By the law concerning holidays made in the time of King Alfred the Great, it was appointed that the week after Easter should be kept holy. From this we might safely presume on the true intention of the Church, namely a time of rejoicing in the spiritual sense. But in the long run rejoicing tends to assume one form, i.e. social festivity. Belithus tells us it was customary in some churches for the Bishops and Archbishops themselves to play with the inferior clergy at hand ball, and this, as Durand asserts, even on Easter Day itself. The Roman Church certainly erected a standard on Easter Day in token of Christ's victory, but it would perhaps be indulging fancy too far to suppose that Bishops and governors of churches who used to play at hand ball at this season, did it in a mystical way and with reference to the triumphal joy of this season. With nations in the state of civilisation in which Europe was found in the early centuries it is not to be wondered at that an ecclesiastical fact, intended to be celebrated festively, should assume the outward expression of an agricultural feast with all the boisterous freedom of a pagan festival. For instance there was the custom of lifting or heaving at Easter, a custom which took a long time to kill, and one where it is possible to trace stages of development from seeming improprieties to respectability. In the Northern counties, as will be seen, there was a roughness which is absent in the same custom in London and the South. A writer in The Gentleman's Magazine (1784) says:--
"Lifting was originally designed to represent our Saviour's resurrection. The men lift the women on Easter Monday, and the women the men on Tuesday. One or more take hold of each leg, and one or more of each arm near the body, and lift the person up, in a horizontal position, three times. It is a rude, indecent, and dangerous diversion, practised chiefly by the lower class of people. Our magistrates constantly prohibit it by the bellman, but it subsists at the end of the town; and the women have of late years converted it into a money job. I believe it is chiefly confined to these Northern counties."
The following extract is from the Public Advertiser for Friday, April 13th, 1787:--
"The custom of rolling down Greenwich-hill at Easter is a relique of old City manners, but peculiar to the metropolis. Old as the custom has been, the counties of Shropshire, Cheshire, and Lancashire boast one of equal antiquity, which they call Heaving, and perform with the following ceremonies, on the Monday and Tuesday in the Easter week. On the first day, a party of men go with a chair into every house to which they get admission, force every female to be seated in their vehicle, and lift them up three times, with loud huzzas. For this they claim the reward of a chaste salute, which those who are too coy to submit to may get exempted from by a fine of one shilling, and receive a written testimony, which secures them from a repetition of the ceremony for that day. On the Tuesday the women claim the same privilege, and pursue their business in the same manner, with this addition--that they guard every avenue to the town, and stop every passenger, pedestrian, equestrian or vehicular."
That it was not entirely confined, however, to the Northern counties, may be gathered from the following letter, which Mr Brand received from a correspondent of great respectability in 1799:--
"Dear Sir--Having been a witness lately to the exercise of what appeared to me a very curious custom at Shrewsbury, I take the liberty of mentioning it to you, in the hope that amongst your researches you may be able to give some account of the ground or origin of it. I was sitting alone last Easter Tuesday at breakfast at the Talbot in Shrewsbury, when I was surprised by the entrance of all the female servants of the house handing in an arm chair, lined with white, and decorated with ribbons and favours of different colours. I asked them what they wanted? Their answer was, they came to heave me. It was the custom of the place on that morning; and they hoped I would take a seat in their chair. It was impossible not to comply with a request very modestly made, and to a set of nymphs in their best apparel, and several of them under twenty. I wished to see all the ceremony, and seated myself accordingly. The group then lifted me from the ground, turned the chair about, and I had the felicity of a salute from each. I told them I supposed there was a fee due upon the occasion, and was answered in the affirmative; and, having satisfied the damsels in this respect, they withdrew to heave others. At this time I had never heard of such a custom; but on inquiry, I found that on Easter Monday, between nine and twelve, the men heave the women in the same manner as on the Tuesday, between the same hours, the women heave the men. I will not offer any conjecture on the ground of the custom, because I have nothing like data to go upon; but if you should happen to have heard anything satisfactory respecting it, I should be highly gratified by your mentioning it. I have the honour to be, with much respect, Sir,
Your obedient and faithful servant,
May 7, 1799."
But lifting was only one of the sports of old Eastertide. There were games on land and water, and much eating and drinking, indeed it was a season not kept holy but devoted entirely to merriment. Such are the origins of our own Easter vacations, when for a short spell we visit the seaside and prepare for the work of an arduous summer. To some people the absence of picturesque usage and ceremony is an irreparable loss; to others the absence of vulgar customs and general horse play is a testimony to the advance of civilisation. Certainly it is a pity to lose the picturesque, but on the whole there is more gain than loss in the sober and sombre Easter vacation of to-day as compared with the rollicking past.