Copying, traditions, Easter Eggs, Hot Cross Buns

One of the most amazing things about our ability to copy is that it allows us to outsource the cognitive load to others. To use the brains, behaviour and feelings of others to guide our decisions and choices.

Much of the time, those of us who are interested in this phenomenon focus on copying contemporary phenomenon but copying is in some ways more important in shaping traditions and shared practices and beliefs.


So for example, we know that the 4 gospels of the New Testament offer different versions of the Easter Story (Matthew is alone in reporting the first appearance of the risen Jesus to women; he and Luke both omit the appearance to Mary Magdalene; only John mentions the appearance of Jesus in the Upper Room and on the Sea of Galilee). And yet the sub-stories has become fused into one which has been passed on generation after generation (with the help of the Church’s closely guarded access to the written texts ); even then, there’s always been interesting variation. Medieval variations include the notion that Jesus escaped crucifixion somehow and resettled in Rennes, France. Similarly, another variation of the story sees him heading East to India and even being received as the Messiah in Nepal, according to some sources. All good “hidden truths” that fuel conspiracy theorists in the modern era, but looked at from a longer-term anthropological perspective, these are just variations – alternative endings – to a story in wide circulation. Error crept in slowly over time at the edges, without damaging the central story being transmitted.

But it’s in our behaviour that copying’s ability to transmit stuff over generations is most clear. Behaviour embodies belief but it doesn’t require belief in the same way that story-retelling does.

All the great rituals of the Christian peoples – the Santa Semana (Holy Week in Spain) or the re-enactment of the Crucifixion that the Philippines practices – the processions and the re-enactments all look solid and self-justifying but these too have been passed down year after year, generation after generation. And done so often largely unchanged from their inception. Or at least they seem that way, though of course – like the Oberammergau Passion Play – they are often “fake” traditions – based on deliberate re-presentation and re-imagination of practices of the past.

Very often of course, the practices that we think of as Christian are based on other roots – Christianity has always been particularly good at absorbing and – to be frank – copying ideas and practices from other (native) religions. Just as lots of pagan gods and saints were absorbed into the Catholic communion and repurposed, so too the feasts…Christmas is rooted in a number of pagan festivals including the Nordic Yule.

Similarly, the festival of Easter appears to be rooted (at least in Northern Europe) in the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic festival of the goddess Eostre/Ostera (according to the 8th Century chronicler Bede among others). She doesn’t seem to have been particularly unusual as Spring godesses go – involving classic symbols of Spring and new life – lambs, eggs, bunnies etc. No wonder they’ve re-emerged as part of our Easter iconography.

The origins of Hot Cross buns as an Easter tradition are a little different. Spiced buns with dried fruit were part and parcel of late medieval English fare. It wasn’t until 1592, that the London Clerk of Markets issued a ban on them – except at burials, Christmas and Good Friday. Since when, they have become exclusively associated with that one day.

And just in case you wondered, it’s also been suggested that Christian bakers were not the first to make them: the Ancient Greeks got there first with cross-shaped decorations on their cakes

Traditions like all of these may develop other significances  – they may become a signal of membership of a particular group and attract very complicated etiquettes to further nuance social identity.

But ultimately, they too are the result of copying – without copying, they’d disappear overnight.