Holidays are worth celebrating, and none more than Easter — at least, that’s the impression I grew up with, given the special attention my parents gave to celebrating this important Sunday.
And so I thought it might be fun to write a bit about the Easter traditions we had growing up. I know it’s now only a few days before the event, but if nothing else, this will be fodder for next year’s celebration!
Probably the biggest key to helping your family understand and anticipate Easter is knowing yourself that it’s a big deal! The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is crucial to our faith. Without it, we, of all people, are the most to be pitied. If Jesus did not rise, then our faith is in vain. If, however, He is alive, then we shall live with Him — and that changes everything!
As long as I can remember, Easter celebrations began with Mom singing a little children’s chorus:
Jesus is alive! the angels say
Be glad, be glad
It’s Easter Day!
This happy little song set the tone as we prepared for Easter.
About a month before Resurrection Sunday, we would dig out the boxes of Easter decorations that Mom slowly accumulated through the years. In the North Country, there is nothing more wonderful than festooning the house with floral garlands and silk sprigs of forsythia in the dead of winter! Chicks, bunnies, lambs, and eggs were nestled on window sills, hanging from doorways, congregating on mantels.
And then the hymns would begin: Mom would begin to play Were You There, O Sacred Head Now Wounded, Low in the Grave He Lay, and Christ the Lord is Risen Today until we knew all of the melodies and most of the words. Eventually we were old enough to gather round and sing in 4-part harmony, but even when we were small, those melodies said, “Jesus is alive!”
One year, we made figures out of cardboard tubes, scraps of fabric, and papier-mache, and acted out the Easter story with our homemade Peter, John, Mary, Angel, and Jesus puppets. They now have taken up permanent residence amongst the other decorations. And what a good idea that was! Not only did we get art credit for such a project, we also grew up with more than just eggs and bunnies — and good luck on finding a resurrected Jesus figurine in the store!
Other years we did other crafts — eggs cut out of paper and colored with “intricate” designs (we were still in primary grades!); tombs with a stone affixed with a brad, and an empty space underneath; daffodils out of muffin liners, etc. Simple or complex, there was something that demanded we all invest energy and enthusiasm in the celebration.
I’m about to get to the few set-in-stone traditions, but as you can see, creating a sense of excitement about Easter did not necessarily require weeks of work, and a demanding roster of annual traditions. Songs, stories, and visual reminders — and parents who would jubilantly exclaim, “Jesus is alive! We are going to heaven!” — these are the things that shaped my own excitement, and helped me, even when I was young, to recognize how important the resurrection was.
The week of Easter, the anticipation and preparations increased exponentially. First, there were the clothes. Some years, all new dresses. Other years, special white dresses, reserved for Easter. There were tights to be found (or ankle socks on the warmer years!), ties, white cardigans for everyone, and special barrettes. By Good Friday, everything from slips to hair bows was assembled.
Meanwhile, the baking began.
Easter dinner has changed over the years, but there are a few constants, without which Mom would have a riot on her hands! (Which is why, by the way, you should be careful about what your must-have traditions are!!)
There is cheese braid for breakfast. Beautiful braided cardamom bread accompanies dinner. A whipping cream chocolate torte — all six layers! — is for dessert. Always!
Saturday night, there were baths for the younger ones — which was once all of us, and now is only Merrick! This started late in the afternoon, and Mama brushed our hair smooth, and sometimes braided it, so it would dry crimped. We dressed in clean nightclothes, donned sweaters, and then all gathered to watch the Jesus movie. Now, I’m not going to tell you that crimped hair is the answer to a successfully celebratory Easter, but this whole bath time ritual of making sure we were especially clean and well cared for was intentional: Easter Sunday was a big deal.
Sunday morning came bright and early — or rather, dark and early. Given that pastoral duties always required us to be at church hours early, our morning’s festivities began promptly! Mom and Dad would wake us with an Easter greeting: “Hallelujah, He is risen!,” to which we would reply with a groggy, “Hallelujah, He is risen indeed!” (Only there was never an exclamation point in our voices, I’m afraid.)
Then we would all head downstairs, and the treasure hunt would commence. Dad and Mom would write clues — rhyming clues, of course! — that would eventually lead us to our bounty: Easter baskets overflowing with all the chocolate we dreamed of! (Mom always got us the good stuff, too!)
Then breakfast: juice, coffee, and cheese braid, served on pretty Easter paper plates and napkins, so as to make clean up swift. At some point, a wrapped book at each of our place settings entered the must-do traditions, one I especially loved.
A flurry of getting dressed and getting hair done, and then we would descend the stairs, where Dad would ooh and ahh over each of us, and be duly impressed by how twirly our dresses were. One year he even surprised us with wrist corsages, and didn’t we feel like princesses!
Don’t worry, it wasn’t just the girls. The boys got spiffed up, too. Jamie even experimented with creating his own traditions at one point, but no one was crazy about them: one year, when he was dressed to the nines in a new suit, shirt, tie, socks, shoes — everything — he sat on an open toilet and fell in. The next year, once again dressed to the nines, he was perched on the edge of our bathtub (which was full, of course), lost his balance, and fell in.
We nixed that tradition.
Then there was the year that Mom served grape juice with breakfast — which wasn’t dangerous, because remember that we’re not in our Easter garb at that point. Brietta found a way around that, however, and waited until she was wearing her new white Easter dress to suddenly throw up all of her breakfast, including the grape juice.
See? We were a normal family!
After church, we would come home to the already-set tables (a Saturday chore). There were always guests — sometimes a family, sometimes college students away from home — and we crammed as many place settings as we could around those beautiful tables! We pulled out all the stops: china, the good silverware, the linens that were especially for Easter. Mom hustled and bustled and managed to get a huge, wonderful meal on the table in a timely manner, something which still befuddles me. (Honestly, I’m sort of stumped on that one. Maybe you can write about how to have dinner ready after church, without using a crockpot, and without having a house full of sisters to help?)
I remember Easter Sundays as being full of light — that wonderful, spring light, with the long shadows of Daylight Savings — shining on the pink napkins, glistening off of the crystal candle sticks. I remember laughing and laughing, eating, drinking, and laughing some more. I remember Dad always serving the chocolate torte, because Mom hates cutting cakes, and I remember laughing when he used a ruler to make sure every piece was perfect.
I remember spending lazy hours slowly cleaning the kitchen, taking a walk after everyone had left, and going to bed full of happiness — a kind that I only ever felt on the evening of Easter Sunday, after we’d spent a whole day rejoicing in the life of Jesus.
I’m sure we’ll write plenty more about traditions, because they are a big part of our lives. For now, let me just encourage you to start. Start small, but start. Celebrating as a family helps communicate the importance of special days, and is a tool with which to tie heart strings.
Happy Easter to you all!