Easter's just not what it used to be - Keith Roulston editorial
Easter has always been the poor cousin of Christmas when it comes to holidays, but during my lifetime, it has faded even farther into the background.
Though both holidays have their roots in Christianity, the secular trappings around Christmas have grown and grown to the point that even people from other religions tend to get wrapped up in the Santa Claus myth, the gift exchanges, the decorations and the non-religious music.
There never were as many secular events surrounding Easter and over the years even those have seemed to fade.
The poor old Easter Bunny never stood a chance against Santa Claus. The Easter Bunny brought candy eggs which he (she? we wouldn’t want to be sexist) hid for children. Santa brought candy and presents and as kids we could put in requests of what we hoped those presents would be.
It was a lot harder to hold onto the whole idea of the Easter Bunny hiding eggs around the house once we were past the pre-school stage than it was Santa. It was worth the effort to insist we still believed in Santa even when doubts crept in, because all those presents were at stake. The Easter Bunny? Well, we’d probably get the candy for a few more years anyway.
Maybe it’s just because most of my grandchildren are past the Easter Bunny stage, but to me the whole hidden eggs thing seems to be losing steam. Now and then communities hold Easter egg hunts for small children but on the whole, the tradition seems more low profile. Perhaps it’s because in times past getting candy was a special treat, while in these days of greater affluence, kids don’t need to wait for special occasions to receive treats.
But the candy-hiding Easter Bunny remains downright celebrated compared to the traditional association of Easter with fashion. Apparently, according to my online research, people have been dressing up in their best clothes since the very early Easters. Some historians attribute the notion of dressing in your personal finery to the Roman Emperor Constantine I in the early 4th century, when he ordered his subjects to dress in their finest and parade in honour of Christ’s resurrection.
But in popular culture, the connection of fashion to Easter dates from the 1870s and 1880s when women in New York dressed in their finest clothes, particularly hats, to attend Easter morning church services in the city’s huge churches, which had been elaborately decorated with flowers. After church, the affluent church attenders would stroll along the street to the other churches to see the decorations, showing off their finery as they walked. Poorer residents would watch the parade to pick up tips on the latest fashions – sort of like leafing through fashion magazines today or watching what celebrities are wearing to the Oscars.
Merchants picked up on these parades and began advertising around the event and by 1900 Easter was as important as Christmas to retailers. Irving Berlin captured the essence of the fashion parade when he wrote Easter Parade in 1933 where he writes of a proud fellow who walks with an attractive partner in her “Easter bonnet”, admired by the crowds as they pass by. In 1948 the song was turned into a classic movie with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland.
The Fifth Avenue Easter Parade became so popular that an estimated one million people watched it in 1947. I grew up hearing about it on the news and being serenaded by the song. But times changed, and by 2008 only about 30,000 people attended New York’s Easter Parade.
When I was young, Easter was tied to our spring school holiday, giving it a special importance. Those holidays bounced around the calendar, of course, as did Easter which is tied to the Jewish Passover which is timed to the full moon. Later, school authorities decided the week-long holidays should always come at the same time and “March break” was born. Students have less reason to get excited about Easter, anymore.
And as a religious holiday in a time of declining church attendance, Easter also suffers. For those who doubt Christian teachings, it’s often still possible to accept the birth of Jesus, since many of his
teachings are wise even if Christianity is rejected. Easter, with its tale of Jesus rising from the grave, is harder to accept for all but true believers.
So as Easter approaches this weekend, it’s little more than a four-day long weekend for most people. Unlike Christmas, which diverts our attention from the shortest, darkest days of the year, we seldom even use the occasion of Easter to celebrate the coming of spring.
Easter is special only for observant Christians, these days. They alone have as big a reason to celebrate the holiday as ever.