Ham, Matzo and More: Easter and Passover Eats

It’s not often that Christians and Jews are celebrating holidays at the same time, but in 2018, that’s the case on March 30, which is Good Friday and the start of Passover. Then, Easter takes place on April 1—no fooling!

If you read my last blog, you know I’m Jewish, so Easter isn’t a holiday that was celebrated in our household. I do have memories of dyeing hardboiled eggs with my sisters—that unique smell is hard to forget—but it was merely a fun activity, not something associated with a holiday. We didn’t purchase Easter finery or get Easter baskets, but I’m pretty sure I had a chocolate bunny or two as a child.

As for Passover, we celebrated in a “Jew-lite” manner. I use that term because we were far from being devout; we didn’t attend temple and certainly didn’t have bat mitzvahs. We lit menorahs for Hanukkah—more about that later this year—and Passover was the only other Jewish holiday we observed—in our own way.

Passover, which commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan and lasts for either seven or eight days—the latter for Orthodox, Hasidic, and most conservative Jews. My family was on the other end of the scale, so Reform that we didn’t totally adhere to the tradition of not eating any leavened products during Passover—most predominantly bread—by having it only apply at home.

That’s right, if we went out to lunch or dinner that week, we could eat anything we wanted. At home, the boxes of matzo came out, which led me to note to my mom, “oh, this is the week we’re Jewish.” Matzo, for those who don’t know, is unleavened bread that tastes a lot like a cracker. It’s actually quite good spread with butter, jam or peanut butter—and my mom used it in a long-time family favorite for Sunday breakfasts, matzo and eggs.

Many holiday celebrations famously feature food—so let’s delve a bit more into Passover, and then move on to Easter.

Passover Cuisine

Passover begins with a Seder, a celebratory meal that features blessings, prayers and storytelling. The traditional main course was lamb, but today in the U.S. it’s often roast chicken or braised brisket, accompanied by side dishes like vegetable kugel (potato casserole), latkes (potato pancakes usually associated with Hanukkah) and roasted vegetables. The meal may start with gefilte fish and matzo ball or vegetable soup— and instead of “pass the rolls,” you’ll hear, “pass the matzo.”

A Seder plate containing five items—each a fundamental part of the ceremony and symbolic of an element of Exodus—sits on the table. There’s a spring vegetable such as parsley, which is dipped in salt water and eaten to resemble the taste of ancestors’ sweat and tears. Maror, usually horseradish or romaine lettuce, serves as a reminder of the bitter oppression of slavery and the Pharoah’s difficult-to-swallow decree to drown Israelites’ male infants. Charoset, a mixture of chopped apples, nuts, wine, and honey, recalls the mortar Israelites used to build cities for the Pharoah. And, a roasted shank bone, which represents the Passover sacrificial offering, and a roasted egg, symbolizing rebirth and renewal, are always on the plate, though they aren’t actually eaten.

Wine is also a big part of a Seder, with four cups being drunk to symbolize the four stages of redemption the Israelites experienced. A fifth cup is set aside for the prophet Elijah and not imbibed; this cup represents the hope for future redemption.

Passover is celebrated by more Jews than any other Jewish holiday, trumping Yom Kippur and Hanukkah. Here are a few other interesting facts about it:

  • In 1932, Maxwell House—yes, the coffee manufacturer— printed and distributed a now iconic Maxwell House Haggadah (the text around which the Passover Seder is based). More than 50 million of these Haggadahs are in print.

  • The gloopy sweet wine often associated with Seders—which can taste somewhat like cough syrup—can certainly be replaced by one of the hundreds of high-quality kosher wines, ideally a red.

  • Kids can get restless after asking the four classic questions to begin the Seder, but a traditional way to keep them engaged is by plying them with nuts.

  • For decades, Chabad has hosted the world’s largest Seder—in Kathmandu, Nepal, with more than 2,000 attendees.

Eating on Easter

Many Christians observe Lent starting on Ash Wednesday, a period of fasting, moderation and self-denial typified by choosing to go without certain foods. It lasts for 40 days, and many people think it ends on Easter—but that’s not correct. For instance, this year Lent began on February 14 and ended on March 29, the Thursday before Easter Sunday.

Nonetheless, many people consider Easter to be the day they can indulge again. With chocolate and other sweets often given up for Lent, perhaps that’s why Easter baskets are filled with treats like chocolate bunnies and other sugary treats.

The traditional centerpiece of Easter dinner is lamb, since when Jewish followers converted to the new religion of Christianity, they brought their traditional Passover meal with them to celebrate the end of the Lenten season and the resurrection day of Christ. In the U.S. today, ham is more common than lamb for Easter, because it’s more available and going back to pre-Christianity, pigs have always been a symbol of luck and prosperity. Spring vegetables serve as side dishes.

Hardboiled eggs are also an Easter staple, and not just for dyeing for decoration and Easter egg hunting. It’s pretty common to find deviled eggs at Easter, as they attained new symbolism with the advent of Christianity. On a literal level, the eggshell came to represent the tomb of Christ, while the egg itself was a physical representation of the concept of a new life in Christ. On a figurative level, the egg signifies the ability to achieve a spiritual rebirth.

While Easter is the most important Christian celebration of the church year, it does have its share of frivolity, given the preponderance of chocolate bunnies, peeps and such. Here are some interesting facts about Easter that are pretty sweet, too:

  • The tallest Easter egg ever made was in Italy in 2011—standing 34 feet high and weighing almost 16,000 pounds.

  • The Easter bunny tradition came to the U.S. in the 18th century from Europe, where it was known as the Easter hare.

  • Easter is celebrated at different times by Eastern and Western Christians, because the dates for Easter in Eastern Christianity are based on the Julian Calendar.

  • Jellybeans, a common item in Easter baskets, were first made in American by a Boston candy maker, who ran ads urging people to send them to soldiers fighting the Civil War.

  • In the old days, pretzels were associated with Easter because their twists were thought to resemble arms crossing in prayer.

What does Passover or Easter mean to you? We’d love to hear about your traditions and the memories you have of celebrating these religious holidays.

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