“In your Easter bonnet
With all the frills upon it…”
Anybody remember that song?
I miss church bells! When I moved to California, I noticed the absence. And on a day like Easter, it’s particularly noticeable.
I grew up in a European neighborhood of New York City called Jackson Heights, which has been called “the most diverse neighborhood in the country” by the NYTimes. It has always been diverse, although the demographics change.
Holidays there back then had a European character to them. Our family was from “the old country,” Poland, but on our block, every household celebrated holidays in different fashions. But whether a family was Polish, Slovak, German, Greek, eastern-European Jewish, whatever, decorations adorned doorways and windows, lights were lit, and all holidays were a noisy, wonderful, magical time. And the music of church bells played a large role in those celebrations.
Have you ever rung a church bell? One of the monstrous big ones that live high up in the belfry? You pull with all your might on the rope that’s as thick as your arm, and the whole church shudders before the vibration of the bell takes over. As the heavy bell begins to swing, you rise high up into the air, scared, holding on, wondering whether you should let go — but before you can decide, it swings back the other way and you touch the floor again…and then it begins to swing back and up you go again….
Whether you believed in the religious significance of Easter or not, the church offered enough pageantry and symbolism to make the season unforgettable. Statues, symbols, all depictions in the church were draped in purple cloth — the color of mourning — from Good Friday until Easter Sunday. No one could play music. I wasn’t allowed to play my piano!
Did you ever wonder why the Easter Rabbit delivers eggs? When’s the last time you saw a rabbit lay an egg?
In Germanic legend, the goddess Eastre / Oestre / Austra / Ostara (she had lots of different names in different places) found a wounded bird in the forest, and to save its life, she changed it into a hare (rabbit). But it retained some of its bird-like qualities, and out of gratitude, each year it laid an egg for Eastre, the goddess.
So the baskets of food that everyone took across the street to the Polish church to be blessed for Easter always contained eggs, and ham, butter, bread, some salt. Each food represented something. The old folks from the ‘old country’ all had tales of what each food represented in their village, what they called it, who used to make it, out of what, who used to prepare it and how, where the baskets came from…. But one of the casualties of WWII was that no one from ‘the old country’ wanted to be considered different, or identifiable. Everyone wanted to be American. And the old ways were lost.
So the kids — my generation — knew only that the old folks carried baskets across the street, and the priest blessed them. So much more than just cultural folklore was lost! — but that’s what happens when people move to another place.
Even seasonal Easter, or spring, is no big deal in a place like California, where I live now. Back in New York, I used to get so sick of shivering, of being unable to feel my fingers or toes, of being wet and freezing outside and dry and freezing inside! So sick of winter!
Easter there was truly symbolic, as it must have been in Europe where it began millennia ago. It was the oh-so-long-awaited warmth, the throwing off of the woolens and heavy protection against ice, snow, freezing winds.
Here, it’s all about chocolate and candy and flowers. And church, if your family still goes.
How much of Easter is religious and how much is seasonal? Or cultural?
It’s been a seasonal holiday for thousands of years. The name Easter comes from ancient cultures in the mid-east (Ishtar) and northern Europe. The symbol of the rabbit delivering eggs is from ancient Germanic peoples, before there was a country called Germany. The symbol of the egg has probably always been a symbol of re-birth and renewal, as long as there have been people, and eggs. And people have decorated, carved and colored those symbolic eggs all over Europe and the mid-east for thousands of years.
So whatever your take on this season of renewal, I hope this spring is a time of good new things for you!
Happy Easter! Happy spring!