Easter then and now

Monday after Easter Sunday (April 12) in 2020 in west Michigan [author photo; click for larger view]

In the years since this street was bulldozed from the farmland and woods on the northern fringes of Grand Rapids, Michigan in the 1920s and houses filled in the 50 foot lots, the practices and meanings of Easter have undergone changes, much like the rest of social life and the world view that we have come to inherit in 2020. Memories of growing up in 1960s Michigan included a new set of clothes (Easter bonnet for girls), maybe shoes, too, in celebration of Easter morning at church filled with friends and family coming to town. Triumphant music, full-throated singing, admiring how well everyone was looking, and visions of a feast of ham or roast beef or sometimes lamb waiting at home — usually the work of (stay at home or work at home) mom. Others made the day out-of-the-ordinary by dining at a restaurant.

For children of that time the daybreak was highlighted with an Easter Basket filled with shreds of translucent green “grass” and a milk chocolate hollow or solid rabbit. The youngest ones knew the story of an Easter bunny hiding jelly beans and larger filled egg-shaped confections here and there around the house. When there were brothers and sisters involved, a competitive spirit motivated them to gather as many of the sugary treats as possible and fill the Easter basket. To demonstrate some fairness the bigger kids would often chip in to the youngest sibling’s basket to redistribute this collective good. Finding beans camouflaged on the piano was a high point: black beans tucked between the ebony keys; white bean on the ivories. Several of the years of elementary school age, a family activity was the home craft of poking a needle through each end of a raw egg, blowing the contents into a dish, then dyeing the empty shells in various colors.

By the 1990s now with small children of our own, we carried on the church tradition part, but the hoopla of celebration clothing and feasting and sugar treats was muted. Mainline Protestant church denominations began to lose their participants/observers as more and more of The Greatest Generation died and their children attended less often. Displacing habits of church-going, weekends in the 1990s seemed to fill up with recreation, children’s sports, side jobs, family time, and other things that one-income two-parent families in the past used to be able to spread out during the weekdays in order to leave the weekend less crowded, free to “visit with” each other (casual conversations and mutual interests explored).

Electronic entertainment in the 1990s began to consume more and more discretionary time and by 2005 increasingly people paid for smartphones in order to consume the Internet anywhere and anytime. So between paid work and unpaid Web browsing, less and less time was available and committed to face-to-face communities of faith for most people. Those who continue to engage in church life do so in the changed circumstances of today.

The photo, above, comes the day after Easter is widely celebrated by most Christians in USA, in conjunction with the celebration of Passover by Jewish faithful across the world. By casual estimate along this street and nearby neighborhoods, perhaps 1 house in 25 or 30 uses the public-facing part of their house to express something of Easter, such as the brightly colored egg-shapes here, a hyper-vivid echo of hard-boiled and hand colored eggs eaten by other generations of celebrants. Other residents put children’s art in the windows facing the street, or some will post a string of words or poster declaring “He is risen” or “Happy Easter,” for instance. By contrast, the inflatable lawn figures seen at Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween (physically) make a much bigger impression.

Somehow the relationship of Christians to public life has turned full circle. What began as an underground and persecuted Rabbi Jesus movement later took on the mantle of Imperial Rome and the useful affiliation to the worldly powers. By 1956 as anxiety about nuclear extinction hung over the people in The West and The East the legal tender in the USA began declaring “In God We Trust” and survivors of WWII traumatic stress found community in church social life. Prayers were a visible and expected start of government meetings, sporting events, personal celebrations, and so on. But now turning full circle, the visible and audible presence of religious expression today seems to be scarce in public life and civil society; but then public life itself has lost surface area as private space and time grows bigger. Those who continue to be engaged in these communities are no less committed, but in sheer numbers there are fewer of them. So nowadays to be a seeker of God’s Will once again is moving away from public space, public discussion, and public engagement.

The coming of spring, a kind of botanical resurrection of life after the sleep of winter, still takes place year after year. Sap flows and blossoms open. And here and there residents do make public decoration to acknowledge and celebrate Easter and the associated story of crucifixion and redeeming resurrection. But compared to other generations and centuries in which religious fervor peaked at Easter, these days it is Christmas that usually becomes the emotional high point of the annual cycle. The above photo of the colored eggs expresses the matter of today’s changes symbolically: the egg shapes are plastic and imported and empty, but they do manage to brighten a small tree on a quiet residential street during the pandemic “stay home, stay safe” order of Michigan’s governor. Easter is still here in some people’s minds and in their decision to make a public decoration. But it is a lot different to earlier times.

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