Q. Probably millions of families will gather Sunday to enjoy a tasty dinner that will feature an Easter ham as the centerpiece. I know Jewish people shun pork and Jesus was Jewish, so how did ham become a traditional holiday favorite?
— E.P., of O’Fallon
There was a logical reason for this: Fresh meats often were unavailable early in the year, so hams that had been cured over the winter were a spring treat. Some suggest that people would bury fresh pork legs on beaches in the fall or winter and let the tides marinate them with the constant bath of salt water, according to “Imponderables” by David Feldman.
Throw in the fact that pigs were a symbol of good luck and prosperity in many Indo-European cultures, and you have the recipe for a perfect spring feast in many lands. My family, for example, always ate ham on Jan. 1 as a way to get the new year off to an auspicious start. Perhaps that’s why people around the world have been saving their money in piggy banks for centuries.
Of course, all of this meant nothing to Jewish people, who were forbidden to eat pork by strict dietary laws in the Old Testament. “Also the swine is unclean for you, because it has cloven hooves, yet does not chew the cud; you shall not eat their flesh or touch their dead carcasses,” reads Deuteronomy 14:8 in the New King James Version of the Bible.
So, as you suggest, it might seem almost sacrilegious for a follower of Jesus to feast on this forbidden food during one of the two most important Christian holidays of the year. Instead, you might think, we still should be observing Easter with lamb, which Jews normally sacrificed during Passover.
But in the New Testament, you’ll find that the times were a-changin’ even while Jesus was still teaching in the flesh. Already in Matthew 15:11, Christ seems to at least hint that for those who want to follow him, faith will trump the observance of those Old Testament dietary laws.
“Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man,” he told a group of scribes and Pharisees one day. “But what comes out of the mouth — this defiles a man.”
Later, his followers would expand on this change. In Acts 10, Peter tells of going into a trance, during which a massive herd of animals and birds descends from the sky and he is told to kill and eat. At first, Peter refuses to touch the animals he had been taught to be “unclean” and “common,” but a voice tells him, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.”
Then, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote that he further chastised Peter by saying, “ ... a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.”
It is often thought that this more liberal interpretation helped spur the growth of the new religion because pagans could be brought under the umbrella of Christianity without having to follow a rigorous list of dietary laws. Their beloved ham, which had been salted and smoked during the winter, was just dandy for Easter.
Ham may have grown in popularity for more vulgar reasons, too, Feldman writes.
“In particular, the English took to eating bacon at Easter in order to enrage Jews and repudiate everything Jewish. In the 11th century, William (the Conqueror) I, who preferred ham to bacon, encouraged his subjects to make the switch. Pork, and particularly ham, has been the popular Easter meal in Western Europe ever since.”
And since lamb never made it big early in the New World, the tradition made an easy transition to the United States.
— Janet Moore, of Maryville
Like most centuries-old traditions, some say Christians simply adopted a pagan practice so more people would feel welcome in a new religion. Just as the Earth comes alive again in spring, eggs symbolize rebirth and new life, so pagans would decorate them for spring festivals and give them as gifts. Once converted, they carried on the practice, and the church did not object. Others, however, say this may be more legend than fact.
In Mesopotamia, early Christians reportedly died eggs red to mimic the blood Christ shed during his crucifixion, according to an 1883 issue of Donahoe’s Magazine, a general-interest but Catholic-oriented magazine. The church purportedly took up the tradition and it has continued ever since with the egg representing Christ’s tomb and its cracking and shelling his resurrection.
In 13th century England, the tradition may have enjoyed a royal boost when King Edward 1 ordered 450 eggs to be colored and decorated with gold leaf and distributed as gifts to all those living in the palace.
One legend has it that on the third day, Mary Magdalene packed a basket of eggs to share as she prepared to visit Christ’s tomb on the third day. When she arrived to find the rock rolled away and the tomb empty, the eggs turned a brilliant shade of red.
A similar story has Ms. Magdalene visiting Tiberius after Jesus’ death. She reportedly greeted him by saying “Christ is risen” to which the Roman emperor replied “Christ has no more risen than that egg is red,” referring either to an egg on a table or one carried by Mary. You guessed it: The egg immediately turned red.
Still another version credits not Mary Magdalene but Simon of Cyrene. Supposedly an egg seller by trade, he was forced to put down his goods when he carried Jesus’ cross to Calvary. When he returned to retrieve his basket, the eggs were miraculously decorated.
Last, but certainly not least, are events involving Jesus’ mother as she watched her son die on the cross. One version tells of blood dropping on the eggs she had brought along, coloring them red. Another has her giving the eggs to the Roman soldiers, begging them to treat her son more humanely. As she cries for justice, her tears fall on the eggs, producing a rainbow of colors.
But even today, Christians don’t have a stranglehold on the use of eggs in holiday traditions. To celebrate the arrival of spring, Iranians, for example, still observe Nowruz (“new day” or “new light”) with a host of symbols, including eggs to represent fertility.
Why do we call the popular Easter entree “ham”?