My love for holidays has again turned my attention to those warm family experiences I remember so well. Because today is Easter Sunday, memories of past Easters became my topic of choice. Holidays seem to bring to mind the love my parents shared with my siblings and me; a love that made us strong and decent human beings.
Last year, our newspaper produced an Easter supplement in which I highlighted fond memories of Easters of the past. Going back to my Easter columns over the past ten years, I have focused on a variety of subjects. Some practices have disappeared from today’s lifestyle. It used to be important to purchase new outfits to for Easter. Little girls got their hair dolled up with something extra such as bangs or Shirley Temple curls or perhaps ribbons matching their outfits. Little boys’ haircuts appeared to have been cut with a bowl on their heads. Presently missing in some churches on Easter are the short recitations youngsters had to give about the meaning of Easter. I can vividly recall stumbling through a speech, being extremely nervous. This was just one of the many activities in church tthat supported the development of our verbal skills and made us comfortable speaking before an audience.
I recalled memories of the mass sunrise Easter at Franklin Field. Finally, I referred to those who have not attended church all year but show up on Easter Sunday. You know the type; we referred to them as “EMC” churchgoers. Perhaps you saw them in church today. These are the people who make every effort, perhaps the only effort, to be in church on Easter, Mother’s Day and Christmas; yes, EMCs.
Today, I am resurrecting Easter and activities associated with it as we experienced them back in the day.
I must acknowledge my belief in the true meaning of Easter. My upbringing would never permit me to ignore the significance of the historical religious events surrounding Good Friday and Easter Sunday. After all, this is precisely why there is an Easter. But as to its commercial aspects, I will reflect again on the Easter basket. When I was growing up, like most children, I had an Easter basket; I mean a real basket. Back in the day, we had large wicker baskets with real straw. Today’s baskets are often made of plastic in many bright colors, padded with artificial straw. It was not unusual to reuse your first Easter basket year after year. Once its contents had been consumed, the basket was stored until the next year. I still recall going with my mother to a neighborhood five and dime store to purchase new straw and goodies for my basket. Jellybeans were my favorite; In fact, as I am typing today’s column, you can imagine what I am eating. Jellybeans, of course! Usually jellybeans were the last thing eaten from the Easter basket, as some would always be found in the bottom when the week-long Easter celebration was over. In the center of most Easter baskets, one could find a humongous chocolate egg. You could have your egg custom-designed with various colors and your name inscribed right in its center. My father, who for a part of his life was a candy-maker, made some of the best chocolate Easter eggs you could buy in Philadelphia. The copper pots he used to make these chocolate eggs hang from the ceiling in my kitchen today; the stove that he used to make them and other candies has been transformed into a table and is in my family room; and one of the signs that was in his store below where we lived in the 4500 block of Fairmount Avenue during the early 1940s is now displayed in my basement. It is a reminder of what this effort could have been. I wonder what my father might have accomplished with this home-operated business if not for the racial divide we all faced in the past. What made his chocolate eggs great was the real coconut that filled the insides. A real chocolate Easter egg is truly something from back in the day.
While buying a new outfit for Easter may be a thing of the past for many of us, I suspect these occasional participants in Easter Sunday services were wearing new outfits. Just ask your friends if they purchased new outfits for themselves or their children this Easter. Many will let you know that this practice ended years ago. Some have told me today’s economy has influenced their behavior. They have also indicated it makes no sense to purchase a suit or dress when their youngsters are more interested in wearing jeans, sweat suits or more casual clothing. At church today, I am certain you saw a number of children and some adults in casual clothing. How many people get dressed up as we did in the past? Back in the day, one would not dare attend church wearing casual clothes. Going to church, especially on Easter, was an occasion when everyone, children in particular, dressed up and looked their very best. Wearing anything but a dressy outfit was viewed as disrespectful during my era. Parents were mindful of their children being dressed appropriately on this day. Little girls wore dresses made of special fabrics, always in white or pastel colors. They were often detailed with ruffled collars or hemlines. Little girls wore knee-length white stockings or white anklets and patent-leather shoes. Their outfits were not complete without a pocketbook and often a hat. Little boys were sometimes dressed in short pants with knee-length socks. Whatever the choice, you knew they were dressed in a special way on Easter Sunday. Back in the day, those of you fortunate enough to get a new Easter outfit each year recall that the previous year’s was worn on Palm Sunday. Obviously, you were beginning to outgrow it, but it became your backup suit for Easter Sunday, in the event there was a problem with your recently purchased outfit. Your new Easter outfit was worn on but one day — Sunday, or on special occasions. For little boys, it was referred to as the “Sunday-go-to-meeting suit.”
I will never forget my Easter shopping experiences as a teenager. Nor will I forget the stores or the merchandise on South Street. This is where most of us shopped for Easter clothing. Both bargains and cheap merchandise were definitely there. I recall many trips to my father’s favorite store, Big Hearted Jim’s. If you are too young to remember shopping during the fifties, you missed an experience. Those from back in the day will recall places where salespeople stood out in front of the store urging you to come in. They would literally pull you in off the street. You may have seen some shows on television where the salesperson actually held the back of the garment to make it appear to fit. Well, this actually happened. What many of us did not know back in the day was that much of this merchandise was actually factory rejects. I recognize that many of our parents were struggling just to make ends meet. Thus, bargain-shopping was an absolute necessity. While it may have been cheap factory reject merchandise, I would definitely take the suit and tie look for Easter today over the casual looks we now see, even on Easter Sunday.
While I have many more fond memories of events related to Easter, dyeing eggs is the one activity that is most memorable. My mother would pull out a very large pot because she boiled a large number of eggs. This usually took place early on Saturday morning. I can still see her pouring boiling water into cups for different colored dyes. Do you recall placing a boiled egg on a wire holder for dipping it into the dye? Were you one of those who added pictures or special designs to your eggs? I have told this story in every Easter column I have written. My cousin did something related to dyeing eggs that I cannot imagine anyone else doing. After we had finished dyeing our Easter eggs, my cousin would show up at our home, pick up our containers of dye and take them home to dye his eggs. He did not do this just on one occasion; he did it for as long as I remember dyeing eggs for Easter.
There are other memories that undoubtedly come to mind that make Easter a very special day. Each year, however, the memories fade as their architects pass on. So, if you failed to get a new outfit; if you failed to dye eggs; if you failed to purchase an Easter basket; and if you failed to attend sunrise service, just do as I suggested in previous columns and sit back and sing this song — “In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it, you’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade.” Without a doubt, this will bring to mind more of those great Easter memories that could only be found back in the day.
Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at email@example.com or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.