There are many explanations as to why ham has ended up as the traditional Easter dinner meat in North America. One is that in the early colonial days, meat was traditionally slaughtered in the fall. There was no refrigeration, so meat that was not consumed fresh would be cured. This was a long process, and the hams were generally ready around springtime, making ham an obvious choice for an Easter dinner. Hams are also a traditional Easter choice in many Scandinavian countries, probably for similar reasons.
The first meats consumed in colonial America were in fact usually game meats such as deer, bear, buffalo and turkey. Animal husbandry was difficult; livestock was expensive and protecting stock from natural predators was time consuming. Turkey quickly became popular as Thanksgiving fare, and the newly ready hams probably made a tasty choice for Easter. But why not lamb?
Sheep were introduced into colonial America by the Dutch and English, and left to forage as was the practice in animal husbandry. The Spanish also introduced sheep in Florida. Mutton (the mature sheep) was eaten by colonial Americans, although it takes longer and more careful cooking than turkey or beef. Lamb would have been a special spring treat, and perhaps some early Americans did eat lamb at Easter. But several things happened that were to change that, and firmly establish ham as the preferred meat.
Ham wins the battle over lamb as the traditional Easter entree in North America
The over-riding popularity of ham rather than lamb as an Easter dish in North America is often dated not to the traditions of early settlers, but to a campaign run in the 1930s by meatpackers in Chicago. They promoted their precooked hams in more than 100 newspapers and women’s magazines as an alternative to a fresh-cooked Easter roast; which the housewife would only have to heat, glaze and serve. The convenience of this would have been a factor in the success of the new tradition, but equally important was the failure of mutton and lamb to seize the tastebuds of the nation.
While tasty and easy to prepare hams were successfully marketed as an Easter menu specialty, lamb and mutton suffered something of a public relations disaster in the Second World War. Mutton was served as the meat of choice in the mess halls of the American GIs. Mutton needs careful cooking to be palatable (lamb is far more tasty), and the mass cooked mutton was almost universally loathed by the soldiers. Most, on return, refused to have anything to do with mutton or lamb – as attested to in several online discussions of the issue.
Sheep are farmed in America, although in far smaller numbers than poultry, beef and pork. However the price of lamb is generally much higher than that of the more popular meats, and many Americans are not familiar with how to cook lamb. Thus it remains relatively unpopular.
Christian arguments for and against lamb instead of ham at Easter
Some Christian groups promote the significance of lamb on Easter Sunday in preference to ham. They cite the ancient biblical symbolism of the sacrifice of the lamb by Abel to God, the first recorded sacrifice in the bible. They point out how Jesus, as God’s own sacrifice, is known as “the lamb of God” and also as “the good shepherd”. They remind us that pigs were considered unclean in the bible and in Jewish and Islamic traditions.
Other Christians assert that since the sacrifice of Christ, sacrifices of lambs and other animals became theologically redundant and therefore the symbolic eating of lamb at Easter would cease to have any religious significance. Nonetheless, the Pope still serves a whole roast lamb every Easter Sunday.
The tradition of eating lamb at Easter is also one that can be linked to the Jewish custom of Passover. Although eating roast meat is not part of the customs of Passover, the sacrificial lamb is known as the Paschal sacrifice. The Anglo Saxon chronicler, the Venerable Bede, uses Paschal as a synonym for Easter and the Celtic/Breton word for Easter is Pascoe.
The traditional Easter dinner menu is lamb or ham
Lamb is considered the traditional meat to roast for Easter in most European countries, although ham is more popular in Northern Europe and lamb in Southern Europe. In North America, its place as an entree has been taken by ham, largely due to marketing campaigns of the 1930s and the unpopularity of lamb as a meat in North America. The turkey is often nowadays marketed as an Easter roast, and many in the UK will serve beef on the menu for Easter day.