My father and I always sang in the church and school choirs, so every year we celebrated Easter by putting on our choir robes, singing joyously at Easter sunrise mass, and then going out for a Grand Slam Breakfast at Denny’s. After weeks of preparation, we were happy and stuffed and done with Easter by 9 a.m.
Because I went to Catholic Schools, I always had Good Friday and the week after Easter off of school, while the public schools in California had a different week off, so I thought Easter was a straight-forward religious holiday.
I had no idea that there was more to Easter than Easter Mass.
Years later, I was surprised when the mother of one of my Japanese American Buddhist friends mentioned that she always makes sure her family has a proper Easter dinner, with a big glazed ham. (I recently talked with another Japanese American friend who recalls not only always having a ham for Easter, but also corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day.)
At first, I was confused why Buddhists would celebrate Easter, because I thought Easter was a completely religious holiday. I did not even understand how Easter could be a secular holiday. What is left after you take away the Resurrection?
At the same time, I was also surprised to discover that Americans were “supposed to” have a ham for Easter dinner. I had never even heard of Easter dinner.
When I moved to Michigan, I was really surprised to discover that Good Friday was a holiday, not only for the public schools, but for all of Ford Motor Co., too.
When I was in school, the nuns complained every year about the once-a-year Catholics who only ever went to mass on Christmas Eve: “If they really understood, they would go on Easter (for their one mass a year) because Easter is much more important than Christmas.” What would they say today about non-Christians or lapsed Christians who do not go to church at all but still celebrate Easter as a cultural holiday, an American holiday?
At the same time, for other ethnic families, Easter is already full of rich traditions, a chance to celebrate their heritage along with their faith. Think intricate Ukranian pysanky eggs and delicious Polish paczkis. A few weeks ago, I heard a young woman talk excitedly about her huge Polish American family getting together to hand-make huge quantities of kielbasa in preparation for Easter, how they had to grind the meat twice so it would be fine enough to satisfy picky grandpa and spice it just so.
I think I have sort of figured out the secular Easter traditions by now, and my children love dying Easter eggs, going on Easter egg hunts, visiting the Easter bunny, finding their Easter baskets by the fireplace, beautiful new Easter dresses, and yes, Easter dinner. Without religion, it sometimes feels like an odd cross between Halloween (time for the kids to replenish their candy stash) and Christmas (“How does the Easter Bunny deliver so many Easter Baskets all over the world in one day?”) and Thanksgiving (Easter ham plus Thanksgiving side dishes, best table manners in front of Grandma).
Yet spring bursts in on the Midwest with such exuberance and such splendor that that feeling of hosannah is easy to recall. Everyone’s spirits are so high from the weather and all the signs of new life sprouting up around us that it does not matter what our family eats when we are together—whether Denny’s Grand Slam Breakfast or egg salad sandwiches—the joy of Easter is undeniable.