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Bunnies, hats and parades: How Easter became a secular festival

New York Easter Parade in 2005 (Getty)

The onset of Easter – like that of Christmas – always brings out a rush of nostalgia in me. But unlike the celebratory customs surrounding the feast of Our Lord’s birth (save the ongoing attempts to drown all thought of that fact in a sea of generic “holiday”), those of His Resurrection have changed considerably from the time of my childhood.

I am not referring here to any liturgical changes. Rather, it is the secular side of Easter to which I would like to draw your attention.

As with Christmas, Easter was banned by the Puritans in New England; and again, as with Christmas, we owe much of the American style of Easter to the New York Dutch. From them – although subsequently reinforced by Central European and Scandinavian immigrants – we derive the use and dyeing of Easter eggs. So deeply embedded were the Netherlandish roots of the practice that the largest Easter Egg dye company in the United States – Paas – owes its name to the Dutch word for Easter, Pasen. It is no surprise that the Newark, New Jersey-based inventor and founder of the company purposefully hearkened back to the celebration’s Dutch-American roots.

So too with the Easter egg hunts and Easter egg rolling – which annual event at the White House was and is as much a part of our presidential life as the Queen’s Easter Court at Windsor is of the Royal Family’s. In any case, as a boy growing up, I was told by the nuns that the egg and the chick hatching from it can be seen as symbolic of Christ leaving the tomb. But from the days of my childhood to the present, Paas’s packaging has annually presented us with the most cloyingly cute pictures of anthropomorphic bunnies that can be imagined.

But just as our Christmas celebrations are eclectic in their national origins, so too with Easter. Unlike Santa Claus, who was indeed a Dutch treat to American children, the Easter Bunny apparently came to these shores with the German ancestors of the Pennsylvania Dutch in the 1680s. He would become popular with the New York Netherlanders very quickly, almost 150 years before he began to catch on with their countrymen back in Holland. Almost immediately, he began to take charge of Easter egg delivery, just as Santa Claus had assumed charge of Christmas gifts.

But without his Yuletide counterpart’s magic bag, how was he to deliver the treats? The answer was in baskets. By my time, these Easter baskets were elaborate affairs, filled with chocolate eggs and bunnies, and often small toys. We supposed that the Easter Bunny delivered them; I can remember the first time I opened the door and saw the two candy-filled baskets waiting for my brother and me – and how disappointed I was on so many subsequent mornings when all that appeared in their place were bottles of milk. But a recent occurrence over the past few decades has been the development of “themed” Easter baskets, with sports or TV show motifs. I cannot help but think that this somehow misses the point entirely.

Another element of the family rituals – then and now – was Easter dinner. Poles and other ethnic Catholics often brought baskets of bread, eggs and sometimes lamb to be blessed by the priest on Holy Saturday – often in elaborately decorated baskets untouched by bunny’s paw. But most Americans, including American Catholics, would have an elaborate lamb or ham dinner, often enough with eggs. This dinner would be one of the three great family-and-guest magnets of the year, alongside Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Early on in American history, the better-to-do also began to buy new clothes, especially to wear at Easter church services (and many Protestant groups would have two, beginning with one at sunrise). From the 19th century, women in particular would make a point of getting new hats or bonnets to wear, and then, in some of the larger cities, promenade around in them.

This was the origin of the Easter parade. It came into its own in New York, due to the close location with each other of St Patrick’s Cathedral and wealthy Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Dutch Reformed congregations on Fifth Avenue. Their religious duties performed, New York’s society – gentlemen in morning coats and top hats, and ladies in their new headgear – would attempt to outdo each other in glamour, and incidentally be photographed for the newspapers.

This custom in turn inspired Irving Berlin’s musical Easter Parade – featuring both the title song and another called Happy Easter. As with his White Christmas, he accomplished the minor miracle of writing a song for a major Christian feast that, beyond the title, never mentions the mystery being commemorated.

In any case, the Easter parade is still held on Fifth Avenue, but has become a Mardi Gras-like freak show of bizarre costumes – albeit an enjoyable one. Ten years or more ago, it looked as though the secular festival of Easter was in decline, with Halloween outstripping it in terms of total consumer spending. Even the Hollywood Bowl Easter Sunrise Service was discontinued.

But according to the National Federation of Retailers, Easter has regained its former place. Apparently under-35s in particular are rediscovering the joys of Paschal festivity. As with Christmas, that secular observance will either obscure the reason for the holiday, or be used to lead one to its real meaning. Let all of us do what we can to make sure it is the latter.

Charles A Coulombe is an author and lecturer based in Los Angeles and Vienna