I was raised by non-practicing Illinois Catholics, so my childhood Easter was characterized by Easter egg hunts, stiff spring dresses, and the occasional Mass. My sister and I anticipated the holiday with the same excitement as Christmas, knowing that it meant surprises, dressing up, and lots of candy, but little understanding of the spiritual meaning of the event. Somehow, my parents seemed more relaxed and present at Easter than they did at Christmas: Christmas was for the kids, an exhausting show of decorations, gifts and activities; but Easter was somehow more egalitarian and involved, especially as we got older and the Bunny was less necessary. We all had fun on Easter.
Now that I’m raising my children in a more definitively secular home, I realize that my parents cultivated some beautiful Easter traditions that I can pass down to my children. Our “Easter” has more in common with solstice celebrations (or equinox, I suppose): a focus on the joyful emergence from the dark waiting of winter. As I write this, I realize that Easter was also an occasion for us to connect to the places we lived. We ventured out to find the most attractive and special spots in our hometown at the time, even if it was a town whose weather and character often made us feel alienated and confused. Easter was a time where we were all happy wherever we were.
Here are four (secular) Easter traditions shared in my family.
1. Go Somewhere Fancy
I spent the golden years of my youth in a suburb of Kansas City, MO. Although it felt like we were a million miles from an urban epicenter, we were actually about 15 minutes down Hwy 71 from the cultural center of the city. The Plaza is a sort of schmancy shopping area with a Gap (or two) and PF Chang’s, and at Easter they set out enormous statues of bunnies and birds. We’d dress in our bestest best and walk around, taking pictures with the animals and twirling in our crinolined and aproned spring frocks to jazzy street bands. At lunch, we ate at the Italian Gardens, which for a family who never ate in restaurants other than the occasional Shoney’s? Was puttin’ on the Ritz.
I felt like a princess on Easter.
2. Go Somewhere Beautiful
When we got a little too big for egg hunts and moved away from Kansas City, we were in search of new Easter destinations. Instead of an urban promenade, for many years we favored Woodward Park in north Tulsa.
In Oklahoma, spring comes early, so the tulips are typically in full bloom on Easter Day. The park teems with families squeezing in portraits before church: adorable children competing over the best photo ops near the koi pond, by fields of blossoms, or goofy shots in climbing trees. Woodward has winding trails and a Queen-of-Hearts-style rose garden.
One Easter when I was not quite fifteen, my sister and I dressed in flowing cotton and my Mom took pictures of us sitting in various poses: tree limbs, grassy slopes, dazzling azaleas as our backdrop. Our long hair floated on sweeping gusts of spring air. I felt beautiful that day.
Less than a mile away, my future husband, Brian and his brother were having their Easter pictures taken at a place both fancy and beautiful: the gardens at Philbrook Museum.
He and I circled one another like mating birds for years before we actually met, over two hundred miles away, in a college English class.
3. Go Somewhere Wild
Sometimes we eschewed the fancy in favor of a Wordsworthian stride through hill and dale.
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something for more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting sins,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky and the mind of Man
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thoughts
And rolls through all things. — “Tintern Abbey” Wordsworth
If you’re up for a philosophical chat with your children about alternative or better ways to commune with the divine, a hike to a clear stream with “Tintern Abbey” or a bit of Byron is just the ticket. In this way, the woods can be your church, if that’s what you’re seeking. My parents never did this, but I can and will.
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore
There is society, where none intrudes
by the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love man not the less,
but nature more.
– “Childe Harold” Byron
My family favored Redbud Valley Nature Preserve in Tulsa. We wore flannel and climbed paths through cliffs, my Mom gripping saplings to prevent bouts of vertigo. I remember these outings with intense fondness.
Now that I live in Iowa, Easter is sometimes balmy and clear and perfect for a hike. Today, we hope to get to Happy Hollow or Squire Point. Hopefully, it won’t be all muddy.
4. Find or make a Pagan Egg Hunt
But sometimes it’s too cold or wet to contemplate anything pleasantly in early Iowa spring. Our other holiday tradition is a heathenish egg hunt run by one of the teachers at our girls’ hippie daycare. You can get the idea below.
The teacher is an older man with dreds down to his feet and a blue bunny costume. The little ones hunt for eggs crammed with jellybeans, and the big kids have a treasure hunt all their own. This teacher tucks eggs in around the fresh mounds of his garden and in pockets of dewy grass. Even if it’s gross outside, anyone can stand twenty minutes of ecstatic discovery and then head inside for tea and snacks. And if it’s nice out, the kids can frolic like little bunnies while the adults can actually have conversations.
(Can you believe this is free? And no violent competitions or gladiator-style races to find eggs, either. It’s all about community and cooperation.)
If you don’t have one of these, make one yourself. Once you make the modest investment in plastic eggs, the rest is fairly inexpensive, and I bet you’d be surprised how many families will show up.
What are your Easter traditions, secular or otherwise?