as a time of special Christian significance. |
The origins of Easter are pagan. Easter is named after the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, mentioned by the Venerable Bede in the eighth-century. Although Bede wrote the only surviving text that mentions Eostre, people have examined the meaning of her name and the season she gave her name to and concluded that she was a goddess of spring and dawn, and that her animal associate was the hare. Eostre’s hare is the origin of the Easter Bunny story.
It is easy to see how Christians linked pagan celebrations of dawn and new life with the resurrection of Christ. Spring feels like a time of new hope as it marks the transition from winter to summer, cold to warm, life to death, with plants beginning to grow and animals and birds raising their young. In all other languages except English, Easter is known by a derivative of Pascha, which means Passover.
As an Anglican, Jane would have observed forty days of fasting called Lent. Lent was a time when the congregation ate a simple diet on all days apart from Sunday in the period up until Easter.
Lent began with Shrove Tuesday in late February or early March. Shrove Tuesday is a day of confession and absolution from one’s sins.
Pancakes began to be traditionally eaten on this day as they offered a good way to use up rich foods like eggs, milk and sugar that those observing Lent are forbidden to eat. Because of this, an alternate name for Shrove Tuesday in Britain is Pancake Day. Some communities in Regency Britain held pancake races in which people ran a course carrying a frying pan with a pancake in it. They had to successfully flip the pancake a set number of times before they reached a goal.
The day after Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, is a day of prayer and fasting. It gets its name because, during church services held on this day, crosses of ash were drawn on the foreheads of believers to signify repentance.
In the meteorological calendar, spring begins on the 1st of March. However, as Jane Austen’s letters attest with their mentions of how varied the weather can be during springtime, the natural world is bound by no set human derived calendar, and the date on which weather can begin to feel warmer and more spring-like varies.
Another important date in the Christian calendar near Easter time is Lady Day. Lady Day is on March the 25th, marking the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. March 25th was the start of the astrological year, and for many centuries was the start of the calendrical year. This preserved the old belief that the year began on the spring equinox. In Jane Austen’s time, it was on Lady Day that rents were usually paid and collected.
Another payment traditionally made at Easter time was tithes to the church. Tithes were paid either as a portion of the income earned by parishioners, or else as payment in kind with agricultural produce given by the rural poor to the rector’s family. People were punished if they did not pay tithes or attend church services at Easter. In The Parish Registers of England, Charles Cox writes:
‘offenders were admonished, and if obstinate excommunicated; but in such cases absolution and discharge could usually be obtained on payment of a fine…’
In discussing the duties of a clergyman, Mr. Collins states that:
‘The rector of a parish has much to do. In the first place, he must make such an agreement for tithes as may be beneficial to himself and not offensive to his patron’ (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 18).
It is telling that unctuous Mr. Collins puts the worldly consideration of tithes and pleasing his patron before his godly duties as a clergyman!
The Easter Holy Week is a movable holiday as its dates are not fixed and change from year to year. The timing of Easter is calculated on the basis of new moons in March and April in relation to the spring equinox. Equinox means ‘equal night’ as it occurs when the night and day are the same length. The timing of Easter Day is decided by the first full moon following the spring equinox on or after the 21st of March. Therefore, Easter can be any Sunday between the 21st of March and the 25th of April. Easter is the only Christian holiday whose date is determined by the moon.
Easter Sunday in 1818, the year after Jane’s death, was the earliest in the calendar that Easter could be set by the church as it fell on the 22nd of March. This allegedly won’t appear again until March 2285. In contrast, Jane would have celebrated Easter Day on the 15th of April in 1806.
The astronomical definition of spring is the time between the spring equinox on the 21st of March and the summer solstice on the 21st of June. This solar calendar was used for reckoning the seasons in medieval Europe.
Easter Day is the Sunday during a Holy Week in which every day has a religious significance for Christians. The liturgy read during the week preceding Easter would focus on the story of how Jesus was tried, condemned to be crucified, enjoyed a last meal with his disciples on Thursday, and was crucified, died and buried on Friday.
The Easter Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday which commemorates Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding a donkey. He was greeted by Christians carrying palm fronds which symbolise victory and peace. Palm Sunday is followed by Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday and Holy Wednesday. Maundy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper that Jesus ate with his disciples, the day before he was crucified on Good Friday. On Holy Saturday Jesus lay in his tomb.
Many churches celebrate the resurrection of Jesus with the Easter Vigil service on the night preceding Easter Sunday. This begins with the Service of Light during which candles are lit from a newly lighted fire outside the church before being carried down the darkened church nave to be placed on a stand in the sanctuary.
On Easter Sunday, Jesus was miraculously resurrected. Because of the link between Christ’s resurrection and new dawn, many Christians hold a sunrise service on Easter Sunday.
Easter Sunday is the time when new Christians are initiated into their religion. In the past, the initiates would spend the forty days of Lent before Easter praying and fasting, preparing for the moment they would be inaugurated into a new life by being sprinkled with Holy Water.
It was believed that Holy Water left over from Easter Sunday could cure all ailments. Babies born on Good Friday and baptised on Easter Sunday were said to have the gift of healing.
As her father was a clergyman, Jane would have known that Easter and Christmas were some of the only times of the year when even the most indolent of Regency clergymen were expected to write their own original sermons. She comments on this in Mansfield Park. Henry Crawford assumes that Edmund Bertram’s ‘sacrifice’ when he becomes a clergyman would consist of ‘a sermon at Christmas and Easter’(Mansfield Park, Chapter 23). However, since Edmund is a devout and dedicated man, he would undoubtedly put more effort into his Christian work than the irreverent Henry Crawford assumes.
In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins produced only two sermons between his ordination at Easter and his visit to Longbourn in November of the same year. Easter was a popular time for clergymen to be ordained, due to its association with new beginnings.
It seems that Jane Austen hints that Mr. Collins may have been remiss for a clergyman in not spending more time on church duties at Easter time. In Jane Austen and the Clergy Elizabeth Hawksley notes that:
‘Elizabeth Bennet and Sir William and Maria Lucas visited the Collinses around Easter – today, the busiest time of the church year. Nevertheless, we hear of Mr. Collins driving his father-in-law round the countryside every day during his visit, and of dinners at Rosings with Lady Catherine de Bourgh; but there is no mention of any church activities.’
In church, Jane and the rest of the congregation would sing hymns associated with Easter. Many hymns popular in Jane Austen’s time, like the uplifting Methodist hymn Jesus Christ is Risen Today by Charles Wesley, are still sung today.
The church service on Easter Sunday also provided a place for neighbours to socialise. The most famous example of this is in Pride and Prejudice where the Bennets are invited to visit Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the evening on Easter Day:
‘it was not till Easter-day, almost a week after the gentlemen’s arrival, that they were honoured by such an attention, and then they were merely asked on leaving church to come there in the evening. For the last week they had seen very little of either Lady Catherine or her daughter. Colonel Fitzwilliam had called at the parsonage more than once during the time, but Mr. Darcy they had only seen at church. The invitation was accepted of course, and at a proper hour they joined the party in Lady Catherine’s drawing room’ (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 31).
Easter Monday is commonly a Bank Holiday today, although this wouldn’t have been the case in Jane Austen’s time as the Easter Monday Bank Holiday was only introduced in Britain in the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 as a day when banks closed for trade.
After Easter, Anglicans continued to celebrate Christ’s resurrection and the salvation it brought humanity until Whitsuntide. This period of fifty days is the origin of the Easter Holidays. Although a fifty day long holiday seems extraordinary to modern people, for wealthy people in Regency Britain this was the time when they left their work on political or business concerns in town and enjoyed time in their country houses, or went to visit relatives and friends.
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