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The Transcendent Joy of a Secular Easter
An earlier version of this post appeared two years ago.
It is mid-afternoon on Easter Eve at the family ranch. In just a few minutes, under my mother’s direction, we shall begin decorating Easter eggs. The tomato aspic is jelling in the refrigerator. After a great deal of work, I have found Hot Cross Buns for sale, and they too chill, ready to be heated at dawn.
In my ranch childhood, and even now, four holidays held equal place in our affections: Christmas, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and Easter. Spaced imperfectly throughout the year, these were the four main occasions for the family to gather in the hills, just as we will a few hours from now.
My family is lucky enough to have ranch books that date back to 1909, documenting our visits to this place my great-great-grandfather built three decades before that. These books document the Easters and Fourths and Thanksgivings of old, stretching back more than a century. What stands out to visitors and newcomers to the family is the complete, enduring, and utter absence of any religious aspect to any of these events.
We do not go to church for Christmas, or for Easter. Most of us have not entered any house of worship except for some cousin’s wedding in many a year. (Because the ranch comes through my mother’s line, and my affably complicated Judaism comes through my father’s, my children and I are entirely alone in our observations of the Pesachs, Purims, and Chanukim.) Easter for our people is not about Christ risen from the tomb, it is about the Bunny’s visit to the orchard, and the croquet lawn, and the brightly-colored treasures he has hidden, just as Christmas is not about a baby in a manger but about a seven-foot Frasier fir, encrusted and bejeweled with heirloom ornaments, first hung on a family tree when Teddy Roosevelt labored in the New York State Assembly. The Fourth of July is about the outer trappings of patriotism – the ranch bedecked in red, white, and blue with a matching dress code for participants – but while we offer up modest fireworks, we offer little in the way of jingoistic praise for this nation and its founders. The flag inspires respect and affection, but not devotion.
The point of today’s letter is the reminder that you do not have to believe in something in order to love it. My family has heard your claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” and because we are well-mannered, we have refrained from lecturing you about the pagan winter celebrations that long preceded the babe in Bethlehem. We have heard you call this day Resurrection Sunday, and we honor without mockery your devotion to the story of the empty tomb, but we point to the glorious and delightfully incoherent admixtures of various ancient rites of spring that have come to define this day. There is a summit somewhere, and many paths to it.
My mother, like her mother and father and grandparents and great-grandparents before her, does not believe in Christ born in a manger, or crucified and risen. Neither do any who will gather tomorrow for cold cuts and cocktails, and the chance to see babes look for orbs in the high grass. What we do know is this: stripped of all its spiritual meaning, Easter is still beautiful. It is not beautiful solely because the dyed eggs and ladies’ dresses are pretty, though they invariably are – it is beautiful because it is tradition, and it is beautiful because we are together.
Tomorrow, my children will help their newest cousin, Chance, through his first proper egg hunt. Thirty-seven years ago, I helped that child’s father put his first egg in his tiny basket; decades before that, when Chance’s grandfather was wee, my mother straightened that boy’s little bowtie and pressed a wicker basket into his hands before the great Easter hunt of 1961. And so it goes, back beyond the furthest recesses of living memory. A Christian may say, “There is Jesus in this,” and we will nod politely — it may be possible! - but for us, sentiment does not rest on either the miraculous or the interventions of the divine. It rests on family, it rests on form, it rests on children’s wonder.
My religious friends argue, with varying degrees of passion, that tradition, good food, and wide-eyed children alone are insufficient defense against despair. In the great crises of your lives, they ask us, to whom do you turn? Do the Easter bunny and the Christmas tree provide any real comfort and strength when things are at their darkest? When your wife has another miscarriage, when your sister has cancer, when your son isn’t sure he wants to live, when the wolf is at the door and the black dog’s teeth are sunk into the very tendrils of your consciousness, is the memory of a basket full of colored eggs enough? Do you not instead need a Savior?
I tell my friends I have been to jail, and to many a locked psych ward. I have endured great disgrace and loss, entirely of my own making. It is true that at my worst moments, I do pray, calling out to all and sundry who might be listening. It is true too that when I am in greatest need of consolation, I come to the ranch in my mind, and I walk the hills. Jesus does not walk by my side, best as I can tell, but my grandmother does, as do the other ancestors. Perhaps it is Jesus after all, and He makes Himself known to me through my forebears.
Many years ago, I was in a particularly unpleasant psych ward in Bellflower, California. My roommate and I were both suicidal. He was a young Filipino man who, as a teen, had left Catholicism for a very conservative evangelical church. He had been thrown out of an evangelical seminary because he was gay. We told each other our stories, and he asked if he could pray for me. A gentleman always welcomes prayers; one can doubt their efficacy while still being touched by kind intention. Nicasio petitioned the divine quite eloquently on my behalf, and then recited Psalm 91. (I muttered along, but because he had memorized an evangelical translation, and I was vaguely familiar with the poetry of the KJV, it was a bit of a muddle.)
It was my turn to comfort my friend. I thought about faking religious enthusiasm, but I managed to remember I was only locked up in this county ward because of so much faking. Instead, I told him about Easter at the ranch. I told him about how we hardboiled the real eggs before dyeing them, and how we stuffed the plastic ones full of jelly beans and chocolate that would not melt.
I told him that at 11:00 every Easter morn for generations, children were told to gather on the porch of the old house, and gaze down at the canyon and the San Francisco Bay beyond. They were not to turn around, because if they did, they would scare off Peter Cottontail as he deposited his treasures on lawns and beneath shrubbery and just inside large terracotta pots. I explained that once the signal was given that the rabbit had left to bring tasty gifts to other families, we assembled the children under a great oak tree, lining them by height and pressing baskets into their hands. Instructions were given, with reminders to the older ones to ignore the “obvious eggs” that lay in the center of lawns, as those were for the littles.
Nicasio asked about the upper-age limit for hunters. I like to think there was a glimmer of hope in his eyes. Generally, I told him, one is no longer allowed to hunt after 13, but sometimes, if they promise to leave the easy eggs for the children, eager older teens and adults are given a basket as well. “If Peter Cottontail knows a grownup will be looking, he can be very crafty indeed. Sometimes, the eggs aren’t found until summer.”
I told him what we ate, and what we wore, and how most of the men still didn’t hug but that the handshakes were effusive and loving nonetheless. I told him about daffodils in bloom, and mayonnaise and pickles on the sandwiches, and children collapsing into sugar stupor. I told him that as someone who had first joined AA at 19, I now mixed a mean VBM – a Virgin Bloody Mary. “A VBM instead of the BVM!” It made Nicasio laugh until he wept.
I thanked Nicasio for his prayers, and he thanked me for mine.
Life is hard, and it is often scary. There is so much we don’t know. Most of us build the best defenses we can against despair, against hunger, against uncertainty – and we try to pass what we’ve learned on to our children, so that they too can persevere. I wasn’t given Jesus, or a meditation ritual. I was given egg hunts in April, fireworks in July, glistening trees in December. I have not led a virtuous life, or an exemplary one, but I have mostly been kind, and I am not always ashamed. And at my worst moments, when all seemed lost, I have returned again and again to gleaming memories of holidays, like the Easter that is here again this weekend. Those memories have been enough to deliver me from despair again and again.
Do not underestimate the power of tradition to comfort and sustain. May it be so for my children, and perhaps for you.