Saving the Secular Easter

For those who use as their calendar that great barometer of the year, i.e., the seasonal sales displays in retail stores and supermarkets, the passing of February’s red hearts for St. Valentine’s Day (or green shamrocks a month later for St. Patrick’s) makes way for Easter baskets and egg coloring kits. Indeed, for those of us who keep Lent, those baskets have almost a taunting quality—redolent of bunnies and ducks and lambs and ham, all while we are trying not to think of sweets and meat.

But for all of that, Easter is a retail dwarf compared to the superstar of merchandising, Christmas. As we know, in recent years, Christmas creep has caused the Christmas displays to start ever earlier, crowding out Thanksgiving entirely and backing up against Halloween—which itself has taken Easter’s place as the second great spending period with quasi-religious roots. Of course, if Thanksgiving is a victim (outside of supermarkets, which still must sell turkeys, after all) Advent dwells with Lent in a sort of phantom zone (save in places such as Louisiana, where restaurants emphasize their fish dishes during the penitential season). At any rate, Easter is a somewhat meagre runner-up in the secular calendar. In many foreign countries with a tradition of established Christianity, Easter Monday remains a secular holiday. But as it has long since ceased to be a Holy Day of Obligation (along with Easter Tuesday) in most countries, Easter Monday in such areas is usually treated as just another spring day off.

When I was a boy, however, Easter ran second only to Christmas in the public-attention department. Public schools featured Easter Egg hunts, and the egg coloring displays dwarfed the little ones we know today. The Easter Bunny was Santa’s great rival, complete with television specials and songs all his own—and limited though his wares were in comparison to those of the right jolly old elf of Yuletide, we kids rushed to the door to find the Easter baskets he had left quite as quickly as we rose to see what had been left under the Christmas Tree.

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It wasn’t all about sales and gluttony, either. Just as the busy, secular world had to halt and pay some lip service to the religious side of Christmas (as they must even now, despite all the attempts to smother it in “Holiday”), so it was with Easter. A surefire draw for celebrities in Southern California was the Easter Sunrise Service at the Hollywood Bowl, where, starting in 1921, tens of thousands would annually turn out for the generic Protestant ceremony. But not to be left out, New York skyscrapers, as late as the 1950s, at least illuminated their tall lengths with crosses—as a black-and-white postcard that has gone viral on the internet shows.

But New York made another important contribution to the secular Easter that endures in a somewhat cartoonish if enjoyable manner: the Easter Parade on 5th Avenue. Back in the late 19th century, the presence of four well-to-do congregations on that famous thoroughfare (the now-defunct St. Nicholas Dutch Reformed, 5th Avenue Presbyterian, St. Thomas Episcopal, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral) ensured a large number of equally well-dressed worshippers on Easter morning. While the men were soberly arrayed in morning dress, their ladies wore all the latest fashions—especially as regarded hats and bonnets. In time, their striving to show off their elegance became almost a caricature—and after the 1960s, it became one. Today, a stroll in the Easter parade is a lot of fun, but it is much more like a circus than a fashion—still less a religious—exercise. 

Nevertheless, apart from a number of similar events around the country, the Paschal promenade inspired Irving Berlin’s tune “Easter Parade”—thus allowing him to do for the feast what he had done for its wintertime rival with “White Christmas.” In both cases, he composed secular tunes that became an integral part of the season without any reference to its real reason—and inspired delightful movies of the same name. Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, also gave equal secular tune-time to both observances with his “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” (although the former does have religious overtones). In addition to all of that, and buying new Easter clothes, there was also the still-remaining-if-not-as-prevalent custom of buying and displaying Easter lilies. Together with tulips they were omnipresent symbols of Easter. Ham and lamb vied with each other for supremacy on the festal table.

But to a great degree, all of this has changed. As mentioned, Easter has ceded second place to Halloween; indeed, it may have lost out even to St. Valentine (whose namesake would doubtless not appreciate beating out the Resurrection of his Lord in popularity). Celebrities no longer crowd the Sunrise Service; the vast majority of Easter Parade-goers no longer start their outings with services in 5th Avenue’s remaining churches; one cannot imagine New York Skyscrapers being illuminated in celebration of Easter as they are when infanticide or gender confusion win another victory in court or legislature; and no popular composer has succeeded Berlin and Autry in secularly serenading Easter—as countless number have continued to do for Christmas. One simply cannot imagine a George Michael clone belting out “Last Easter, I Gave You My Heart.” 

Might we not say that this is a good thing, the gradual death of secular Easter? Would we not be far better off if it were followed into oblivion by secular Christmas and secular All Souls? Surely, if the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus were dragged off with piles of Jack-O-Lanterns, shamrocks, and hearts, and the whole buried together, would the Faith not profit? Freed from these accretions, believers could honor the Nativity and Resurrection of Christ, pray for the dead, and honor whichever saints they chose to in a suitably pious way. The secular world could then celebrate the turning of the seasons and the civic holidays in any way it chose.

The simple answer on all counts, for Easter and the others, is no. There are several reasons for this. The first is that so long as Easter and Christmas—and even Halloween, in its weird and distorted way—are marked by civil society, every American is forced to at least take note of the fact that all of the West formerly, and much of it now, believed and believe in Christ’s Resurrection and Birth, and in an afterlife wherein souls are rewarded according to their earthly deeds. This is especially important under our current regime, where such things as “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, “In God We Trust” on the coins and currency, and even the daily injunction in court houses that God should save the United States or the given State and “This Honorable Court” are tolerated purely as meaningless “ceremonial deism.” It is as close as we are able to come as a nation and a society to the absolutely essential duty of honoring Christ as King. 

As Pius XI put it in his 1925 encyclical, Quas primas: “the empire of our Redeemer embraces all men. To use the words of Our immortal predecessor, Pope Leo XIII: ‘His empire includes not only Catholic nations, not only baptized persons who, though of right belonging to the Church, have been led astray by error, or have been cut off from her by schism, but also all those who are outside the Christian faith; so that truly the whole of mankind is subject to the power of Jesus Christ.’ Nor is there any difference in this matter between the individual and the family or the State; for all men, whether collectively or individually, are under the dominion of Christ. In him is the salvation of the individual, in him is the salvation of society.” Secular Easter and secular Christmas remain the closest most of our countrymen can come to this essential duty. 

There is also the fact that—if used properly, alongside and subordinate to the actual mysteries of our Faith which inspired these observances in the first place—the secular observances designed for children can be quite useful. In this instance specifically, they can be taught that the egg represents Christ’s tomb, as the hatching of a chick can be seen to symbolize the resurrection—as do the flowers associated with the day, when they emerge from the sleep of winter. The Easter Bunny—as with Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the crew of All Hallows’ Eve—can contribute at once to a child’s sense of wonder. The skillful parent shall superintend as the child grows a transfer of that wonder to the Church’s Sacraments and Sacramentals. It should be needless to say, but a sense of fun is as essential to surviving the slings and arrows of childhood, youth, and adulthood as a sense of humor is.

These two reasons are essentially selfish, in the sense that the first contributes to our prosperity or perhaps even our survival, while the second assists the health of our children and so our future. But there is a third which particularly affects our unhappy fellow-countrymen blundering around in the spiritual darkness which has perhaps never been so prevalent in recent times. The fact is that the Godless, secular world the powers that be have erected is a singularly joyless place—and always has been. But our Christian holidays—at least those that have been retained—offer hope for something better.

Unable to deal with the raw fact of Christ and His Church, the mind seeks refuge in metaphor, reducing the troubling supernatural visitant to the merely natural good. Yet it is precisely and only He Who was born of the Virgin Mary; Who suffered, died, was buried, and rose again; Who daily descends again to earth upon countless altars across the planet; and Who shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, Who can satisfy that yearning for endless love and for resurrection. Just as the child cannot understand the Mysteries of the Faith all at once but may become used to them with the aid of the secular aspects of these feasts rightly understood, so, too, with our countrymen—whom God has placed us among to evangelize.

So rather than disregarding the secular aspects of Easter and the other holidays, or allowing them to be minimized or removed by those in charge, let’s take advantage of and extend them. Wear your Easter finery, and walk down the avenue—but make sure you do so after Mass, and invite non-Catholic friends to come with you to both. Deck your home and/or office with Easter lilies, and give Easter eggs to your own and others’ children—but casually explain their meaning. Make sure the Bunny arrives at your house and that the children enjoy what he leaves. If there is any civic recognition of Easter in your town, city, or county, encourage it—even if it is as religiously vague as the Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn. All of this is essential if these United States are ever to follow Our Lord—and so resurrect as a decent nation.


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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