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Easter Festival

As elsewhere in the world, the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ are commemorated as the triumph of life over death and good over evil.

So go the words of Irving Berlin’s song, in the classic 1948 film “Easter Parade”.

“In your Easter bonnet with all the frills upon it, you’ll be the grandest lady, In the Easter Parade.”

The song sums up just some of the gaiety and festivity surrounding the most important liturgical festival of the Christian year, Easter, which celebrates the triumph of the life over death, of good over evil, and happiness over abstinence.

Easter is the central element in the Christian year, and in the pattern of Christian beliefs, for it commemorates the resurrection, or the return to life, of Jesus Christ after his horrific death by crucifixion. The celebration of Ester begins, in fact, six and half weeks before Easter Sunday, with a period known as Lent. Lent is a time of fasting, and of denial, a solemn mental and religious preparation for the annual reminder of Jesus’ suffering and death. On Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Tuesday, traditionally all the family eats pancakes, thereby using up all the rich, good food such as milk, eggs and sugar, which formerly were banned during the following 40 days. As a child, Pancake Tuesday was always a day of great fun, with hilarious, clumsy attempts at tossing the pancakes, and agonizing decisions as whether to have a second pancake with sugar, or one with honey, or with treacle.

The next day, Ash Wednesday, ushers in the solemn season of Lent. It is customary to “give up” something or Lent, to deny yourself something you enjoy for 40 days, as a symbolic attempt at sharing part of Jesus’s suffering. As a child, from the age of about six or seven, each year I would “give up” something for Lent. One year I “gave up” having sugar in my tea, and have never once put it back – 40 days gave me a life-long habit. The next year, I remember “giving up” milk in my un-sweetened tea, and feeling very superior to my younger sister, who had only reached the giving up sugar stage! Another year it would be no biscuits for 40 days, or no chocolate – and one of my strongest childhood memories is of the first delicious piece of chocolate Easter egg on Easter Sunday morning. I still give up chocolate for Lent every year, and the first piece of Easter egg still tastes wonderful.

On Ash Wednesday, as children, we would be taken to church, where the priest would smear our foreheads with ash, uttering the awesome words (almost frightening for a young child) “Remember Man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” As a schoolgirl, I never noticed the curious stares of people, as I walked around all day with ash on my forehead. Most probably, I was such a grubby child, it look normal! Now, though, I accept that I will receive puzzled looks and many kind, well-intentioned comments such as, “Excuse me, I hope you don’t mind my mentioning it, but you’ve got a smudge on your forehead.”

Lent slowly unfolds, the priests at church wearing somber purple vestments, and to weddings being celebrated, and as a seven year old, you long desperately for a piece of chocolate and check the calendar… still 30 days to go, still 20 days, still 10 days. Then, a week before Easter, is Palm Sunday when the church commemorates the triumphal arrival of Jesus in the city of Jerusalem. The entire population turned out to welcome him, waving palm branches and lining his path with them – those same citizens who would be baying for his blood four days later. Maundy Thursday celebrates the last meal of Jesus (known as the Last Supper) with his 12 Apostles, one of whom, Judas, would betray him to the Roman authorities just a few hours later. The next day, Good Friday, is a day of prayer, and of sadness, as Christians hear yet again, the story of Jesus’s trial, his punishment and his horrific death by Crucifixion. The candles in church are all extinguished, the statues are all covered, the holy water is taken from the font, there is no music – outwardly, the Church is dead. The Good Friday service lasts for three hours and as a young child I was always overawed by the solemness of the rituals as my familiar church took on a darkened sorrowing look.

Holy Saturday sees the Church sorrowing, with the same desolate emptiness, and then, at midnight, begins one of the most spectacular of Christian rituals – the Easter Vigil. Christians believe that early on Easter Sunday morning, Jesus rose from the dead, proclaiming the triumph of good over evil, and a dark over light. This is ritually symbolized in the mid-night ceremonies: the church is plunged into darkness, one candle is lit, and from it, all the candles in church are slowly lit and a wave of shimmering light fills the church, the church bells toll and Christians rejoice that Jesus has come back to life. The statues are uncovered, the fonts are filled with holy water again, and on the altar, a large Pascal candle is lit, which will burn throughout the ensuing Easter celebrations. Once again, light, music and the perfume of incense fill the churches.

To symbolize the end of the frugality and abstinence of Lent, on Easter Sunday morning, people offer each other eggs- the Russian Czars used to offer Faberge eggs made of precious stones but more prosaically, nowadays most people give chocolate eggs. And, if you were Judy Garland, you put on your Easter bonnet, and went to join the Easter Parade.

I could write a sonnet

about your Easter bonnet

and on the lady

I’m taking to the Easter Parade.

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