On the eve of the Easter holiday weekend, the shops are full of chocolate Easter eggs, all sorts of chocolate bunnies and our Australian bilbies, and dozens of other confections for everyone. Among all this variety of sweet treats I can’t help thinking of how different Jane Austen’s Easter must have been.
As the daughter of a clergyman Jane would have attended every church service when she was growing up and I’m sure she continued this for the rest of her life. In her detailed article Laura Boyle says that in Jane’s day, the Easter season (and the 40 days following) were a time of travelling and visiting family. She also writes that every mention of Easter in Jane’s letters and novels involves travel, including her most notorious use in Pride and Prejudice when Mr Darcy arrives at Rosings Park to visit his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. We know that Jane visited friends on the way to her brother’s houses.
During Lent (before Easter) it was customary to give up rich foods like sugar, eggs, meat and dairy products. It was common practice to hard boil any eggs not used to make them last, then dye them red using red onion skins to symbolise the blood of Christ. Buns were made ready for Good Friday. Jane would have observed Lent and broken the ‘fast’ on Easter with a special dinner with her family. A new bonnet for Easter Sunday church service was part of her world as was a traditional dinner of Lamb or Ham. As it was spring the first new lambs were available and the hams would be the last of the cured meats set aside over winter.
The little we know of how the Austen’s celebrated the season is drawn from Jane’s letters and what was usual for the time. One tradition of the time that has survived is the eating of hot cross buns. We don't know how much the recipe differed at that time. Maybe she dyed eggs but we do not know. One thing for sure is that she was not eating chocolate eggs or bunnies!