Easter Traditions: Ham For Dinner

CountryClubPlaza_scary_rabbitsIn the United States, ham is a traditional Easter food. Have you ever paused to wonder why that is? I mean, in the Bible, Jesus lives as a Jew – and pork is strictly forbidden in the Old Testament.

Doesn’t it seem curious that Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection by feasting on a food that would break the dietary laws of that time?

There seem to be a range of theories as to how ham became the quintessential Easter dish.

The long winter. One theory says that, in the days before refrigeration or canning to preserve foods, livestock was slaughtered in the fall. The fresh pork that wasn’t consumed during the late fall and throughout the winter months was “cured” for consumption in the spring. The curing process took several months, and the first hams were ready in the early spring — about when Easter rolled around.

Lamb, not ham. A related explanation is that traditionally, in early spring, there is very little meat available in the quantity necessary for a large family/community gathering and feast. There are baby animals (livestock), who aren’t big enough to eat yet, and their mothers are still needed to nurse the babies.  Some traditions do serve lamb at the Easter dinner, which fits with this scenario (and fits with the symbolic description of Christ-as-Lamb-of-God).

You’re in luck.  Historians tell us religions sometimes use food — or taboos against certain foods — to create the identity and cement bonds of the community. Early Christianity welcomed non-Jews, with non-Kosher dietary habits, into their midst and embraced ham, in part, to proclaim their religious beliefs.

According to the Encyclopedia of Religion, Mircea Eliade editor in chief [MacMillan:New York] 1987, volume 5 (p. 558):
“Also popular among European and Americans on Easter is ham, because the pig was considered a symbol of luck in pre-Christian Europe.” [emphasis mine].

Whatever the “real” reason for serving ham at the Easter table, it is a delicious tradition.

For a twist on the basic honey-glazed ham, try our recipes for Honey Thyme Glazed Ham, or Balsamic Spiral Ham, or this Baked Ham with Mustard and Marjoram.

Photo credit: Elisabeth Lewin