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Easter — the pinnacle of the Christian calendar, and if we are to be believed, the turning point of time. Yet as is often observed, our Easter celebrations are not laden with the affection and cheer, the memories and emotional wallop of Christmas. No one makes rom-coms about falling in love at Easter or croons about being home for Easter. Many contend this is a good thing. Perhaps. Comparatively, Easter hasn’t been overburdened by commercialism, secularism, or sentimentality.

A few years ago, I wrote here about Ten Things Christmas-y. It was a good exercise for me to list things large and small that I savor in that season. So I decided to pick up the challenge to see if I could come up with a comparable list for Eastertide. I made it to eight. Here goes…

1.) The Butter Lamb: Older friends presented us with our first butter lamb — butter pressed into a lamb-shaped mold. I was charmed. It is cute and kid-friendly. It also puts something of symbolic value on the dinner table. I was so enamored that I purchased a couple molds and for several years presented friends with butter lambs for their Easter dinner. One caveat, a butter lamb seems to cut down on butter usage. No one wants to be the first to whack a hunk off the lamb’s hindquarter or, even more, decapitate the little creature. Another quick observation about Easter dinners: My memory tells me that as a child, our Easter menu was typically ham. In hindsight I wonder, was there any significance to this? A celebration of Christian freedom? A passive anti-Semitic poke? Or was it simply considered cheap and available?

2.) Easter Sunrise Worship: Most pastors have a “favorite” worship service of the year. I suppose mine is Easter Sunrise. I recall standing in a cemetery in bone-chilling cold as soggy snowflakes the size of saucers fell. Or the time a woman had to leave her high-heeled shoe behind as it had become entirely submerged in the springtime goo during worship. We’ve gathered indoors now for years. We’re sticklers about beginning in the dark. We adjust the beginning time annually, depending on when Easter falls and the sun actually rises. None of this 8 am “sunrise” stuff. There is something exhilarating about waking up very early. It feels like those mornings when you’re going on a road trip or have an early plane to catch. Driving to the church, the houses are all still dark and the traffic is virtually nil. Maybe it feeds my catacombs fantasy/envy. Attendance is small — the hardcores, most of whom come year after year. In sweatsuits and loud plaid flannel pants. Helter-skelter hair, unshaven, and without makeup. Worship is brief. We hear the Easter Gospel and share the Lord’s Supper. Thirty minutes later we are heading home as the day of days dawns.

3.) Easter Dinner with Colleagues — in our early years in upstate New York, we often got together with other ministerial colleagues (and now lifelong friends) on Easter afternoon. We were spent, exhilarated, feisty, goofy, deflated, far from family, and maybe a bit lonely. Our young kids played together. We compared notes and swapped war stories. We laughed a lot and were almost drunk with exhaustion.They were happy and holy times.

4.) My Chocolate Bunny: Somewhere in my middle teens, I was probably a rather miserable specimen. I made a snide comment to my mother about having never received an Easter basket with a chocolate bunny. Meanwhile, all my friends received a candy-extravaganza every Easter. I had assumed my no-Easter-basket plight was due to some sort of religious principle, not wanting to detract from Christ with a bunny and eggs, blah, blah, blah. Yet even at that moment, I could immediately sense that I had hurt my mom. She was stunned by my complaint. I now think it was not religiosity on my parent’s part, but merely unfamiliarity or an oversight. The next Easter, and well into early adulthood, I received a solid chocolate bunny every Easter from my mother.

5.) Bright Monday: Marking the day after Easter as a day for laughter and jokes is somewhat new to me. I’m struck that during the pandemic there’s been an increased desire for dumb jokes, groaners, and dad jokes. We just want to laugh. Bright Monday is apparently a time for practical jokes too. But few people like to be the butt of these. And all of this is an invitation to share a different understanding of Easter, as Jim Bratt explained here on The Twelve a few years back. It is the ancient Christus Victor understanding of the Atonement. On Easter, God “tricked” Satan. The big bad fish took the hook baited with Jesus. But aha, it was Satan who was caught! We laugh at Satan’s folly and celebrate God’s triumph with tricks on one another. Tuesday is not too late. Share a bad joke with your friends today.

Okay, these next two are more Lent-y than Easter-y. Allow me to blur the lines a bit.

6.) Foot Washing on Maundy Thursday: I’ve long been a proponent of foot washing, if for no other reason than Jesus’ adamance about it. I’ve shared before that my commitment to foot washing hasn’t exactly produced a lot of acceptance or enthusiasm among most Maundy Thursday worshippers. Of course, this in turn, only makes me more committed, although with Covid, we’ve taken a two-year hiatus. To those who choose to participate, it can be an intimate, meaningful moment. As for the rest, I’m not sure if occasionally feeling uncomfortable in worship is necessarily a bad thing.

7.) Good Friday Cross Walk: Piety in my town can be somewhat cloying. You might then think that an opportunity to process through our downtown carrying a cross, singing hymns, and pausing here and there for scripture and prayer would tap right into that. You’d be wrong. But like foot washing, popular rejection has not deterred me. Seeing religious people scurry to hide or awkwardly pretend not to notice as the cross goes by on the sidewalk is droll and delicious. But lest you think that making people feel embarrassed is my goal, the actual procession, with people of all ages, and from several churches is a good thing. Often the early spring wind is biting, but we trust the Spirit is blowing too. Addendum: in addition to my congregation, the greatest number of participants come from a church of hyper-conservative, homeschooling, uber-Calvinists. Sometimes worship produces strange partners.

8.) The Bells of Rome: This one isn’t mine. It is Sophie, my wife’s. Growing up in a French Catholic family, her Easter eggs were dropped by flying bells from Rome. I can think of little more preposterous or distressing than massive bronze bells flying overhead bombarding the land with eggs — unless, it might be pastel rabbits laying eggs made of candy. BTW, her memories of Easter dinners are lamb, which seems understandable and appropriate. Unless, of course, the New Creation of Christ compels us all to be vegans. Relax, people! It’s humor. Take a deep breath and smile.

What are your memories and things Easter-y?
Keep the Eastertide joy going. Christ is risen, indeed!

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

13 Comments

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Steve, for the enlightening traditions of Easter and Lent. Easter Egg hunts were always big when we were kids and when our children were young. Also a new Easter Sunday outfit, especially for the girls and women of the church. For the boys it was new shoes, not to be worn till Easter morning. As adults my wife and I allow ourselves one Cadbury egg for the season, just one.

  • RLG says:

    O, how about the myriad of Easter parades, commemorating the original Palm Sunday parade into Jerusalem. Some have been postponed due to Covid. There’s the New York parade, the gay parade with gaudy outfits, along with the New Orleans parade on Bourbon Street ending at the St. Louis Cathedral for mass.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    West Sayville, New York, was the mini-Pella on the South Shore of Long Island, very Dutch. There was a big Reformed church (where my dad was pastor) and a smaller Christian Reformed church. The Reformed Church, while moderately conservative, was so strong and outgoing (with a great classical music program and a big three-manual pipe organ) as to have attracted a good number of non-Dutch families, many of them public school teachers. A great Sunday School, and our high school teacher was from England, Those were my Easters. Not least because it was the one church holiday in which the landscape rejoiced as well. West Sayville, smelling of salt air, would be in bloom. All the families had gardens. Every street (all fifteen of them) and every yard was bright with fresh colour in the morning air, and the church bell in our steeple would be ringing all morning, and the old Hollanders sat on the church stoop and smoked before the service, and both morning services would be glorious, and people would spill out of the sanctuary as the organ postlude was broadcast from a speaker in the steeple. On the people so much yellow and so much blue, and on the landscape yellow and red. And all the girls were bright and laughing. And my parents, after church, would have a glass of the local fruited brandy (“friendship cup”) that was propagated and shared by the wives of the congregation.

  • Amy Schenkel says:

    The week before Easter 2 boxes would arrive from UPS at our house. (This was long before amazon began dropping boxes off at our house every other day- it was a very exciting occasion). In them, my grandmother had sent two Easter dresses, one for me (usually in pink) and one in the same style but different color (usually yellow or purple) for my sister. I think that was the only brand new dress I got all year long- and one of the only new clothing items in the midst of hand-me-downs from my cousins. I can still vividly remember most of these dresses, as well as the feeling of laying the box on the living room carpet and carefully (reverently?) opening it. We wore those dresses to church with my grandma on Easter morning in Hersey, MI where the small congregational chapel was freezing cold, the organist played with the flourish of a drunk man (I found out later its because he was), and it smelled a little funny. But on those hard shiny wooden pews I was wearing a new dress.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    As for the ham, according to google (delish.com), eating ham at Easter dates back to at least the sixth century in Germany. Because pigs were abundant in Northern Europe, farmers slaughtered and hung them in the fall. So just as the Germans gave us the Christmas tree, apparently they also gave us ham instead of lamb. Yeah!

  • Heidi De Jonge says:

    Oh, Steve. This is so good. Thank you. For me, it’s the music. Both of my parents are vocalists, and my dad being the pastor, they could always sing their favourite solos on Easter Sunday at church. My dad would sing Keith Green’s He’s Alive and my mom would sing Sandi Patty’s Was It a Morning Like This? – both with background tracks and passion and drama.

    He’s alive, he’s alive! He’s alive and I’m forgiven, heaven’s gates are open wide.

    Did the grass sing? Did the earth rejoice to feel You again?

    These weren’t congregational songs – I’ve never sung them myself. But I know every word.

  • Before we became aware of the detrimental environmental effects, the churches that I have served launched helium balloons. Each balloon had a string attached to a brightly colored, Easter cut-out in the shape of a cross with the message “He Is Risen!” On the back we stamped the the church address and urged participants to include their own personal message and signature. Most years we got at least once letter returned from a state away.

    Following worship we moved outside, read a responsive litany celebrating Christ’s resurrection and concluded with the with the song Jesus Christ Is Risen Today. The last verse reads “Soar we now, where Christ has led. Alleluia! Following our exalted head. Alleluia! MADE LIKE HIM, LIKE HIM WE RISE! Alleluia! Ours the cross the grave the skies! Alleluia! When we got to the line, “Made like him, like him we rise,” everyone released their balloons.

    It was a glorious and celebratory sight, which I still miss, although I understand why we can’t do it any longer.

  • From childhood, the thrill was in the hymn, “Up from the Grave He Arose” with the resident bass booming his cool part. These days as a Lutheran pastor, processing down the aisle with the Christ candle during sunrise service is just the best.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Friends, thank you for sharing such personal and colorful stories. We actually have Easter experiences when we stop to think about them. Maybe there’s a Easter movie on Lifetime or Disney in the offing?
    Your comments also jogged me to come up with a ninth item: Hot cross buns. You can easily say you’ve lived a whole and joyful life if you’ve never had one of these little rolls with a drizzled cross of sugar on the top. But my father loved them and we ate them frequently. It seems like they’re difficult to find now. Can’t believe they’re too popular. Still, a person in my congregation makes a batch annually and brings me four or six. That’s about all I need in a year. But they carry a lot of memories and sweetness for me.

  • An allergy inducing host of Easter Lilies lining the kneeling rail on Easter morning.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Delightful! Thank you, Steve. I love this miscellany approach and I love the way you write about each item. I DARE someone to write an Easter-based rom-com!

  • Ron Rienstra says:

    Steve, I remember an Easter Sunday years ago at the Southwark Cathedral in London. The Anglican Bishop of Southward preached, and as expected, the service had all the smells and bells. But the moment that caught me off guard was when, during the “notices,” the Bishop invited all youngsters 3-5 to come forward for a special treat. Then he set aside his ornate Bishop’s crook, and took off his giganctic Bishop’s miter, and reached inside it to pull out — a Cadbury egg. He gave it tone of the children who had come forward. Then he took out another, and another. He started handing them out. Soon he invited youngsters 6-10 to come forward. Then 11-19, and so on, until he and his acolytes had handed out Cadbury eggs to everyone in church who wanted one. I loved the playfulness of it, even on the high holy day.

  • Valerie Van Kooten says:

    Some of my most miserable memories of Easter as a child were the yearly Easter Egg Hunt, sponsored by the Jaycees, in Central Park in Pella. These were before the days of age separation and “Everyone gets the same number of eggs”; it was a brawling, winner-take-all fiasco, with all ages in the mix. My plump 4-year-old legs would spy a grotesquely teal marshmallow egg about 10 feet away, only to have a lanky 8-year-old swoop in and pick it up. For those of us, at the end, who had empty baskets and tear-stained faces, a Jaycee would walk among us with the Cardboard Box of Shame, doling out eggs to the wretched. Even at 4, I remember how shamed I was to take handouts of marshmallow eggs instead of picking my own from the ground.

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