Easter…Sacred, Secular & Oh, So Sweet

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.

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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

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

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