Easter — The “Other” Holiday

Easter is soon to be upon us, after the emotional roller coaster ride of tragedy and triumph that is Holy Week. As with Christmas, Thanksgiving, Hallowe’en, and the Fourth of July, after a certain age the glimmer of nostalgia leads one to look back at celebrations past, and forward through the excited eyes of children to the future. The first Easter I can recall must have been when I was four; opening the door of our apartment in New York, what should I see in the hallway but two enormous baskets. Intended obviously for my brother and me, the contents included such never-before-seen treats as chocolate rabbits, coloured boiled eggs, and jelly beans, the whole resting on faux grass. Excitedly asking my parents who had left these wonderful gifts, I was told in no uncertain terms that it was the “Easter Bunny.” Although I excitedly ran to the door every morning after that, it would be another year before this mysterious creature acted again; in the meantime we had to be content with glass bottles of milk that appeared each morning instead.

Despite the fact that our parents’ close friend, musician Elmo Russ, had composed a song in the Bunny’s honour (including in its lyrics the sage advice “don’t fwow wocks at a wabbit, or he’ll bring wotten eggs home to you”), and there was also “Here Comes Peter Cottontail,” information on this possibly oviparous lapin was scant. This was especially true in comparison to his Christmas colleague/rival, Santa Claus. Any red-blooded American child of the 1960s could tell you all about Santa Claus, his residence at the North Pole, his sleigh and reindeer, the elves, and all the rest. But save for being a rabbit, producing coloured eggs somehow, and leaving all those baskets to children everywhere, there was not much in nursery mythology to say about him.

Much the same is true in general about Easter and Christmas. Although Easter is the greater feast liturgically, it is Christmas that gets all the attention. A large part of this, of course, is that Easter does not have non-stop advertising in its…um….favour, a full four months ahead of time. Moreover, since Hallowe’en has edged out Easter for second place among cash-generating holidays, it gets less retail attention than it did. In an attempt to educate the public as to its significance, a few years ago the L.A. area’s upscale supermarket chain, Gelson’s, ran signs reading “Easter — it’s as important as Passover.” For the devout, Lent still retains something of the penitential character long ago lost in Advent — practically speaking. Even the respective colour schemes of the two holy days put the Paschal feast at disadvantage — Easter’s soft pastels are easily outshone by Christmas’ loud red and green. So too with music: “Crown Him With Many Crowns” and “Jesus Christ is Risen To-day” are heavily outnumbered by Christmas carols, both religious and secular.

But in some ways, Easter’s history in this country has paralleled the more popular feast. The Puritans banned Easter alongside Christmas. But just as their Dutch nominal co-religionists in New Netherland kept Christmas and St. Nicholas (who ultimately became our Santa Claus), so too did they retain Easter and the eggs thereof. In Colonial Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas, the Anglicans (and Catholics in the first named province) celebrated Easter liturgically and feasted with ham. But the Easter people par excellence were the Germans we call the Pennsylvania Dutch. Whether Catholic, Lutheran, Moravian, or Reformed (the latter Calvinist but easy going on celebrative matters, as were the New York Dutch), they not only observed the religious aspect of the holiday, but informed their children that if they made nests for him, the Oschter Haws (“Easter Hare”) would lay coloured eggs for them to find on Easter morning. The immigrants who thronged our ports after independence were quite often bearers of their own national Easter traditions.

It was, however, the period of the Civil War that saw the feast really begin to achieve prominence. Around the time of the conflict, Presbyterian churches began featuring Easter sermons, and the other non-liturgical protestant churches began following suit. In such a sombre time, the theme of Resurrection was a hopeful one, and underscored by the springtime beauties of nature. The White House custom of an Easter egg roll for children was begun in 1878, by President Rutherford B. Hayes, and continues to-day. The protestants even began decorating their usually less ornate churches with flowers — and starting in the 1890s importation of Easter Lilies from Bermuda became a big business. In 1893, a Newark druggist, William Townley, invented a particularly effective dye for Easter eggs. To manufacture and market it, he started a company and named it Paas — after Passen, the Dutch word for the holiday (some of the older locals still spoke Dutch in the area then).

Another local Easter custom began in New York at that time that — thanks to Irving Berlin and his musical of the same name — has won world-wide fame: the Easter Parade. Clustered on 5th Avenue between 48th and 55th streets in late 19th century New York were four prominent and well-to-do congregations to which the “better sort” of their respective denominations belonged. From South to North these were St. Nicholas Collegiate Church (Dutch Reformed); St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Catholic); St. Thomas Church (Episcopal); and Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. Easter morning would see the cream of New York society attending the churches of their choice, after which the ladies in new hats and bonnets and the men in morning coats would promenade up and down the avenue — this was the famous Easter parade, which society columnists in the New York papers would slavishly cover — and feature in the “rotogravure” pictorial sections.

From its urban centers, Easter slowly penetrated the American countryside. As had the Civil War, World War I created legions of bereaved, for whom hope in the Resurrection became extremely important (the same impulse also brought Spiritualism a renewed popularity, unfortunately). But by 1916, Easter was sufficiently widely celebrated throughout the United States to warrant a volume of its own in Robert Haven Schauffler’s famous Our American Holidays series. A peculiarly protestant observance that became very popular between the wars was the Easter Sunrise Service, which was actually begun by the Moravian Church in the 18th century, came to their settlement at Old Salem in the colony of North Carolina, and was destined to spread beyond their boundaries. In the aftermath of World War I, Southern protestant churches began conducting them in cemeteries. But soon — very often with congregations of several different denominations putting on an interfaith ceremony — such things were being conducted on mountains and at famous venues like the Lincoln Memorial and the Hollywood Bowl. These were of course generically religious affairs, light on doctrine and heavy on sentiment.

Indeed, the American civil Easter was, if anything, even less religious than the civil Christmas. Irving Berlin, as noted earlier, was able to create a secular Easter song with his “In Your Easter Bonnet” — as he had done for the winter holiday with “White Christmas.” Certainly, images of the Resurrected Christ were few and far between — especially in comparison with omnipresent Yuletide Nativity scenes. The Easter of my childhood was definitely a potpourri of candies, colourful Paas Easter egg dye packages, and, of course, baby bunnies, chicks, and ducklings (to be fair, in my Catholic grade school it was told us that the chick hatching could be seen as symbolic of Christ emerging from the tomb).

But that version of Easter has gradually faded to a great degree, for all that florists, supermarkets, and brunch-offering restaurants still try to lure patrons for it. Despite their efforts, it has quietly sunk behind Hallowe’en as a money maker. Ironically, however, this development may be very much in Easter’s favour in terms of its regaining its religious role. As we know, Christmas, being among other things a ready supply of cash for retailers, has suffered as the price of its success ongoing attempts not merely to co-opt it into a purely secular setting, but to remove references to “Christmas” in favour of “holiday.” Thus far, there are few if any references to “Spring Eggs” or the “Spring Bunny.” Thus there is far less work to be done in reclaiming it for Catholic families than with Christmas, let alone Hallowe’en.

Probably my own most memorable Easter as an adult took place in 2014, when the day found me in Manhattan. After attending the Holy Saturday vigil at Holy Innocents Church, I was somehow able to force myself up a few hours later, don my morning coat, and attend the Solemn High Mass of Easter at St. Agnes. Then a friend of mine and I betook ourselves to 5th Avenue for the Easter Parade — which has become an amazing sight, to be sure. When it ended I bade him farewell (he was spending Easter with his family), and made my way to the King Cole Bar of the St. Regis Hotel, for a brunch of deviled eggs and lamb chops — a more appropriate combination would be hard to find. At the bar itself were four young couples; the ladies in beautiful dresses and big hats, and their beaux in morning coats. As I was about to leave they called me over, declaring that they had never seen someone as old as myself so attired! They had of course been in the parade themselves. We chatted for about an hour about the changes in Society, Easter, and New York in my time and theirs. As I was expected for Easter dinner with my aunt and cousins in Greenwich, CT, it was necessary to take my leave. Before doing so, however, it was suggested that we sing “Easter Bonnet” in deference to the holiday that had brought us all together — and since most of the patrons in the bar had also been in the parade, they all joined in. The delicious ham dinner served by my relations that night topped off the Paschal festivities. All-in-all, it was the best Easter I have had since the Bunny stopped coming for me.

Most of us do not live in cities with Easter parades; but there is much we can do to make the day memorable, apart from the essential liturgical elements. As with Christmas, there is literally an endless supply of Easter customs around the world — especially as regards food. One can use one’s own ethnicity as a starting off point, though one should explore what the others have. If there are Eastern-Rite or ethnic national parishes near your home, try visiting them for an insight into how they make the journey through Holy Week and Easter. As a Catholic, all of these customs are also part of your heritage. But don’t be afraid of the Easter baskets, egg hunts and rolls, hot cross buns, ham, and lamb that are an integral part of the American celebration: even the Bunny can be of use. To the Romans, rabbits and hares were symbols of rebirth — a symbolism that the early Christians appropriated, which is why rabbits can be seen on early Christian tombstones. As noted, the egg can be a symbol of the tomb, and its emerging chick of Christ rising. Ducklings, I suppose, are just around because they are cute. Festoon your home to the best of your ability with lilies, daffodils, and tulips.

But there is more to it than this. Just as Christmas is a longer festival than the day itself, so too is Easter — and Easter Monday and Easter Tuesday also have liturgies and had customs proper to themselves. So as we should try to keep Christmas for the Twelve Days to our best ability, so too with Easter’s two follow-on days — we might indulge ourselves in both lamb, ham, and rabbit on alternate days, for instance. For that matter, we should keep some remnant of celebration going throughout the whole of the Easter Octave — and if we have kept Lent strictly, that should not be too hard! We should never lose sight either of the fact that, again like Christmas, Easter is also a season.

If Easter is in Christmas’ shadow, the third of the three great feasts of the year, Pentecost, never really had a chance to develop an identity outside church walls in this country — save among our Dutch friends in New Netherland and their black slaves. You will never see Pentecost sales in our stores. Next month we shall take a look at it too! But for now, may you have a blessed Holy Week and a very happy Easter!