An Easter like Jane Austen's
Steventon Church, little changed since Jane Austen's time.
What would Easter have been like for Jane Austen?
On the surface things have changed rather dramatically – they never hunted easter eggs, for example (in chase you were wondering) – but some of the fundamental elements of the celebration are the same.
Let's take a look at a typical Easter Sunday for the Austen family at Steventon, along with a few glances at other events centered around that special day, so we can find out how to celebrate Easter like the Austen family did over 200 years ago.
The day began with the Easter Day service in church.
The family would walk up the tree-lined path from the parsonage to Steventon Church in time for the Revd. Austen to read the traditional service of The Church of England from The Book of Common Prayer.
We have a copy from 1953 which begins with a reading from I Corinthians 5:
Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast; Not with the old leaven of malice and wickedness: but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
In the middle is The Collect prayer, which we can imagine the Reverend Austen speaking by and from the heart:
Almighty God, who through thine only-begotten Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life: We humbly beseech thee, that as by thy special grace preventing us thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
Then at the end comes the consummate Easter passage: John 20 and the account of Jesus Christ's resurrection.
...Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. So they ran both together; and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre; and he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying...
Some of the passages in the prayer book might have been sung, including I Corinthians 15:20:
Christ is risen from the dead; and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death: by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die: even so in Christ all shall be made alive.
And Romans 6:9:
Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more: death hath no more dominion over him.
It would have been a cheerful time, with the little church filled with friends and neighbors singing to celebrate and looking forward to the rest of their Easter festivities for the day.
The inside of Steventon Church
There would be a special meal that day.
It might not have been a wild celebration, but there could have been a few friends or family staying with them, so the Austens would celebrate with some traditional festive dishes. Easter has always been preceeded by Lent – forty days of fasting – which for the Austens would have simply meant that they did not eat rich foods like eggs, dairy, sugar or meat, except on Sundays, making Easter Sunday when the fast was broken an even more exciting time.
They could then eat the last of the ham they had cured the winter before and have spring lamb, which was abundant during that time of year. Eggs had also accumulated during Lent, so there would be plenty of those to be eaten!
Boiling and spicing eggs has been around for centuries, but it was during the 1700s that "deviled eggs" show up. So perhaps Jane and her family tried this with some of their eggs at Easter.
But the most iconic dish of an English Easter has to be the Hot Cross Bun.
It is simply a spiced yeast roll with a cross iced on the top of it before popping it into the oven, and has been present at English celebrations since the medieval times. The cross of course would seem to represent the cross of Christ, and these buns were traditionally sold on Good Friday, the day remembered as the day Christ was crucified on a cross.
There were probably other cakes and sweets, as well as vegetable dishes and breads to complete the family feast.
Family and Easter bonnets?
In her letters Jane writes of visits to family around the Easter holidays (which officially lasted for 40 days after Easter Sunday, until Ascension Sunday, celebrating Christ's ascension into heaven), and the characters in her novels do a bit of Easter traveling themselves.
In Pride and Prejudice Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam make their yearly visit to their aunt, Lady Catherine, at Easter:
Colonel Fitzwilliam’s manners were very much admired at the parsonage, and the ladies all felt that he must add considerably to the pleasure of their engagements at Rosings. It was some days, however, before they received any invitation thither, for while there were visitors in the house they could not be necessary; and it was not till Easter-day, almost a week after the gentlemen’s arrival, that they were honoured by such an attention...
Which turned out to be quite the infamous visit for Mr. Darcy, as we know, since Lizzy also happened to be at Rosings, visiting her friend Charlotte during the holidays. (Charlotte's sister Maria spent Easter with her sister, as well.)
We don't hear about the Easter celebrations in Emma, but Mr. Woodhouse does tell us that his daughter Isabella and her family usually visit them at Hartfield over Easter:
...but it is so long since she was here! not since last Easter, and then only for a few days.
When the Austen children were grown they visited each other's homes around Easter, as Jane writes to Cassandra in 1814:
By a little convenient listening, I now know that Henry wishes to go to Gm. [Godmersham, the home her other brother Edward Austen Knight] for a few days before Easter, and has indeed promised to do it.
As far as Easter bonnets go, women have been decorating their heads with flowers for centuries to celebrate the return of spring, and since Easter falls during springtime it became the perfect day to celebrate hope and life by getting a new (or old) bonnet and bedecking it with flowers. Jane, her mother, and sister Cassandra would have had fresh flowers to hand, so it's reasonable to think that they could have easily spruced up a bonnet to wear on Easter Sunday!
Has Easter changed much?
It was rather simpler in Jane Austen's time, and the greatest reason for the holiday was its religious one, to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is hard to believe otherwise when one examines how closely their lives followed the church calendar – and perhaps this was better than many of our celebrations today, for it put their focus in the right place, on eternal things.
But this also ties their celebration to today because the reason for the holiday is the same! We celebrate hope and the return of life every spring and every Easter – with the bright spring colors, and even the eggs, bunnies and lambs – which are still parallels to the return of Jesus Christ from the dead and his triumph over death. Of course we also still gather together as families, some of us wear hats on Easter Sunday to church, and often make a special meal, complete with festive desserts.
So if you're looking to celebrate Easter like Jane Austen, I hope this article has shown you how!
By Anna Morton
Laura Boyle's Article Jane Austen's Easter