When I was growing up, Easter weekend was one of the busiest church holidays for my family. Back then, it wasn't about Easter egg hunts or getting all dressed up. It was all about church. And it wasn't just for Easter Sunday either. While we usually got Good Friday off from school, we didn't get to sleep in. Oh no. We had to go to church early Friday morning. That's right. We had to go to church on Good Friday. And it sucked! I hated it, because I was still sleepy at five in the morning, when I was forced to attend church. Someone thought it would be nice to have a sunrise service for Good Friday. I'd rather sleep in! And I didn't care that we could come to the service wearing jeans and t shirts. I was sick and tired of the church taking up all of my free time!
And it wasn't just getting up at o'dark thirty for an hour long church service that sucked. After church was over, we couldn't go home and crawl back in bed. Nope. We kids had to stay behind and pull weeds and clean around the chapel while the adults went home! That's why those bastards wanted us to come to church wearing jeans and t shirts--we were free labor! What the hell? The minister's wife was our overseer, and we the Sunday school kids were her slaves. And after spending all morning weeding and picking up cigarette butts and scrubbing floors and walls, we went back into the chapel to rehearse our production for Easter Sunday. That's right, we had to put on a show for Easter Sunday.
I hated those rehearsals. They took up a lot of my time and added stress to my day! The rehearsals started at least a month before. Every day after school and weekends, we had to go to church for at least two to three hours to rehearse. It was stressful because we still had to go back home, do our chores and our homework.
We were handed bible verses to memorize and sorted into either choir or actors according to the overseer's, um, minister's wife's whims. Her strict adult daughter was the director, and if you were one of her favorites--the suck ups and the kids from the rich families who made the biggest church contributions--you were a major actor, playing either Jesus or his family and closest disciples. If you had some talent, you were either a supporting actor with a short speaking role or in the choir. The best singers usually got solos. If you had no talent or she didn't think you were anything special, you'd get a short bible verse to recite either before or after the big Easter play production. If she didn't like you or you pissed her off, you'd play the Romans who whipped Jesus and help crucify him or you'd be one of the Hebrews who called for Jesus's execution.
My brothers and I started off, as most kids did, reciting bible verses. When we got older, we got different roles. My younger brother (only a year younger than me) was the quiet, peaceful one who often played the innocent roles of either Jesus's supporters or an angel or some other part that required large doey eyes and purity. He's still a nice, peaceful, friendly guy to this day. Although, a few people have learned the hard way that just because he's nice and peaceful doesn't mean he won't kick your ass if you mess with him. He's a tough one--it comes from having older brothers who like to pick on you and fight from time to time growing up. Not that we fight anymore. The last time we got in a scuffle was just before I started high school. Since then, we've all learned to laugh more and get along much better than we do with our older siblings.
While my younger brother was doing innocent roles, I was chosen for choir. Not that I had a spectacular voice to begin with. I was just really loud and clear when I sang. I had no problem projecting my voice. I've had a lot of practice yelling out to my siblings across the fields or calling in the chickens and hogs for feeding time. Eventually I started singing in duets and solos. But as much as I loved singing and performing on the stage, I was starting to get really irritated at the minister's daughter for being so overbearing and trying to tell me how I should sing and what I should do. It brought out the rebellious side of me.
Don't try to tell me what to do! That just pisses me off, because it reminds me of my older siblings trying to boss me around. And don't tell me that I can't do something, because that just fires me up to go ahead and do it anyway. I started putting some soul into my singing, altering notes and pitches and harmony like I was an R&B singer. It freaked out the minister's daughter the first time I belted out a soulful tune that Easter Sunday during our live production. The look on her face--horror and shock--was fantastic! And the church crowd loved it! They actually broke out into applause, which never really happens at my conservative, boring, up tight church. And I knew that I had accomplished what I had set out to do--the minister's daughter got the message. I wasn't just some dog she could have roll over and bark on her command. I was likely to bite her back! The minister's wife, on the other hand, was thrilled at my performance and started to groom me for future productions. I didn't know it then, but the stage was set for an epic behind the scenes battle that would culminate in the fantastic fallout during the Christmas pageant at the end of the year.
But my battle with the minister's wife was nothing compared to the war of wills her daughter and my older brother waged. My older brother was just a year older than me. We actually have other elder brothers and sisters who are more than ten years older than us. But the three of us youngest boys were the closest to each other--still are. It's an unbreakable bond forged from shared experiences during our trying times and the crises that we survived as we were growing up together. Granted, we bumped heads from time to time and fought amongst ourselves when we were younger--just stupid sibling rivalry stuff. But we stood up for each other and backed each other up whenever someone tried to mess with any one of us. My older brother is one of the toughest people I know. Growing up, he never back downed from a fight, and he was quick to defend us and his friends. He had a reputation as a fighter and some called him a bully.
My older brother was always blunt and honest in his opinions. He often called people out on their bullcrap. This caused some problems with adults whose hypocrisy he challenged. He had a strong sense of justice and fairness and wasn't afraid to speak up to anyone, including adults. The minister's daughter thought it was her job to break him down and control him. And when she failed to scare my older brother or get him to do what she wanted, she'd often cast him as a Roman during our Easter play and as Herod during our Christmas pageant. She thought that portraying him as a villain would make him feel bad. That just enhanced his tough reputation and my brother reveled in it. It wasn't hard for him to play a tough guy who scared people. He loved it!
The Easter that I decided to try out my new found soul sound was the last time my older brother participated in a church play. And by the end of the year, my younger brother and I would stop participating in church plays as well. I wished that was the end of my involvement in church activities, but my mother had other ideas. She made the three of us join the church choir instead. That way, she'd mingle with her friends and keep an eye on us at the same time. It sucked being in the church choir with mom, knowing she could tell when we were misbehaving, and we got disciplined for it afterwards. But it's hard not to clown around with your friends when you're bored in choir practice. Thank goodness we were allowed to leave church choir when we started high school.
After my brothers and I quit doing Sunday School plays, the Easter production scaled down tremendously. The play was much smaller. The play choir was opened up to allow all the children to sing. And the number of children reciting bible verses grew considerably. Still, a lot of the preteen and teen Sunday school children were opting out of participating in the productions. My last few years at church, they introduced an Easter egg hunt to recruit more kids to take part in church productions. I never got what Easter bunny egg hunts had to do with Jesus's death and resurrection. Turns out later, I discovered that the whole thing was a pagan rite, including the name Easter.
I never got to enjoy those great Easter egg hunts some kids experienced growing up. Like I said, we didn't have those where I grew up. My church didn't start having them til I was a teen. Perhaps it would've been more exciting if the eggs were those chocolate ones, but no, the church used hard boiled eggs--and the ones that weren't found really stunk up the place!
The truth is, I'm still ambivalent about the whole Easter egg hunt thing, as I find it hilarious that serious devout Christians would embrace a pagan tradition. But then again, most major holidays, including Christmas, are pagan traditions. Still, I have helped to hide eggs and set up some great Easter egg hunts when I got older and moved away to be on my own. I like seeing those kids smile and hearing them laugh and have fun while they search for eggs. I've also helped a few of them find the eggs that I'd hidden, just to see them light up with joy and be so happy to find those chocolate candy eggs and eat them. It's a good feeling to see happy children.
It wasn't always drama and church oppression that took place during Easter while I was growing up. I actually have some great memories of Easter. Most of those memories include the great food we actually got to eat on Easter. In addition to our faves, we had ham and lamb and fish and ice cream and cake. I remember that sense of anticipation and excitement my brothers and I would have during the service, eager to get home and eat some delicious food. We'd laugh and eat and play afterward. And we'd all sit together and watch the Ten Commandments. I never understood why they showed The Ten Commandments on Easter, instead of story of Jesus's resurrection. I mean, isn't that what Easter is supposed to be about in the Christian tradition?
I also have very fond memories of sitting next to my mother during Easter service. She always seemed so serene. I wondered what she was thinking about. But whatever it was, it seemed to give her peace. It was one of those precious moments where I felt really close to her, just by being next to her, and I felt loved and hope and believed that the world was a beautiful place, that life was good.
Over the many years I've been on my own, I stopped going to church regularly. I'd like to think I'm a spiritual person, that we're all connected some way, some how. I've enjoyed exploring many religions and beliefs, learning about them and the people who practice them. It's been a wonderful, tumultuous, and fascinating journey. But try as I might to distance myself and forget all the drama and prejudices of my old church, there are still some things that I still do. Maybe it's out of habit or maybe it's something more. I'm not sure. But chances are, come Easter Sunday, I'll probably be at church. I do the same thing for Christmas. It doesn't matter what church--Catholic, Protestant, Episcopalian. I've been to them all. I'll usually find myself in a church somewhere, in the background, just sitting quietly and observing the Easter service.
I'm not exactly sure what I'm looking for. Maybe I'm trying to find some sense of peace, find whatever it was that made my mother seem so serene, so long ago. Or maybe I'm just doing it out of habit, repeating a faintly familiar act, hoping to relive those good memories from a far away time when the world seemed full of wonder and hope. Maybe I am in a big Easter egg hunt, searching for something precious, something that would make me laugh and smile. I'm not sure what it is I'm supposed to find, but I'll keep looking.