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Eostre’s Eggs

2011 April 30
by Paul Vallely

I took my 11-year-old to the cookery school attached to Betty’s famous tearooms in Harrogate just before Holy Week. His one-day Easter Eggstravaganza course began with Hot Cross Buns, encompassed decorating a chocolate Easter Egg and baking chocolate brownies – which he then “enrobed”, to use chocolatier jargon, with a mixture of melted plain and milk chocolate. But there was something other than the high-quality of the scoff which caught my attention.

I live my daily life in two worlds. In my work I engage largely with denizens of the metropolitan liberal elite who are overwhelmingly secular in their worldview. Many are downright hostile to religion, with which they have little acquaintance and less knowledge. They tend in the main to subscribe, without curiosity, to the Dawkins view that all religion is mad and bad. Believing that, they assume, is part of being modern.

Where I live the vast majority of the people I know have links with one of the local churches, Methodist, Roman Catholic or Anglican, or are members of the Jewish community. They are not possessed by the Dawkinsite lust for certainty. They understand that only ignorant atheists and daft fundamentalists treat religion as if it offered a factual description of the real world. Like Socrates they intuitively know that wisdom is not about how much you know, but how well you understand how little you know. The substructure of their worldview is entirely different from that of the secularists.

Betty’s cookery school was neither of these. It was just a place where a score of kids were getting together to prepare some seasonal goodies. Yet what surprised me was the way that a religious default was exposed by the children at Betty’s who had come from as far afield as London, Manchester and Barnsley.

Asked why we put a cross on a Hot Cross Bun one of the boys waggishly replied: “Because if it didn’t have one it would just be a Hot Bun. But one of the girls plainly countered: “Because Jesus died on a cross.” And we make things with eggs, said another of the 10-11 year olds, “because eggs make things rise, and Easter is about the Resurrection”.

Later, when it came to making the chocolate brownies, one boy announced that he had given chocolate up for Lent. “But my Mum says I’m allowed a dispensation for one day,” he told the group. A dispensation! “That’s OK,” said another boy, “because Jesus was in the desert for 40 days but Lent lasts for 46 days so you’re allowed six days off.”

The conversation was natural and utterly unselfconscious as one of Betty’s chefs showed them how to pipe a cross with sugary paste on the uncooked buns or how to mould the brownies into balls when they were just cooked.

It is important not to get this out of context. Those few remarks were dotted throughout a course which lasted five hours and which was otherwise dominated by giggling, shrieking and bouts of fierce tongue-sticking-out concentration. But they revealed the extent to which Christian culture is still the quiet default setting in the lives of many ordinary people.

Easter was, of course, originally a pagan feast. Eostre was the Saxon goddess of dawn associated with the hare. Many of the rituals and symbols of the season – the egg and the rabbit as fertility symbols, the tradition of kindling new fire, the custom of wearing new clothes and promenading in them – seem to date to the days before history was written. Yet the early Church skilfully interwove its celebration of Christ’s resurrection into the pagan festival of rebirth. That warp and weft are still a greater part of the English worldview than many assume.

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