MAXWELL:  For us, Easter’s rituals were like basket of fun

4/23/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Only now do I appreciate the Easter celebration of my childhood. Only now do I realize that, although it is the solemn day commemorating Jesus’ triumph over death and humankind’s gift of eternal life, Easter was a time of hilarity, camaraderie and innocence for most black children in the South.

Easter was, in fact, a day for children, and, much like Christmas, half of the fun of Easter was the activities during the days leading up to it, when our parents bought, boiled and colored eggs, when lilies were collected. For us, the children, these were days of excitement, of going with our parents to shop for new clothes.

We did not see the symbolism _ spring, starting anew _ in buying new clothes. The boys knew that Easter meant a new black, often ill-fitting suit, complete with a new white shirt, a new black hat and a new skinny black tie. Why black? I think it had something to do with looking grown-up, like replicas of the men in our lives who wore black suits on Sunday. Whatever the reason, we all looked like waiters.

Now I know that we were black versions of the Blues Brothers.

And I recall that a group of us would mill outside the church, quietly talking trash and lying about our female conquests. We stood with our hands stuffed deeply in our pants pockets, our hats cocked to one side _ real jaunty.

If girls walked past without their parents, we would flirt with them. It was “cool pose” long before the term was coined. If the morning was hot, we sweated inside our black suits. But we did not care because we had a good time.

The fun would end, though, when an adult, usually a man smiling knowingly, told us to come inside for service, an event that went on interminably.

And the girls? How beautiful they were in their new outfits, their crinoline-flared, bright-colored dresses. I remember the new hairdos that made them look so fresh and radiant, their smart pocketbooks or handkerchiefs where they kept their money tied in a knot.

Like the Resurrection itself, girls were a transcendent mystery. Because I have no personal insight into what Easter meant to the girls, I asked Jounice L. Nealy, a colleague at the St. Petersburg Times, for some answers.

“The excitement of my new school clothes had long worn off, and even the Christmas gifts were getting a little old. Oh, but then came Easter. And the hunt was on. My Easter shoes were always shiny and white, usually with a strap across the foot. This was usually the time when my mom talked, complained, about how much my foot was growing. And, of course, after we got home, she had to keep me out of those shoes so I wouldn’t scuff them before Sunday.

“Then there was the dress, which had to be pretty to me. Speaking of my tastes, there was that year that my mom was so excited about a bonnet she bought. She was equally disappointed when I refused to wear it. Mrs. Bell Rogers would wash and press my hair with a straightening comb, then twirl candy curls on Easter eve. Again, Mom fussed Saturday night if I played too hard with my big brother. She did not want me to sweat out my curls. When I got in fifth grade, I got a perm, and Easter became less tense.”

In Crescent City, where I spent much of my childhood, Easter afternoon was an oratorical festival, when select children _ I was never among them _ marched to the front of the church and delivered inspirational narratives and poems written for the occasion. If a boy made a mistake or forgot some of his lines, his buddies would fight for dear life to hold back the laughter. Some of us would succumb to the hilarity, of course, causing most of the congregation to roar. The victim, always good-natured, would start over.

For some reason, we never laughed at a girl who stumbled.

Jounice said that she and her childhood friends also suffered the Easter speech. Unlike us, Jounice and company did not write their speeches. “Easter afternoons always brought a sigh of relief,” she said. “Weeks before, either Mrs. Durham or Mrs. Smith had given us our Easter speeches. Somehow the speeches my brother and I got always seemed to be the longest. And we had to memorize our lines and rehearse at the church on Saturdays.

“On Easter morning, it was a matter of remembering all the details: entering the stage from one side, walking to the piece of tape on the floor, speaking right into the microphone and remembering all of your lines. And, if I forgot to curtsy, Mrs. Durham would yell from the audience and remind me.”

When our church service ended in the late afternoon, the real fun began. We dashed home, traded our new duds for regular clothes and returned to the church for the communitywide Easter egg hunt. The boys would romp and tussle and, when the adults were not watching, we threw eggs at one another. If we mistakenly hit a girl, all hell broke loose, as it were. The perpetrator was spirited away for the whipping of his young life.

After that, order would be restored among the boys, who quietly snickered and whispered about the poor sucker who got punished. Later, the entire congregation would enjoy a delicious dinner on the ground. In the evening, we would dress and return to church, where music, clapping and shouting (a spiritual dance) would shake the rafters.

All the while, we sullen, bored boys itched and sweated in our suits. Invariably, someone would fall asleep and snore. An adult would march over to the miscreant, shake him awake and point a warning finger in his face. Occasionally, someone would pass gas and stink up the place. We would struggle to hold back the laughter.