In the black-and-white photo, my sister and I stand side by side, looking tanned from the Miami sun. We are decked out in crisp Easter finery, complete with straw hats. We are bursting with pride, because in our hands we are cradling something that for us represented the essence of Easter joy: two very fuzzy, tiny baby ducks, which we had named Dippy and Dopey. Our parents allowed us baby ducks on only one Easter, and we gently looped ribbons around their necks and proudly took them on jaunts around the block. We lovingly cuddled the babies while watching television, holding them in our laps on towels. (If you have ever had a duck, you know they cannot be trusted to be discrete with their, uh, droppings.)
Some people say ducks, along with rabbits, chicks and eggs, are beside the point and have nothing to do with the deeper meaning of Easter, but I disagree.
Of course, we knew that Easter, as a religious celebration, was about Jesus rising from the dead; but for children, holiday fun is rarely an either/or experience, as in: Either believe the holiday is about Jesus, or believe it is about rabbits, ducks and eggs. For children, Easter is about all these things.
My sister and I were too young to understand fully the notion of Jesus dying on the cross, being buried in a tomb and coming out three days later. We did believe, however, that something wonderful had happened, and we could detect signs of this amazing event mirrored in nature.
Even though we lived in Miami, which is a one-size-fits-all place when it comes to seasons, we noticed little revelations of spring: the appearance of newborn lizards on the patio and some fancy blossoms sprouting on the palm trees. And, like children everywhere, we knew that this day called Easter was celebrated by special customs handed down to us from our parents and their parents before them.
One joyous ritual, of course, was the coloring of eggs, which we dipped ever so carefully into the dyes, and then ooh-ed and aah-ed when we saw that something as simple as an egg could be transformed into something downright gorgeous.
Many years later, as a serious adult who does research, I discovered that in Christian tradition, the egg can represent the tomb, out of which the risen Christ emerged. But my sister and I did not discuss symbols. Instead, we debated the best way to create polka dots and stripes.
Flowers were also part of our family’s Easter tradition. Each year, like clockwork, my dad went out on Holy Saturday and returned with a huge pot filled with fragrant Easter lilies for my mom. No one discussed the deeper meaning of the lilies, but on some heartfelt level, perhaps we had an inkling that their whiteness bespoke purity and their emergence from the still earth hinted at rebirth. But most of all, when we saw our mom’s face, we knew the lilies were about joy.
By the time Easter Sunday rolled around, my sister and I were giddy with anticipation. Soon our Lenten abstinence from sweets would be over, and soon we would welcome the tradition that was nearest and dearest to our heartswhich was, of course, the arrival of the Easter Bunny, bearing luscious sweets to put in our baskets.
In later years, I discovered that the tradition of Easter baskets dated back to the days when people would carry their first crops to church for a blessing. But my sister and I didn’t know a shred of the history; all we knew was that Sunday morning we had to engage in a mad dash to find our baskets, and then lovingly unearth the jewel-like jelly beans and other goodies from the artificial grass.
There followed, of course, an equally mad dash to get dressed, get in the car and arrive at church on time. There the family sat in the crowded pews, with the alleluias ringing forth like shock waves and the incense mingling with the ladies’ perfume.
How hard it was for the kids to concentrate. For one thing, our crinolines were somewhat scratchy, and the hats a bit too tight. Also, the thought of the Easter candynot to mention our real live baby ducks waiting at homewas almost too much to bear.
We had fasted before Communion, of course, but as soon as we got home, my sister and I were allowed to tear into the succulent wonders waiting in our baskets. What joy! To this day, I find it impossible to eat the ear off a chocolate rabbit without breaking into a huge smile.
After polishing off a few rabbits, we joined our parents for our traditional Easter breakfast, which consisted of Neapolitan spinach and ricotta pies baked by our mom the day before. Somehow she had also found time to make manicotti, carefully preparing and filling stacks of crepes by hand and then baking them with a luscious sauce for Sunday’s dinner.
The photos show the crowd that gathered for this feast: my parents, my sister, me, Aunt Madeline and Uncle August, plus family friends Anna and Joe, Nicky and Armand, and their son, Tommy. How did all these people fit around the table? How did my mom ever prepare enough to feed such a crowd? To this day, these questions remain unanswered, but she made it all look effortless.
Eventually, the meal was over, and the company went home. Then one day, the Easter lily began to look a little worn around the edges and was planted in the yard. And the ducks, my parents assured us, would be sent to a farm where they would never, ever, under any circumstances, be consumed as someone’s Sunday dinner.
As I grew up, I struggled to grasp the meaning of Christ’s resurrection. I knew it was a story about impossible and wondrous things happening, a story about weeping at the foot of the cross and rejoicing at the empty tomb.
Still, at the heart of the Easter story remains an eternal secret to be unlocked. And perhaps children understand the wonder of Easter better than adults.
They grasp the secret of chocolates and fuzzy ducks and the expression on a mother’s face when her beloved gives her flowers, the secret of hidden baskets and crowded pews, and aunts and uncles squeezed around a table for a feast.
At heart, Easter is about a promise that was kept, a love that never diesand a joyous alleluia that echoes in our souls forever.