Traditional Foods of Passover and Easter

Two of the most significant holidays (or “Holy” days) observed around the world are Passover and Easter. Not only are they steeped in deep tradition and spiritual meaning, but each also has a history of a special meal or foods associated with it.

Passover Seder

The Hebrew word “seder” translates to “order,” and the Passover seder is a home ritual blending religious rituals, food, song, and storytelling. Families hold a seder on the first and sometimes second night of Passover. It is fundamentally a religious service set around a dinner table, where the order in which participants eat, pray, drink wine, sing, discuss current social justice issues, and tell stories is prescribed by a central book called the Haggadah.

On Passover seder tables, you may see a partitioned plate containing small amounts of specific food. This is the seder plate, and each food is symbolic of an aspect of Passover: A roasted shank bone represents the Pescah sacrifice; an egg represents spring and the circle of life; bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery; haroset (an applesauce-like mixture with wine, nuts, apples, etc.) represents the mortar used by the Jews in Egypt; karpas (or greens, often parsley) to represent spring.

Also placed on the table are three pieces of matzah — a cracker-like unleavened bread — that represent the bread the Israelites took with them when they fled Egypt, and salt water to represent the tears of the slaves. At your seat, you may see a specific wine glass (or kiddish cup). The Torah commands that (at least) four symbolic cups of wine be consumed during the Passover seder.

There may also be one or two extra kiddish cups at your table: One is a cup of wine for the prophet Elijah whose spirit visits on Passover. In some families, a cup of water is set out for Moses’s sister Miriam. This new feminist tradition symbolizes Miriam’s Well, which provided water for the Israelites in the desert; it also symbolizes the importance of women during the Exodus.

In addition to eating the foods represented on the seder plate (with the exception of lamb, which is not eaten) a Passover meal — that breaks up the two halves of the seder — is served. The meal’s menu will differ depending on family tradition. Traditional dishes include matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, beef brisket, chicken, and potatoes. Traditional Sephardic (Mediterranean and Spanish) Passover foods reflect a Mediterranean spin on the Passover dinner.

Easter Celebration

Easter arose as a celebration of the resurrection of Christ, and many of the foods we eat during the Easter holiday can be traced back to traditions that began hundreds of years ago.

Hot Cross Buns – Traditionally eaten on Good Friday to mark the end of Lent, which involves 40 days of fasting. A 12th-century monk introduced the cross to the bun in honor of Good Friday, according to The Smithsonian magazine. But near the end of the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I thought they should be reserved only for these special occasions: Good Friday, Christmas, or for burials. The English believed the buns carried medicinal or magical properties, and Elizabeth didn’t want those powers abused. To circumvent the law, more people began baking these “powerful” buns at home, increasing their popularity and making the law difficult to enforce. It was eventually rescinded. When the British colonized Jamaica in the 1650s, they brought their traditions with them. The popular Jamaican Easter bun (really more of a loaf) is a variation of the hot-crossed bun, which is often enjoyed with cheese.

Eggs – Symbolize fertility and birth. Christians perceive the egg as a resurrection of Jesus, in which the egg itself symbolizes Jesus, who rose from the tomb. Mesopotamian Christians first adopted them as an Easter food, dying them red to represent Christ’s blood. Eastern Europeans were among the first to elaborately decorate eggs, creating delicate wax relief designs on the shells to give to loved ones. Eggs that were laid during the week of Lent were saved as Holy Week eggs, which were decorated and also presented to children as gifts. Egg-shaped toys emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, which were given to children, along with satin-covered eggs and chocolates. Easter chocolate eggs were first made in the early 19th century in France and Germany.

Lamb – The roots of why lamb is often served in Christian households at Easter stems from Judaism and early Passover observances before the birth of Christianity. During the biblical Exodus story, Egyptians endured a series of terrible plagues, including the death of all firstborn sons. Jewish Egyptians painted their doorposts with sacrificed lamb’s blood so that God would “pass over” their homes while carrying out the punishment. Jews who then converted to Christianity carried on the tradition of eating lamb at Easter. In Christian theology, lamb also symbolizes Jesus’ self-sacrifice as the “Lamb of God.” And historically, lamb also symbolizes the onset of spring when lambs would also have been the first fresh meat available after winter to slaughter.

Ham – The tradition of eating Easter ham can be traced back to at least the sixth century in Germany. Back in the day, pigs were one of the few meats available to eat in early spring in Europe. When Christianity spread northward, it merged with the pagan spring celebration of Eostre, the goddess of the rising dawn,” with ham served during the feast. Early American settlers brought pigs from Northern Europe to America and the tradition of serving ham with them.

White Borscht – A traditional Polish soup with eggs, sausages, and potatoes, is enjoyed on Easter Sunday morning. This soup is traditionally made with items in a basket of food that Polish families used take to church to have blessed on Holy Saturday in the early 15th century. These Easter baskets were filled with things that symbolized every part of life, and their blessing was considered a sign of blessing for a bountiful year ahead.

Mayiritsa Easter Soup – In Greek (pronounced mah-yee-REET-sah), is also known as Easter Sunday soup, and is traditionally eaten by the Greek Orthodox, to break the fast from Lent. As we know, lamb is often eaten at Easter, and making Mayiritsa soup helped ensure that all the parts of the lamb were used.


Many thanks to Heather Edwards, CCLS, and to Charmaine Noronha (“Favorite Easter Foods and the History Behind Them”) for their contributions to this article.

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