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Inside the Brown Bag By Peg Brown

The “Cruelest Month” …

“April is the Cruelest month…” When T.S. Eliot wrote those words at the end of the 19th century, it was clear he had never experienced the pure joy on biting off a pair of solid milk chocolate rabbit ears from a Sweenor’s Easter bunny! While he was metaphorically referring to the challenge that long dormant flowers faced in pushing their way into the world following a harsh and brutal winter (something with which we can this year clearly identify), the traditions that come with the celebration of Easter were not his focus.

Spring, rain, and the changing of the seasons are associated with rebirth, reawakening, and renewal, all closely linked with Easter celebrations around the world that center on the religious commemoration of the rebirth of Christ. But amidst those most serious religious observances and messages lies another more secular side of Easter popularized and commercialized as many of our holy days have become.

And, just for the record, that is not a political comment on my part, as I too, was raised with the strong spiritual components of Easter, accompanied by a healthy dose of chocolate and marshmallow cream eggs.

The Easters of my youth were hardly unique. While observing the rituals of holy week, including silence between noon and 3:00 pm on Good Friday, we delighted in the chance to pick out a new dress and hat, mostly wide brimmed straw with ribbons, for Sunday service. Our “Easter best” always included a dress coat, white ankle socks with ruffles, black patent leather shoes with ankle straps, white gloves, and a tiny corsage purchased by my father made with a fresh carnation centered with a pink rose.

We often used our hats from previous years, but they were always adorned with new grosgrain ribbons and sprigs of fresh spring flowers. Mother, I remember, always wore the same flat straw hat perched precariously on her fresh curls, that always sported lilies of the valley, her favorite flower. As I look at those black and white photos, I am now keenly aware that while we had new togs for the occasion, Mother rarely indulged in a new Easter outfit. Although Irving Berlin’s hit of the 1930s, “Easter Parade” was still very popular, our small home town never hosted an organized parade to show off our Easter finery, but we did always walk to the town square after church to meet our neighbors.

Both my sister and I had hand-made straw baskets (mine was larger!), that we used each year, lined with a fresh bed of that sticky decorative grass, always green—never in the now popular pinks and yellows—which we placed at the foot of our beds on the night before Easter. The candy left by the bunny was always the same. The centerpiece was a large chocolate covered egg, filled with dense white cream, surrounded by a Milky Way cross (you cut one bar in half for the arms), yellow peeps, marshmallow cream filled eggs, solid chocolate mini eggs in bright foil, and a large sprinkle of jelly beans.

Mother always unwrapped the candy before putting it in our baskets, in order, I think to make it seem more authentically bunny-delivered. I am ashamed to admit my sister and I received those baskets until we left home, when Mother made sure we took that old basket with us into our new lives—probably breathing a sigh of relief.

The first mention of an Easter “hare” (not bunny), appears in German literature in the late 1600s. The concept, thought to be transported to America by Protestant Germans who settled in Pennsylvania Dutch country in the early 1700s, likened the practice to Santa Claus leaving only treats for children who had been judged “good” during the previous year. The children of these families would make nests in their caps or bonnets and await the “Osterhare” visit on the night before Easter.

The symbol of the rabbit or hare is also said to have religious connotations, as it was thought that the rabbit could reproduce without loss of virginity (a reference to Mary), and often reproduced in large numbers. The egg, also a sign of fertility, has in many cultures, a significant place of respect. For example, in the Orthodox religion, one of the early traditions was the complete abstention from eggs during Lent- fast-a fast broken on Easter morning with hard boiled eggs dyed red, a symbol of the blood of Christ.

But now what you’ve all been waiting for—the candy! The National Retail Federation has again released information on holiday spending by Americans and, as always, the numbers are amazing. It is estimated that 87 percent of American parents will prepare Easter baskets for their children this year. Spending on candy will amount to at least $2.4 billion, and Americans are expected to spend over $17 billion on the food, decorations, clothing and sweets associated with the holiday. Perhaps amazingly, that same survey says that millennials will spend more than any other age group for the holiday. Optimistic forecasters had suggested that in the current concerns over childhood obesity, Americans would spend less on chocolate. This year (2019) spending on chocolate will have increased 20 percent to a staggering $25 billion.

No discussion of Easter candy would be complete without a comment or two on those yellow peeps (now appearing in a rainbow of colors), and the ever-present jelly beans. Peeps were not mass produced until 1953, but this Easter it is estimated that over 700 million peeps will be sold, enough to encircle the earth at least twice. I also noticed in that CVS, among others, is now selling large stuffed replicas of the iconic chicken. I confess I have eaten a peep or two in my time, but I always opened the package and let them lie around for a few days so that they would be extra chewy!

And the jelly bean. Someone who obviously has too much time on his or her hands estimates that there will be 2.3 jelly beans consumed for every man, women and child on earth this year. And while Jelly Belly now makes over 50 flavors, you all know my heart still lies with the sugary spicy colored beans and the whole bags of black jelly beans that you can buy for $1.

No commentary on Easter would be complete without a mention of perhaps the most famous Easter eggs ever created—those fashioned by the jeweler Fabergé for the wives and mothers of Czars Alexander the III and Nicholas II. The first was created in 1885 as an Easter gift for the wife of Alexander III, a tradition that continued until the revolution of 1917. It is thought that 69 eggs in all were created over that period, but only 57 are known today. If you have decided not to spend that much money on candy this year, you can purchase a Fabergé egg—the last one recently sold for a mere $9.5 million and others been known to fetch up to $28 million on a good auction day. For me, that’s a lot of bags of black jelly beans!!!

It’s been a tough winter everyone—enjoy a solid chocolate bunny or cream filled egg!

While the first official Easter Parade of record was held in Atlantic City, NJ in 1876, the origins, according to some historians, date to the mid-1800s when “well heeled” individuals strolled down 5th Avenue in their Easter finery after church.