VIENNA, Va., April 4, 2012 — Our newspaper friends across town have a curiously cute contest this time each year. The readers are invited to create dioramas in which the characters — ALL the characters — are marshmallow Peeps, those cute little candy items that no one can eat just one of. The sky is the limit and the entries this year were as creative as ever.
And so, even the top menu item this time of year is an appetizer of Peeps, a main course of marshmallow or fudge chocolate covered eggs, and dessert, of course, is a large chocolate rabbit. Otherwise we would be stuck with eating hardboiled eggs filled with various stuffings and called, at least in Kentucky, “dressed eggs.” Now which would YOU rather have – hardboiled eggs or big chocolate bunnies? I rest my case.
And yet the celebration of Easter in the U.S. is a relative newcomer, it seems, and didn’t really take off until after the Civil War.
Prior to that time there had been the normal Easter sermons, which were preached on site to the troops in the field on both sides, by dozens of Protestant preachers and devoted Catholic priests as well.
Roots of Easter Go Back in Time
To the surprise of no one, the more secular part of Easter was not particularly prevalent before that time, since the Puritans actively discouraged the idea of ceremonies associated with religious holidays. In fact, it seems we have the Presbyterians to thank for encouraging the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ, which evolved into the celebratory Easter occasion we know and love today.
It is easy to see why at the conclusion of the Civil War, survivors on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line realized their good fortune at making it through the four years of strife, and resurrection seemed almost a normal expression. It was motivational and it supplied hope. People were in need of both.
Rather than being relegated to the lectern in a church sanctuary, once again the Good Book seemed really applicable to daily life.
The trappings of Easter, however, go back centuries. When Christians first celebrated Easter with eggs, they were latecomers. All across Europe the custom of coloring eggs and exchanging them was well entrenched.
People of the Russian Orthodox faith had been exchanging bright red eggs for some time, saying to one another “Christ is risen” and the other replying “Christ is risen indeed.” Poor people colored them by boiling them with various colored leaves they found. If you were rich, you wrapped them in gold leaf. Either way, the symbolic egg meant rebirth.
Advent of the Easter Bunny
And we cannot claim the ubiquitous bunny as a modern component either. Eons before the pagans had celebrated the feast of Eastre (or Eostre), a goddess of earth and fertility, her animal companion was a large beautiful bird. She changed the bird in its nest into a rabbit, and the Easter bunny was born, along with a “nest” in a basket, which now holds eggs. A feast honoring the goddess also occurred at the time of the spring equinox, again near Easter.
Rebirth seems fairly sensible with the rabbit entrance, as rabbits are notoriously given to having large litters of little bunnies, one after the other. And you know that chocolate bunny with the big ears that you nibble on? He originated in Germany in the early 1800s, before the war, only made of pastry and sugar.
Passover During the Civil War
Passover and Easter frequently fall together, and it’s from the word “Paschal,” which means belonging to Passover or to Easter, that the lamb figure scampers into our Easter. Christ, being the paschal lamb for our sins, supplies the connection, and chocolate lambs or stuffed ones abound, carrying out the religious theme.
The one true Civil War connection was a result of our Jewish friends. Remember that some 10,000 Jewish soldiers fought in the War, about 7,000 for the North and 3,000 wearing Confederate gray. Allegiances were drawn along the same lines as other denominations and races. The largest Southern population of Jews was in New Orleans, at that time the largest concentration of Jews in the country.
It was only natural that the soldiers taking part in the battles still secretly wished to try and preserve their family traditions while they were fighting the war, and since Passover is the annual Jewish holiday to remember the Hebrews’ escape from the slavery of the Egyptians, the Jewish men of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Regiment decided a Seder or Passover dinner was essential. They were stationed at Sewell Mountain, West Virginia, far from any semblance of home. Sewell Mountain, in eastern Fayette County, was the 1861 headquarters site of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Soldiers Held A Passover Seder in West Virginia
And so it happened that a nineteen year old, Pvt. J.A. Joel, was the leader of the commemoration and one of the group stationed there. Wisely, he asked permission from his commander, Gen. William Rosecrans, who gave his blessing to the effort and said he might even attend.
Few of the necessary ingredients for the Seder being readily available, Joel and some twenty of his companions talked a sutler into supplying seven barrels of matzoh meal (for the unleavened bread) as well as some Haggadah prayer books. By foraging around and searching diligently, they somehow came up with wine, chicken, eggs, lamb, and even a horseradish substitute and a quasi-charoset.
[Note; recipes for charoset vary but the basic ingredients are chopped apples, nuts, grapes, and wine or grape juice. Reminds me of slightly drier chutney. Charoset represents the mortar used while Jews were slaves in Egypt.]
The soldiers used cider instead of wine, made matzoh bread (always made unleavened since during the speedy escape of the Jews from Pharaoh, there was no time to let bread dough rise) and served lamb to represent the Paschal sacrifice. Horseradish, a hot spicy root could not be found, but they found a weed, which seemed to duplicate the bitterness of the original item. And with a real brick on the table upon which to contemplate, their semblance of Seder was remarkably accurate.
One problem arose, however. They discovered to their chagrin that the cider was more like wine than they were accustomed to, and this begin to affect young men taking part in the dinner. As Joel himself wrote, “the consequence was a skirmish, with nobody hurt.”
He obviously was happy that they had been able to continue the tradition of their families, and says, “There in the wild woods of West Virginia, away from home and friends, we consecrated and offered our prayers and sacrifice. There is no occasion in my life that gives me more pleasure than when I remember the celebration of Passover of 1862.”
Easter Became the Sunday of Joy
When the war was over, Easter became known as the “Sunday of Joy.” Many women, mothers and daughters, who had clothed themselves in dark mourning clothes, realized that the time of new birth was a new beginning, so they exchanged their mourning clothes for the brighter colors of spring.
They made or bought colorful dresses, and even their hats began to be decorated with beautiful spring flowers from the yard or farm. If they could not find fresh flowers, they made them from paper, ribbon, or even, in some coastal towns, with seashells as decorations. While there was no mention of an Easter Parade, the hat explosion probably dates to that time.
And the last Easter season of the War was when Good Friday of 1865 saw the assassination of President Lincoln. Preaching Lincoln’s funeral message, Matthew Simpson, Methodist Episcopal Church bishop, said, “The evening [of Lincoln’s assassination] was Good Friday, the saddest day in the whole calendar for the Christian Church, henceforth in this country to be made sadder, if possible, by the memory of our nation’s loss.”
So whether you celebrate Good Friday and Easter or Passover, know that you are carrying on traditions that began just after 1865. And enjoy the day full of life, promise and hope, which we need today just as we did 150 years ago.
[Reminder: The ears of a chocolate bunny have only 95 calories. The whole bunny’s count runs about 894.]
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