Why Do We Eat Ham on Easter? Learn the Story Behind the Tradition

From spiral-cut to baked, ham is often the centerpiece of Easter brunch or dinner tables. But have you ever wondered why we eat ham on Easter Sunday? 

Turkey at Thanksgiving. Prime rib at Christmas. Brisket at Hanukkah. (And, oh yes, all the candy at Halloween.) Holiday food pairings make each separate celebration special—and something special to look forward to each year. Come spring, our holiday dinner is all about the Easter ham. Here at BH&G, we love coming up with new stuffings, sweet glazes, and homemade rubs to make our main dish unique for each year—even when we're making smaller portions for a small Easter dinner. But during all the testing, tasting, and perfecting the different plays on pork, we began to wonder, “Why do we eat ham on Easter Sunday?”

To learn more about the relationship between food and how we make sense of culture and history, we talked to Elizabeth Hopwood, Ph.D., a lecturer in English and acting director of the Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities at Loyola University Chicago. “Holidays in particular mark moments when history, culture, and traditions are practiced at the family table,” she says. “Many holidays are centered around what we eat, so examining our food traditions can help us understand how we’ve formed global and familial connections that are centuries old.”

Stuffed Spiral Ham on serving plate oranges greenery
Jacob Fox

Why Do We Eat Ham on Easter?

“Easter ham is as ubiquitous to the American table as Thanksgiving turkey, but it wasn’t always,” Hopwood says. For many, lamb was the main protein at Easter and Passover tables. Still, ham was always a popular choice, for seasonal reasons. Pigs were typically butchered in the fall and needed to stay safe-to-eat through harsh, cold winters.

Elizabeth Hopwood, Ph.D.

Easter ham is as ubiquitous to the American table as Thanksgiving turkey, but it wasn’t always.

— Elizabeth Hopwood, Ph.D.

“To preserve pigs over the winter, our ancestors would smoke and cure them. Come late spring, before the first new foods sprout or livestock have been birthed, a ham could well remain in the larder [what we now refer to as a refrigerator],” explains Beth Forrest, Ph.D., a food historian, and professor of liberal arts and food studies at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

Ham vs. Lamb on Easter Sunday

Lamb is actually the more traditional meat offering at Easter, “stemming from the sacrificial lamb within Abrahamic religions," Forrest says. "In the early years of Christianity, Christians continued many Jewish traditions, which would include the Passover lamb. Ham became popular much later, perhaps as late as the final quarter of the 19th century. On the one hand, it is a simple case of logistics.”

One of the most important logistics here is economics. “By the mid-century, around 1950, ham also emerged as the more affordable and accessible choice for American tables,” Hopwood says, comparing the meat to other popular spring proteins such as lamb.

According to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average ham in 1950 cost 62 cents per pound, compared to 74 cents for lamb, 74 cents for a beef rib roast, and 94 cents for beef steak.

Selecting ham over lamb also became a religious statement, Hopwood adds. “Historically, the connection of European Christians eating pork was a stark mark of identity: It proved that one was neither Jewish nor Muslim. In fact, one could be turned into the Spanish Inquisition for the seemingly innocent act of not eating pork,” she says.

Regardless of whether you choose lamb, ham, another protein, or a meatless main for your Easter table this year, the act of dining together on the holiday is the most important part, Forrest says.

“There is a compelling reason that there was a Last Supper and now Easter dinners [and Easter brunches]: There is an almost magical power of food to create social bonds. The words ‘company’ and ‘companion’ stem from the meaning ‘breaking bread together,’” she says. “It would be fitting, for a holiday that celebrates rebirth and resurrection, that we all invite some neighbors over a meal to toast such an idea.”

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