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Easter Customs and Traditions

Easter Customs and Traditions  
By Robert Newland


'Easter Tide’ is the most important festival of the Christian year, symbolising the ‘Redemption of Man’ and the confirming of the fundamental belief in ‘Life Everlasting’. Easter holy week begins with ‘Palm Sunday’, which commemorates the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem before his trial and death.

Traditionally, pussy willow was collected on Palm Sunday to make into ‘Palm Sunday Crosses’. This custom dates from the 5th Century. It was banned after the Restoration, but later revived. ‘Maundy Thursday’ is the next important day, its name deriving from the Latin ‘Mandate’ and refers to the command of Christ to his disciples to ‘love one another’. Churches were cleaned on this day in readiness for the Easter celebrations, and the monarch gave the famous ‘Maundy Money’.

Following on is ‘Good Friday’, the day which commemorates the crucifixion of Christ. Washing clothes on this holy of holy days was considered an ill omen, for it was commonly believed that to do so, ‘one would wash a member of the family away’, that is, it caused a death in the family. Hanging clothes out to dry was also out of the question as it meant they would soon be spattered with blood. It is also said to be unlucky if you cut your fingernails on this day: the people of Portland believed such an action would result in toothache.

Hot Cross Buns

As Good Friday was the first day after Lent. Hot cross buns have long been a favourite way to break the fast on this day. The buns are older than Christianity - pagan celebrants ate wheat cakes at their spring festivals, and the Greeks, Romans and Ancient Egyptians all had buns with a cross etched on the top. The round bun represented the full moon, and the cross divides the bun into the four lunar quarters. Traditional buns have the cross cut into the dough or pricked out with a pin: the brash pastry bands are a more recent thing. Not all Good Friday buns featured a cross, and in some areas they were triangular, like a samosa.

The well-known jingle
'Hot cross buns, one a penny, two a penny' is a street-seller's cry. The buns were traditionally eaten at breakfast, and the town vendors had to be on the streets before dawn to make the most of their once-a-year wares. The buns have been munched in England today for hundreds of years, but it was only in the last century that the tradition caught on across the rest of Britain.

The Widow's Son Tavern
In Bow in the East End of London there is a Victorian pub in Devons Road whose name – The Widow’s Son - evokes a sad story commemorated every Good Friday in what has become a little piece of naval tradition.

The pub was built in 1848 on the site formerly occupied by a poor widow’s cottage. Her only son was a sailor for whom she baked some hot cross buns, expecting him to return at or soon after Easter. When the son failed to return she hung the buns from her ceiling, and repeated the action the next year and the next, continuing until her death.

Given the fame locally of the story, the pub built where her cottage had stood took the name The Widow’s Son, and to some locals it is also known as The Bun House.

Every Good Friday a Royal Navy sailor presents a new bun to the pub for inclusion in the net, though naval involvement is relatively recent. The custom has developed somewhat over the last few years, with sailors visiting on the bun day to pay their respects, sing a song or two, and drink to the lost mariner. A sailor’s hat is now presented to the pub as well as the bun.

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922 about Easter Cakes:

Of the many ceremonies and customs that formerly existed at this time the distribution of Easter cakes was probably as common in Dorsetshire as in other counties.  A Dorchester correspondent of the ‘The Dorset County Chronicle, writing in April 1858, after referring to the old nursery rhyme of “Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man” (which he calls “Batty Cake”), says: -

“Hot cross buns have their own holy mark which requires no further observation than that the ecclesiologist has pronounced it to be Grecian and not a Latin cross.  Easter cakes however, have not any ecclesiastical distinction, although intimately connected with church officials.  The parish clerk, time out of mind, has had the privilege of calling at each house at Easter to treat the inmates with ‘figgy’ cakes at remunerative cost.  (When were currants and raisins first termed ‘figgy’?)

“The Church wardens and sidesmen (Synodsmen) are also great patrons of Easter customs, holding a special meeting for their celebration when inaugurated into office.

“Moreover in this county, at Easter, ‘furmity’, a diet composed of wheat and milk, - was sold by the plate or cup full, especially at the Easter sessions, at Sherborne…And in the country places ‘skimmer cake’ (dough cake boiled in a skimmer’, used commonly by dairy folk in Dorsetshire on festival occasions) was formerly much given to rustics as a treat instead of household loaf…But the School-Children’s treat of Easter cakes, from Lady Bountiful of the parish, was always customary in Dorset as in other parts of England.”

Easter Day can fall anywhere between March 22nd and April 25th. The name 'Easter' originates from pagan Spring goddess Eostre, a Germanic version of the Scandinavian fertility queen Frigga. Spring and rebirth are invariably the pivotal themes in pagan religions, and the death and resurrection of Christ had all the key ingredients to keep the newly-converted quite happy.

The Eostre Hare in folklore and tradition

Have you ever wondered how the symbol of the rabbit became associated with the Easter Festival? The origin of the Easter Bunny probably goes back to the festival's connection with the pagan goddess Eostre.

Witch Hare

Eostre (sometimes spelt Oestre) was a fertility goddess from whom we derive the word "oestrogen" and she is closely associated with fertility symbols such as eggs. The rabbit is known as a highly fertile creature and hence an obvious choice for Easter symbolism.

In fact the use of the rabbit is probably a mistake - the Easter "bunny" is more likely to have been a hare, since it i
s the hare that is usually considered the sacred creature of Eostre.

Pagan fertility festivals at the time of the Spring equinox were common. It was believed that at this time, when day and night were of equal length, male and female energies were also in balance.

 The hare is often associated with moon goddesses; the egg and the hare together represent the god and the goddess respectively.  The earliest known reference to our modern Easter Bunny tradition appears to be from 16th century Germany. In the 18th century, German settlers to America brought the tradition with them. The Bunny was known by them as Oschter Haws (a corruption of the German Osterhase ) and brought gifts of chocolate, sweets and Easter Eggs to good children. Often children would make up nests for Oschter Haws, sometimes using their Easter bonnets, and the Bunny would leave his treats there. 

It is because of this strong connection with pagan traditions that Hares were strongly associated with witches and witchcraft in Christian times. People claimed that a witch could shape shift her form at night and become a hare. These solitary creatures, rarely seen, sometimes standing on their hind legs like a person, aroused suspicion.

When in distress they uttered a strange, almost human-like cry, which gave the animal a supernatural quality. For its behaviour would mimic that of a supposed witch. In this form she stole milk or food, or destroyed crops. Others insisted that hares were only witches' familiars.

Folk musician Seth Lakeman song The White Hare tells the folklore tale of a witch who can transform into a white hare. See music video below.

In Dorset there are many stories associated with Witch Hares. In the Purbecks, the gateway at West Lulworth, known as 'Daggers Gate', is believed to mark a grave of a supposed witch who could transfer herself into a hare. It acquired its unusual name in 1789, after farmer Sam Varnell was stabbed and killed at the spot by the daughter of the supposed witch. The witches ghost is still said to haunt the area often taking the form of a hare

These associations caused many people to believe hares were bad luck and best avoided. A hare crossing one's path, particularly when the person was riding a horse, could cause disaster.

Many people on Portland believe that even the rabbit is bad luck! Even to say the word could send Portlanders into a stupor, fearing what might happen. The fear of rabbits is based on the fact that quarry men would often see rabbits emerging from their burrows immediately before a rock fall. Such rock falls often injured and even killed quarry workers; therefore, it is understandable that rabbits became associated with bad luck.

Copyright Robert Newland - Dark Dorset Calendar Customs 2007



Article updated Saturday 2nd April 2011