Why is Ham Traditionally Eaten on Easter?

Rita H. asks: Why do we serve ham on Easter?

easter-hamUnder Jewish dietary laws (called kashrut), eating pork in any form is strictly forbidden. Jesus Christ was Jewish. So why, on the anniversary of his resurrection, do people traditionally serve ham? You’ll often read it’s because ham is supposedly a “Christian” meat, able to be consumed by Christians but not certain other prominent religious groups.  However, the real reason is simply because it’s in season.

While modern food storage techniques and supermarkets with efficient and worldwide supply chains shield us from this fact somewhat, like fruits and vegetables, different meats also have seasons, and these depend on a variety of factors including what the animals were eating and when, where they were in their growth cycle, and the availability (or lack) of refrigeration.

With pigs and cows, before refrigeration, it simply made sense to slaughter them in the fall. Since it takes a fair amount of time to butcher a beast as large as a hog or steer, the cold temperatures helped keep the meat from going bad before it could be properly prepared.

Another consideration was taste. Shortly before slaughter in the fall, hogs would be fed things like apples and acorns that would greatly improve the flavor of the meat they would ultimately provide. As one specialty pork producer noted:

The tradition of acorn-fed pork goes back millennia . . . . The oak nut was a diet staple because the pigs roamed and rooted about for acorns in the forests of Italy and Spain. An acorn diet is today best known as what makes the prized and pricey Jamón Ibérico of Spain so succulent.

Butchered in the fall, most hams were prepared and allowed to properly cure over the winter to further develop their flavor. This was a particularly important food source this time of year in some parts of the world where the rest of the stored meat would have already been eaten, with little other meat of any real quality available. This was the case in North America where the other traditional spring meat, lamb, was (and still is) less in vogue, which is also why eating ham on Easter in North America is much more popular than other regions where Easter is celebrated.

Conversely, in Europe, lamb is commonly served at Easter, and the tradition actually traces its origins to Jewish Passover feasts. This is also certainly fitting for Easter, with Jesus as the “lamb of God.” Born shortly before the holiday, young lamb may be slaughtered within 6 to 8 weeks, and thus offer a fresh, as opposed to cured, option for Easter protein when historically other such protein sources were scarce at this time of year.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Eggs are popular at Easter, at least in part due to the fact that spring is the peak season for their production. As a result, eggs have been a part of spring celebrations since long before Easter was a thing; for example, decorated eggs have been a part of the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, (observed on the spring equinox) for millennia.
  • In addition to the refrigeration factor, like pigs, cows are also thought to be tastier when slaughtered in the fall. This is due apparently to the fact that “the frost has killed flies and sweetened the grass [so the] cows are more comfortable.” Among other things, cows slaughtered when fatigued or in distress also negatively impacts the shelf life of the meat.
  • Turkey is also tastiest in the fall because, as the weather cools and the days shorten, their hormone levels shift and they fatten up. On the other hand, since most chicken eggs are laid in the spring, those that are allowed to grow into chickens are traditionally slaughtered in the summer.
  • Easter bunnies have their roots in old German pagan traditions celebrating the goddess Eostra, who was honored for bringing spring and fertility on the spring equinox. Because of their fecundity, rabbits were used as her symbol.
  • If you’re wondering why rabbits are considered such prolific breeders, it has less to do with them getting it on more than many other animals, necessarily, and more to do with the time frames involved in the process of producing new rabbits.  A baby rabbit becomes sexually mature in an average of just about 5-6 months, and sometimes even sooner.  They can potentially live up to around 10 years.  Further, it takes only around a month from the point of getting pregnant for a female rabbit to give birth.  Their litters can include as many as a dozen rabbits!  What makes this even more astounding is that the female rabbit can get pregnant as soon as the next day after giving birth.  Rabbits are induced ovulators, so the females are pretty much ready to get pregnant anytime they mate (assuming they aren’t already pregnant), with the mating triggering the ovulation.  So even just a single female can give birth to several dozen baby rabbits per year.  Given this, combined with the fact that the babies are ready to make babies at the stage when most human offspring are still mostly just poop and drool factories, you can see how rabbits got this reputation.
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  • J. F. Gecik

    This was such a fine, interesting, and well-written article that it was a terrible shame, Melissa, that you had to do it harm at the very end (in the final “bonus fact,” by two cases of sloppy choices of language.
    (1) You stated: “If you’re wondering why rabbits are considered such prolific breeders, it has less to do with them getting it on more than many other animals … .” Please work a bit harder to avoid using vulgar slang, keeping in mind that you are writing, in public, for a very wide readership (people of both sexes and of all ages). It would have been wiser (showing more maturity) to have to the rabbits “mating,” instead of “getting it on” (a phrase that is associated with immaturity and is offensive to many readers).
    (2) You stated: “… the [rabbit] babies are ready to make babies at the stage when most human offspring are still mostly just poop and drool factories … .” From my #1 comment, above, I’m sure that you can guess part of what is wrong with quotation #2. Although you were trying to generate a laugh (or at least a smil), a serious site on the Internet (as TIFO should be) is not a place for “toilet humor” (which is actually something that is inappropriate for a mature adult to be using anywhere at all). The quoted passage is bad for yet another reason: We are at a time in history when there is a serious anti-baby mentality in many places (with a lot of infanticide, battering, and other negative effects), and we ought to avoid making any negative comments whatsoever about babies, who are beautiful, innocent, helpless, and defenseless human beings, not “factories” of any kind.

    • J. F. Gecik

      I have a correction to my comment, in which I accidentally omitted the word that I will now place in upper case:
      “It would have been wiser (showing more maturity) to have REFERRED to the rabbits ‘mating,'”
      Sorry if I confused anyone.

      • Corinne

        Maybe try taking the world a little less seriously

    • Fritzo

      You must be a blast at parties.

  • barry petitpas

    Ha! You got J.F. to say #2

  • Dr Phillip Chalmers

    Can anyone else see this as a mischief?
    I am Australian with Angle, Celtic, Norman and Jewish roots and am more than 70 years old and never have I come across the idea that eating ham is Easter tradition.
    We have Easter in autumn, not spring as we have Christmas in high summer not winter.
    Might I suggest this useful and interesting website require the source of what is claimed to be information or fact identify what cultural tradition they are quoting or what hemisphere they are referencing?