It’s almost Easter! And even though increasing numbers of Americans identify as religiously unaffiliated, this Christian holiday remains a significant time on our calendar. So, how do Americans celebrate?
As at Christmas, many Easter activities are child-centric, including dyeing eggs, receiving gifts, reading stories, baking desserts, and singing songs. Many cities host Easter-egg hunts where hordes of children race around to gather brightly-colored plastic eggs containing candy and trinkets. Families with young children might read picture books like Make Way for Ducklings or Pat the Bunny, and many preschools and day care centers will do finger plays and rhymes, make crafts, and sing songs. (Few songs have the popularity of Christmas carols, but one classic from my parents’ era is Here Comes Peter Cottontail). Older kids may enjoy helping make Easter treats – perhaps something traditional like hot cross buns or something more modern like cake pops. Easter morning is definitely the biggest highlight, as many children awake to find baskets left by the Easter Bunny during the night.
Those who participate in the holiday from a religious perspective usually attend church on Sunday morning – sometimes as early as sunrise. Services typically include readings from the Bible that recount the Easter story, followed by an uplifting sermon of hope and redemption and the singing of hymns like Christ the Lord is Risen Today. It’s a festive and joyous occasion; the church may be decorated in Easter lilies, while people are typically dressed in special Easter outfits. They may also exclaim things like “He is risen!” or “He lives!” (Responses to these greetings are “He is risen, indeed!” or “He lives, indeed!” You can also simply say “Happy Easter!”)
After church – or in the late morning/early afternoon for those who did not go to church – people gather with family for a holiday meal, either at home or in a restaurant. (Be forewarned, wait times at restaurants can be extreme for those without reservations, and many places will have expensive prix fixe or brunch menus). The preferred food varies by region and ethnic culture, but the traditional American menu includes ham, some kind of potatoes, and dinner rolls accompanied by various side dishes.
By mid-afternoon, celebrating tends to wind down, as it is, on the whole, a cheerful but mellow day. Children munch on jelly beans, play with their new toys, and finish up their homework while parents prepare for the week ahead. And as the sun goes down, the U.S. calendar begins its shift toward summer, with prom, final exams, graduations, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and vacation all waiting just over the horizon.
In some ways, my experience matched that of mainstream America, but in some ways, it was distinctive. For example, I made Easter hats at preschool and greatly enjoyed baking treats. At our house, that usually meant sugar cookies (a family recipe rolled out and cut by hand, until we got too busy in high school and started moving toward slice-and-bake). On the other hand, some of my customs would seem foreign to many Americans. For example, when I was very young and my Volga German great grandparents were still alive, we also had a donut-like pastry called grebel.
I always looked forward to dyeing hardboiled eggs with my parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. We would do this on Saturday night before going to bed as a kind of Easter preview. It was nothing fancy – just a row of coffee mugs filled with basic food coloring and sometimes vinegar to create a speckled effect – but the memories are heartwarming because it was a time for togetherness, conversation, and laughter. (At least that’s how I remember it. My parents might better recall their three kids bickering over who was hogging the red dye and who got to use the blue dye next!)
The next morning when we woke up, we would search for our Easter baskets and small gifts, which my parents had cleverly hidden around the house. (Most families don’t hide the baskets, but I always thought it was a brilliant idea). Our baskets typically featured fake plastic grass sprinkled with jelly beans, a Cadbury egg or two, a hollow chocolate bunny, marshmallow chicks called Peeps, and a few other chocolates sealed in Easter-themed wrappers. Gifts were small items like a toy car, a book, a CD, or a bracelet. I once got an easy-reader book about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Jr., which was fitting for my history-oriented family, but would strike others as peculiar.
That’s where the fun evaporated for me, as I never liked getting dressed up for church service. First of all, as a competitive swimmer, it was hard to find dresses that fit over my broad shoulders; secondly, as a tomboy, I scoffed at the frilliness of the occasion. The awkwardness of these outfits is preserved forever because every year after church, my family took a group photo outside. I’m not sure exactly why this was the case, but given that I have pictures of my parents and grandparents on both sides doing the same during their childhoods, I suppose it must be a fairly common practice.
I have much fonder memories of brunch and dinner, which we sometimes had at home and sometimes enjoyed at a restaurant. The main differences between eating in and dining out was that when we prepared it ourselves, everything came from a box and we would usually have more dishes from the Midwest and South, especially salads made with some combinations of canned fruit, pudding or flavored gelatin, and Cool Whip. Green Bean casserole also made a periodic appearance, as did lettuce salad.
After the meal, my family’s Easter differed in another important regard: We often celebrated birthdays at the same time. From a religious point of view, this is probably odd, but from a planning and efficiency perspective, it worked out great – and was practically unavoidable. Between my brother, sister, grandparents, and cousins we had at least 7 March and April birthdays to get through, and at least one of them always seemed to land on Easter. Since we were all gathered together, why not open a few presents, too? An extra slice of cake on our plates made the day that much sweeter.
For those who are celebrating: Happy Easter! If you are new to your area, you can locate a church service by driving around and looking at the signs that advertise their Easter service times. Sometimes these are also posted in the local paper, or you could always try online. It’s almost always fine to attend as a guest – and in fact, it’s encouraged, even if you are just feeling curious. For those who aren’t celebrating, enjoy a quiet Sunday to yourself by staying away from crowds. Hiking trails, movie theaters, and malls should all be less popular than restaurants.
Also, remember that not everyone in the U.S. celebrates Easter, and the holiday also coincides with the Jewish holiday of Passover. Unless you are actually at church or someone wishes you a Happy Easter, stay on the safe side and avoid spreading holiday wishes indiscriminately. Finally, be sure to check your local calendars as some schools, public offices, and businesses may be closed on Monday.