“Christ our pasch has been sacrificed.
Therefore let us keep the feast …”
The featured meat of Easter dinner is lamb. This is the case not only for most Italians, but for most Mediterranean Christians. The reason for it traces back millennia to Jewish Passover rites that ceased with the destruction of the Temple, but live on both in Christian sacramental rites and Christian culinary traditions.
In the New Testament, Jesus is identified with the pasch, the sacrificial lamb that Mosaic law commands be offered up each year in commemoration of the one sacrificed on the eve of God’s liberating the Hebrews from their Egyptian slave-masters. Because the Hebrews had marked the thresholds of their houses with the blood of the paschal lamb, their firstborn sons were spared, the angel of death passing over them when striking down the firstborn sons of Egypt. The New Testament takes the extraordinary step of using this Passover redemption to interpret the political execution of Jesus as a paschal sacrifice: Jesus is the true Lamb of God, and his crucifixion the perfect self-sacrifice that once and for all liberates all humankind from their enslavement to sin.
The rites commemorating the Hebrews' redemption from Egyptian slavery are seen by Christian faith as symbolic types of the redeeming death and resurrection of Jesus and so the Christian sacraments that celebrate this paschal sacrifice are embellished with many ritual symbols appropriated from sacrificial prescriptions in the Law of Moses. It is in the spirit of such embellishing symbolism that Christian cooks took inspiration for Easter dinner from the Mosaic command to sacrifice to the Lord, in memory of his redeeming the Hebrews from Egyption slavery, the firstborn male of every animal.
These sacrifices were pretty joyous events, since eating of roasted firstlings before the Lord amounts to a sacred barbeque: God was commanding them to party before him. Romans are famous for their abbachio, or suckling lamb (i.e., unweaned), but in my mother’s hometown it is always a kid-goat, a capretto. When my mother and aunt came to visit me while I was living in Rome, we took a trip back to their hometown, where one remaining sister continues to live. As the crow flies, it’s probably only an hour east of Salerno, but the mountain roads are so winding, it takes two hours to drive there. The town itself is so hilly that its ancient streets are steps; there’s only one paved road down the middle, to accommodate the incursion of the automobile. The town today is only a shell of its former self, as many a house, once overflowing with children even in the midst of postwar poverty, now lies empty most of the year, except during the great festival of the Madonna in August, when modern-day heirs of these ancient stone houses return to them for a summer holiday.