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A church with daffodils in the graveyard

10 forgotten Easter traditions from the British Isles

A lot of the traditions we celebrate every Easter have surprising origins and can appear strange to outsiders. The following traditions were just as unique but are sadly not celebrated much any more.


Easter is one of the three major festivals in the Christian calendar along with Christmas and Whitsuntide. Good Friday marks the day on which Jesus died, and Easter Sunday is the day of his resurrection. It has long been a festival of solemnity but also of celebration. Long-standing Easter customs in Britain have included sport, feasts, and charity to the poor.

Many of the most popular Easter traditions today have been going on for centuries, including the eating of hot cross buns and the consumption of eggs - which used to be real eggs before the first chocolate Easter Egg was introduced in Britain in 1873.

In certain parts of the UK, some ancient Easter customs can still be seen, including rope-skipping in the southern counties of England, pace-egg plays in northern England, and egg-rolling in Scotland.

But many of the Easter traditions enjoyed by our ancestors have long since faded into the mists of time. Here we look at 10 lost Easter customs from around Britain.

1. Good Friday bread - Yorkshire

An old custom reported as current in some parts of England as recently as the early 20th century is the Good Friday bread.

This involved households baking a loaf of bread on Good Friday and putting it aside until the following Good Friday. In some areas, the loaf was hung up in the kitchen and was believed to improve the quality of any other bread kept in the room. In Yorkshire, it was supposed to protect the home from fire and to prevent other food from going mouldy.

In many parts of Britain, the Good Friday bread, once it had reached a year old, was commonly used as a medicine. Bits of it would be grated into a fine powder and then mixed with water as a remedy for diarrhoea.

2. The lottery of the Reading maids - Berkshire

Reading native John Blagrave, who was a distinguished mathematician and astronomer, left a strange legacy in his will which launched a custom that occurred every Easter from 1612 well into the 19th century.

Blagrave’s bequest stipulated that every Good Friday, at the town hall in Reading, three maidservants – one from each of the three parishes of the town - would compete in a lottery for the sum of 20 nobles, which Blagrave provided for in his will. The maidservants taking part in the lottery had to have ‘good character’ and a minimum of five years’ service under one master. The three candidates would cast lots and the two runners-up would have the opportunity to take part in the following Easter’s lottery.

3. The washing of Molly Grime – Lincolnshire

In the church of the small village of Glentham, 12 miles north of Lincoln, can be found a medieval figure of a woman. This is known as Molly Grime. For centuries, every Good Friday, ‘seven old maids’ from the village would ceremoniously wash Molly Grime using water brought up from the local Newell Well, a well which locals have long regarded as having healing properties. After the washing ceremony, each of the old maids would be given a shilling, taken from money given in an ancient local bequest. The last time this ceremony was performed was in 1832.

4. No irons in the fire - Isle of Man

A peculiar custom endured for many years in the Isle of Man, still current in the middle of the 19th century but probably dying out in the 20th century. This superstition prohibited anything made of iron from touching the fire at any time on Good Friday.

Iron fire tools such as pokers and tongs were put away for the whole day, and a strong rowan stick was used to tend the fire instead. Even traditional iron cooking implements such as griddles were set aside and substitutes, like specially-made fireproof hammocks, were employed for cooking over the fire.

5. No ploughing – Scottish Highlands

In a similar vein, Scottish Highlanders had an ancient tradition that forbade any kind of ploughing or sowing on Good Friday. This was related to the belief that no iron implements should be used on this day. The reason for this, which might also explain the similar superstition in the Isle of Man, is thought to be because iron was associated with the iron nails that were driven into Jesus on the cross.

6. Making Christ’s Bed - Pembrokeshire

An ancient custom in the town of Tenby in South Wales was for young people to get together on Good Friday and make an effigy of Jesus, which they would leave in a meadow or unused field. This was known as ‘making Christ’s bed’. They would all go off and collect reeds from the riverbank and bring them back to a certain spot. The reeds would then be fashioned into the figure of a man, which would be fixed to a wooden cross and then left on a patch of grass where it wouldn’t be disturbed. It was also a custom in Tenby, up until the end of the 18th century, that people would walk from their homes to church barefoot at Easter.

7. The Biddenden Maids – Kent

A famous and ancient Easter custom in Kent is the Biddenden Dole, otherwise known as the Dole of the Biddenden Maids.

For many centuries, the village of Biddenden has given out a dole to the poor at Easter. The source of this ancient charity is two maids who were born in Biddenden in 1100 and died in 1134. They were said to have been conjoined twins named Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst, commemorated in the village sign and the design of the traditional Biddenden Cakes – cakes topped with the impression of two female figures joined together. The dole provided for bread, cakes, and cheese to be given to the parish poor on Easter Sunday.

8. Chopping at the tree - Oxfordshire

University College, Oxford was founded in 1249 and unsurprisingly has a heritage rich in custom and tradition.

One of these is a lost tradition known as ‘chopping at the tree’, the origin of which is obscure, but some Victorian writers describe it as an ‘ancient custom’. Every Easter Sunday, each member of the college would leave the dining hall after supper and file past a tree on the lawn. This tree was specially decorated with flowers and evergreens for the occasion. Each member would chop at the tree with a cleaver, and then pass the college chef, who would be standing by holding a collection plate. The tradition was discontinued by the college in 1864.

9. Parish swapping - South Yorkshire

A peculiar old custom endured for years in South Yorkshire but has long since died out. Every Easter Sunday, two farms in Swinton would swap parishes. For one year, from Easter Day till Easter Day, they would declare that they were a part of the parish of Mexborough, and the next year they would proclaim to lie in the parish of Wath-upon-Dearne, and then alternate again. It is not known when this bizarre tradition began or ended.

10. Heaving – Lancashire

In the northwest of England, and also in some Midlands counties, a curious custom endured every Easter for centuries. This was known as Easter lifting, or Easter heaving.

Traditionally, on Easter Monday the men would lift the women, and on Easter Tuesday the women would heave the men. It was a bit like giving someone ‘the bumps’ on their birthday: the lifters would cross their arms and then hold hands to form a sort of fleshy net, then use it to lift people up and bounce and carry them.

One early 19th-century account quotes a clergyman travelling through Lancashire at Easter time. Sitting in an inn on Easter Tuesday he found himself surrounded by a group of rowdy women who were attempting to lift him. Unfamiliar with the custom and shocked at their raucousness, he paid them to leave him out of the lifting tradition.

This apparently happened to Edward I on Easter Monday 1290, when he fell victim to seven ladies of the court bursting into his royal bedroom and lifting him.

Said to represent Jesus’s resurrection, it is not known when exactly Easter lifting died out as a custom.