When you grow up as one of eleven children (9 of them below) in a very observant Catholic family committed to the mandate of proper church participation for every holiday AND your family is run by a woman for whom holidays took on Biblical proportions (financial and time limitations be damned), you come away with an almost zealous sense of celebration and a deep well of nostalgia for the holidays spent in childhood.
Easter was always an odd holiday from my point of view. Unlike Christmas with its weeks of giddy build-up, its anticipatory range of activities and pomp all leading to the pinnacle day of excitement, Easter’s trajectory seemed a rather dour one, what with Lent and all its moping denial and the sense that we had to, once again, face the tortuous and inevitable death of our God’s Son (a sensitive youngster, this just cyclically broke my heart). I found all the suffering quite ponderous and from the more self-absorbed angle, Lent’s required deprivation (I typically gave up chocolate and some favored activity) felt punitive, my self-pity lessened only by the guilt induced when Mother would holler that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, I could “at least give up candy, for God’s sake!” Yes. I could. For God’s sake.
Good Friday for a Catholic child was quite simply the nadir of the holiday cycle, the darkest day on every sensory level, making its name a misnomer all the more confusing. First of all, this was the day Jesus died and the Stations of the Cross were de rigueur. Appropriately mournful with its bloody themes of that hateful gauntlet up to Calvary and the inevitable crucifixion to follow, the angst was further exacerbated by the hot, somber church packed with black-garbed believers, the droning, sleep-inducing priest, and the choking stench of incense (and I don’t mean the sweet kind that wafts through the aisles of gift shops…this stuff could asphyxiate a horse!). The long, arduous Good Friday Mass, preceded by a mandated confession in there somewhere, were also on the schedule. A whole lotta churchin’ goin’ on. I knew I was supposed to be pious but mostly my genuflecting knees hurt and there was nothing I wanted more than fresh air and a reprieve from all the suffering. That came the next day.
Holy Saturday was a somewhat undefined day that seemed mostly a palate cleanser between the darkness of Good Friday and the sweet triumph of Sunday to come. I have no specific memories of what we did on that day beyond copious ironing of new Easter finery and an enormous amount of high-tension prep for the baskets yet to be filled. When I was very young this was obviously done by my parents, though we were assured the quite capable Easter Bunny accomplished the basket task while we were sleeping (odd how E. Bunny and Santa followed the same playbook!). When I got older (Bunny fantasies dashed and reality clear on the horizon), I was relegated, as one of the “three big girls,” to join the assembly line in the secret room upstairs to help crank out those baskets, an assignment I actually enjoyed with its aesthetic demands of proper basket assemblage and easy access to jelly beans and the forbidden chocolate (one day away, what did it matter?). If you’ve never seen the voluptuous beauty of twelve well-stocked Easter baskets (eleven kids and a big one for Mom and Dad) lined up on a table waiting for distribution to clever hiding places around the house, you have missed a seminal secular holiday experience on a grand scale.
And when Easter Sunday finally arrived with its message of triumph and redemption, its flower-filled church and joyful noise emanating from the choir, we, in our new Easter best, bonnets, bunnies and all, marched en masse into our church filled with a true sense of belonging and a thrilled anticipation of the day to unfold. A very good memory.
Whatever my Mother may have gotten wrong as a parent, one of the things she got delightfully right was her contagious enthusiasm for the holidays, at least early on (things got exponentially more manic as she got older and there were so many more of us!). She had a joyful excitement and a creative bent that contributed to making each of the holidays special and exciting for her eager children in the audience. Whether gathering us all to make homemade Valentine’s cards, sewing together some remarkably fashionable Halloween costumes or turning Easter into an exuberant rite of Spring, she did it up right and I remember many aspects of those celebrations to this day. For us kids growing up in a very traditional Catholic environment that too often chafed, confused or terrified, the mix my mother found between sacred and sweet was a balm, at least for me. The balance allowed us to both honor the holiday traditions of our faith, as well as revel in the secular celebrations to follow. That meant there was Jesus, Pontius Pilot, Church, Mass, Mary, prayers, rituals, hymnals, confession and incense, but there was also Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, presents, egg hunts, trick or treating, coconut lamb cakes, and Easter Pigs…(one year my father forgot to get the requisite stuffed bunnies to put in our baskets and my mother wildly sent him out to the store on Good Saturday night to right his wrong. Given the late hour and the proximity to Easter, all he could find were stuffed pigs and so he made the executive decision to bring them home. Though my mother was seriously horrified by this epic blunder, we loved our Easter pigs and it’s a story well told whenever speaking of family Easters!).
So in my own son’s life, bereft of organized religion and its weighty calendar of traditions to uphold, how do we celebrate the holidays grounded in Christian belief but now transmogrified into bona fide secular events of their own? Like my mother, we get creative. My husband and I made sure our son knew the stories and traditions behind each holiday and we represented the sacred aspects as well as the secular. We have a beautiful crèche that is a beloved Christmas tradition and he knows the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Though he will not grow up with the sense memory of knees rubbed raw by kneelers or a nose twitching in the haze of church incense, he understands the foundation behind our holidays and knows if he should wish to explore those further as an adult, he surely can.
For now, for Easter, he’ll remember raucous egg hunts (even as recently as last year!), bountiful baskets, sweet cards and loving family dinners. And once again this year, his first away at school, we will gather family on Easter Sunday, make a good meal together, fill a basket for our family’s youngest and be sure to let our own son know he’s not forgotten (his basket was sent UPS this year instead of E. Bunny). We will imbibe in good chocolate and cold champagne. We will share our memories of childhood Easters, start new memories for our little Gracie, and acknowledge the mystical, spiritual story behind the day. We will have my crazy, creative, somewhat diminished mother at our table and we will remind her of past extravaganzas with Easter Pigs, baskets hidden too well to find and giggling children filled with jelly beans. It will be a good day, like all our Easters, sacred, secular and oh, so sweet.
All photos courtesy of Lorraine Devon Wilke
Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.
14 thoughts on “Easter…Sacred, Secular & Oh, So Sweet”
You really brought a tear to my eye. What a lovely tribute to your Mother. Growing up, as you did, in the Catholic church brought back memories. I remember physically passing out from the thick incense that was burned. I’m sure it has it’s own set of challenges, but what a joy it seems to be to grow up in such a large and loving family. As far as Easter egg hunts go, my Mother hid an Easter basket for me to find well into my thirties. We’ll be spending the day with her as well, reminiscing, laughing and enjoying each others company. A really beautiful piece, thanks for a wonderful remembrance of the family side of Easter.
Thank you so much…your comments always touch me. We do share a time of life and many similar memories so it’s nice to hear some of your own. That your mother still hid an Easter basket for you in your 30’s is STELLAR!! And I’m SO glad you verified my comment about the incense! I was never sure if that was my own childhood memory or it really WAS as bad as I thought! 🙂
I’m glad you’ll be gathering with your family to enjoy the day. It’s a special one. Thanks for reading, my friend, and happy Easter!
Spending Easter with Mom…brunch at her facility – a command performance – check.
Overriding memories of choking incense – check.
Lent as deprivation – check – although I’m thinking it might be useful for me at this point of grief recovery to use it again as a discipline, but in a positive sense (like a blog a day).
Much fuss about Easter bonnets – check
I once participated in a Good Friday dramatic reading for Stations and fainted right away during rehearsals. Awoke to find a nun and Jeff McAtee leaning over me…talk about disoriented!
It’s great to have all these memories – love your Easter pigs narrative for the ages. Reminds me of other holidays when young in CA, looking with a horde of others for brightly colored eggs.
Must say, I keep an eye out for your blogs. Oh, and happy easter!
Cris – I just found a picture of your Mom in one of my old photo albums looking spry and happy. It was a nice memory.
I love your validation of similar moments of your own childhood. There was something about being raised Catholic in little Midwestern towns that had certain shared markers, certain inevitable plot points. It’s been fun today hearing the stories and memories of other people and rolling it all together to come up with the continuity and collectiveness of it all. Sometimes it sounds like we were all living some version of the same life!
I must comment on your fainting story. This I never heard or don’t remember. And, of course, waking up to a nun AND Jeff McAtee could only be disorienting! I always liked Jeff a tad more than the nuns I knew….:)
Have a good one tomorrow, entertaining your Mom in high style. Always love that you stop by and leave a word or two. Look forward to those… L
Lorraine, this was lovely. I always enjoy the childhood stories. Boy, what a book you could write!
I was raised not going to church, and now I do. So, kind of the opposite in stories. There was very little mention of Jesus in my family. What I love about church now, is that it is full of wonderful ritual, but not the rage and keening and darkness that so often is associated with sin and God. And, that’s a whole ‘nother conversation. 🙂
Your sensory sensibilities remind me of my little boy, who gets overwhelmed by incense and many things. It is a gift that you have that you can relate to others with the sensitivity.
Happy Easter! And, I love that your son stilll gets his Easter Basket delivery.
Thank you, Jennifer.
You may have the distinction of being the only person I know who did the “religion thing” the other way around! 🙂 Eddie has told me some about your church and it does sound wonderful, with a lighter aura and a less ponderous mission statement than the one of my own experience. That “nother conversation” is one I’d like to have one day.
Our sons…oh, our sons. What we wouldn’t do for them, whether delivered baskets or taming the world when it gets too hard to manage? You and I share that bond as well.
I hope you and Eddie and your beautiful children have a glorious day tomorrow. And I look forward to Eddie coming back to us all on Facebook…we’ve missed him!! 🙂
I love reading your blogs, Lorraine (Lori to me), because I knew your family growing up. Although it was usually once a summer for many years, we always liked coming to play; there was someone for everyone! Just want you to know how much I enjoy reading your insights into your incredible family…your handsome father and doting mother.
Mira: Thanks so much…for reading and for taking the time to leave a comment! I know, Mary and I talk about it often, how no matter how infrequent the visits might have been, they were very memorable. It was so nice to reconnect with you and Saralee after all these years AND to find out your folks are alive and well! Thinking of your Dad makes me think of my Dad…
Glad you’re enjoying the blogs and I really appreciate you getting in touch, Mira. Take care….Lorraine (or whatever name works!:)
These kind of post are always inspiring and since I prefer to read quality content, I’m happy to find many good points here in the post. The writing is simply great, a unique take on a widely shared holiday. Thank you for the post.
Thanks, Jane. I really appreciate the comment. LDW
Happy Easter Lorraine! What a touchy story, glad you re-shared it. I grew up in a Christian house-hold, my father was a minister, I the evil “Pastors Kid” of lore.
Now that I’m a non-believer, I like to celebrate my own type of “resurrection story” by watching a few classic zombie movies with my family after a feast of obligatory ham and fixin’s! 🙂
Darn it! Touchy = “Touching” I meant, touching…not touchy. Darn it! That changes the whole meaning of the first sentence. Grrr.
Well, I think I might’ve gotten a tad sentimental, but touchy??? Cute, David. Typos are always so revealing, aren’t they? 🙂
I’ll bypass the “touchy” for the next comment and make a nod to the Easter gravitas of your being “the pastor’s kid.” Can’t imagine the pomp you must’ve experienced at all the Holy holidays! I find something nostalgic about reminiscing about the rites and rituals that were such a tradition in my family but, frankly, I can’t say I miss them. The community, the flowers, the hoopla, the baskets…all nice. The ponderousness of the Stations of the Cross and the focus on death and sin was all very challenging for a kid like me. Happy to view it now simply as a day to gather with family and share some love. And zombies. 🙂 LDW
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