Easter was one of the big four holidays in my family, the others being Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. This meant family gathering for a big celebration at either our house or that of one of my cousin’s. Easter and Christmas also involved quality time at Church.
Christmas more often than not involved Midnight Mass during which both my brother and I were involved as altar boys. There were usually 20 of us “serving” the Midnight High Mass. I was certainly glad to be assigned Midnight Mass rather than put off family Christmas time to serve at one of the Masses that followed in the morning.
On Easter there was no Midnight Mass nor was there a Sunrise Service per se. The Mass schedule followed the normal weekly times of 7:00 , 8:30, 10:00 AM and 12 Noon. Almost all the time we went to the 8:30 Mass. My first two years, I was a member of the choir and I have great memories of looking down at the congregation from the choir loft. The church was bathed in the early morning light as the sun rose above the tree line. The first real church in our parish was an old chapel purchased from the Army when they downgraded activities at Camp Blanding and sold most of the buildings on post after WWII. The first Masses celebrated in our parish were at a parishioner’s home. My Grandmother’s home was one of those because of its large living room. Later when the parish outgrew the homes, Masses were held in the old Lake Shore Theater. This turned out to be a problem for me as a young boy because it was hard to remember not to genuflect at the end of the row of seats at a movie. Good for church, but not for Roy Rogers. It took several years for the habit to wear off once we were in that chapel, which seemed to bathe in a particularly bright light on Easter Sunday morning. I’m sure it is my memory playing tricks on me, but I don’t remember any Easter Sunday morning in that old chapel that was not bright and shiny.
Before too many years passed, the “new” church was built and the chapel became the church hall, the venue for many a boy scout troop meeting, church bazaar, bake sale, and most importantly those CYO dances where we got to hold a girl in our arms for the first time. Come to think of it, they got to hold a boy in their arms for the first time too. So all was good.
Before Mass, we rolled out of bed a little early to go Easter Egg hunting in our back yard. Now, these were not the toothless Easter Egg hunts that the kids of today have. These were real; the eggs were hidden behind and under the backyard objects, not just laid out on the ground for easy spotting. Mom and Dad stood on the back porch, quietly supervising. As it turns out, they were also counting. They wanted to be sure we found every one of the hard boiled eggs that were hidden. Finding one of those eggs a few weeks after Easter was not a pretty sight. It could put you off eggs for a month.
That was the first of two Easter Egg hunts that we participated in every year. The other was when the family got together. All the cousins would search the yard for the candy Easter Eggs put out by the Easter Bunny, read that as Uncles and Aunts. By the time the hunt was over, we each had a significant haul almost rivaling the stash from Halloween. Naturally, parental supervision was applied so that we did not spoil our appetites before Easter dinner.
Before our altar boy days, my brother and I were always decked out in our Easter finest, usually a white suit. Once we started serving Mass, the suit gave way to our uniform pants and a new white shirt complete with an obligatory tie. We would loosen the tie before putting on our cassocks because the close fitting collar of the cassock would become stifling if buttoned over a fully tied tie. I finally learned to remove the tie and hang it on the clothes hanger where the cassock was hanging. I remember being especially excited the first year that the color of the cassocks changed from the usual drab black to a flaming red for the holidays.
We really became cool when the white surplices were replaced with capes trimmed in gold thread. Now this was really cool. I mean it cool! The surplices when worn over the cassocks completely blocked any ventilation that we could get from the overlap of the button holes. But the capes left this open and one could easily improve the situation by sticking a hand through the seam a’ la Napoleon and let the cooler outside air in. I must admit that the first time I saw a portrait of him that is what I thought he was doing. As nice as cassocks and surplices where in the wintertime, sub tropical Florida summers were brutal on altar boys. A nod and a wink to those congregations who froze in the air conditioning of a Florida church; they didn’t know that the altar boys had access to the thermostat.
So as I sit here reminiscing the Easter Sundays of my youth, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for the kids of today; “healthy” Easter baskets, easy Easter Egg hunts and families flung to the four corners of the country. And the Easter Bunny, OMG, is it just me or today’s Easter Bunny costumes just a tad bit creepy? Remember the real reason for today. Oh MY!