On the wall of a cave lit by a burning bundle of reeds, a small, brutish man scratched lines in stone. In the flickering light the python head he was making appeared to bob and weave, adding an eerie veracity, even life, to the crude representation. The cave was found by Sheila Coulson of the University of Oslo and colleagues in Botswana and the carving appears to be the earliest evidence of human ritual, tentatively dated at 70,000 years ago. That’s a lot of rituals over the years and seems to be evidence that a need for ritual predates our current species.
For many people Easter Sunday is a day of ritual. And, even at 1000 or so years old, a very modern ritual when stacked against a 70,000-year-old snake, but one that serves much the same purpose I suspect: connections.
On the surface, Easter is a connection with God — the supernatural — but if you look a bit deeper it’s about connections with the past, with history. It’s a means of asserting our continuity with the past generations that celebrated Easter and, deeper yet, perhaps by accident, with all of the religions that have celebrated the spring solstice. And so, still deeper, with the cycles of planets and stars — the physical universe.
These rituals also celebrate our connections with each other. People gather for sunrise services all over the world. Afterwards, they may go home to a special Easter dinner, or share a pot luck meal at the church. These meals, in turn, are often traditional, ritualistic, whether the main course is ham or lamb or roast beef.
The Jewish religion takes culinary ritualism a step further and specifies the things to be eaten at the Seder, held on the first two days of Passover. There are seven dishes, each with a symbolic meaning: matzoh, unleavened bread; maror, bitter herbs; charoses, a mixture of apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon; beitzah, a roasted egg; karpas, preferably parsley or celery; zeroah, a lamb shank; and wine.
By the way, eggs are a near-universal symbol of spring, bunnies — chocolate or marshmallow — are not.
Rituals needn’t be religious in nature. Graduation from high school or college is a ritual complete with robes. Weddings are obvious rituals, often with a religious overlay, but baby showers and bachelor parties are also rituals. Birthdays often incorporate rituals, cake for instance.
Despite not being religious (I’m agnostic) I always celebrate Easter. I suppose I could celebrate the spring solstice instead, but Easter has the advantage of falling on a Sunday, a grace not shared by the solstice, and so it’s a convenient day for preparing and enjoying a feast. And I always fix lamb.
For me, planning the meal is a major part of the ritual. I started thinking about it three weeks ago (I write this on the Friday before Easter), and this year I decided to roast a leg of lamb. Sometimes I do lamb chops, sometimes a rack of ribs, a daube one year, kebabs another. I haven’t done a simple leg roast in a while — time to do one again.
I’ll cut slits all over it and stuff them with garlic slivers, then rub the leg with a paste made of garlic, minced rosemary, lemon peel and olive oil. Roasted to medium rare and served with a wine sauce, the lamb should stand very nicely against fresh asparagus, steamed and kissed with a Roquefort sauce, which, in turn, I expect to pair well with salt-roasted new potatoes. Strawberry-filled crepes with mascarpone cheese for dessert
I would venture that most (though certainly not all) rituals incorporate food in some way. When we share food with each other we affirm our connections and when we do so in a ritual we reaffirm them, carving the course of our life’s journey deeper — more emphatically — into the stone.