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Christians believe that Easter is the greatest feast of the Christian calendar because the Resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us hope that God will never abandon us. It is about going to church to commemorate the Passion and crucifixion of Jesus and then to celebrate His Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Back in the 1950’s, more than 90% of those living in the United States identified themselves as Christian, and most of those were practicing Christians. Easter was the centerpiece of the Christian faith, a momentous holy day. Even for those of little or no faith, the secular aspects of Easter made it a momentous holiday.
Members of a Catholic household, my family celebrated Easter both spiritually and secularly. We had it all. Here is a typical sequence of events for me and my siblings from Ash Wednesday through Easter Sunday:
We attended a Catholic school, which I’ll call St. B’s, from 1st to 8th grade. To usher in Lent, all of us school children received ashes on our foreheads during the school day on Ash Wednesday. We pondered the sober message, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
St. B’s was a large school of three floors with more than 50 students in each class. Therefore, if you were to walk the halls of St. B’s on Ash Wednesday in the 1950’s and 1960’s, you would see as many as 1,500 students and teachers, all with ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads.
During Lent, we attended Stations of the Cross every Friday during school hours. We never ate meat on Fridays during Lent, but back then, Catholics refrained from eating meat every Friday year-round.
One year my class took a field trip to see the annual Passion Play Veronica’s Veil at St. Michael’s Church on the South Side of Pittsburgh. That was special.
Of course, preparing for Easter was a fun time as well. Outside of school, we sang songs like Irving Berlin’s “The Easter Parade” and listened to Gene Autry’s record “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.”
For us young girls, there was the planning of our resplendent outfits—our best dresses, Easter bonnets, white anklets, and shoes. Some girls wore petticoats under their dresses to make them fuller and were decked out in white gloves, white patent leather shoes, and matching purses. Supporting a family of seven, my parents couldn’t afford to buy new dresses every year, let alone all those accoutrements, but we always dressed nicely. And we often got new hats.
Here is a 1955 display of Easter dresses at Hess Brothers Department Store in Allentown, PA.
My sister Sandy remembers the joy of choosing a new Easter hat with “all the frills upon it.” “I remember being really excited to pick out our Easter bonnets. I know it was either G.C. Murphy’s or Woolworth’s, but I’m almost certain it was Murphy’s. I remember going down a set of wide linoleum-over-concrete stairs to the basement, but I’m not sure if that’s where the hats were or if we were just shopping in general.”
My sister Shirley recalls, “I had a couple of pretty dresses with the crinoline under them and loved to hear them crinkle.”
A day or two before Easter Sunday, my Mother, sisters, and I dyed hard-boiled eggs using food coloring or dye tablets and vinegar to color them. Just as today, the Paas egg kit was the standard bearer of egg decorating kits.
Boomer kids had just one Paas option that I can recall: The kit came with a sheet (or two?) of paper with colorful Easter-related pictures called transfers. After the eggs were colored and dried, you cut out a picture and transferred it to the egg with a wet cloth.
Today you can buy kits that allow you to decorate eggs with glitter, tie dye designs, shrink wrap, stickers, and more. There are even religious glow in the dark designs and Pokemon kits.
On Easter morning, in preparation for taking Communion, my mother would wake us up early for breakfast, since back then you were not allowed to eat within three hours of Communion. She would bring us a tray of food; then we would quickly eat and go back to sleep for a while longer.
My parents (aka the Easter Bunny) always hid our baskets on Easter morning, and we had to scour the house for them. Though we knew what we’d find inside, we were always excited.
Observing this photo closely, I see that I’m the only one without an Easter basket. Judging from the look on my face and the look on Shirley’s face, I am guessing that my jokester dad told me that the Easter Bunny must have forgotten me, quickly snapped a photo of my dismayed face, and then led me to my basket. Certainly a possibility.
Most Easter baskets in the 50’s and 60’s were made of wicker. Many were woven with pastel or vibrant spring colors. They were filled with green plastic Easter grass—no other color. These types were common:
Here are typical Easter baskets that my siblings got in 1951:
Chocolate Easter bunnies ruled the Easter baskets. According to the Smithsonian, these chocolate delights date back to 19th-century America, which borrowed it—and the Easter Bunny in general—from Germany. They became immensely popular in the early 1900’s once a chocolate mold was created, which enabled the bunnies to be produced more quickly and in large numbers for Easter.
I was corresponding with Sandy about Easter candy, and she said, “I remember being really disappointed the first time I got a hollow bunny.” So I looked up the history of the hollow bunny. They started being sold in 1948 by Richard Palmer, whose name still graces the packages of many Easter sweet treats today. The vice-president of the Palmer Company claimed that it is easier to eat a hollow bunny; biting into solid chocolate can break teeth. The New York Times article “Where Chocolate Bunnies Come From” disparages that claim: “The bunny might also be the child’s first taste of deception. Who doesn’t remember biting into a chocolate rabbit and, instead of a solid chunk of chocolate, getting a mouthful of air.” I’m sure Sandy feels vindicated.
FYI—YumSugar.com reports that 76 percent of Americans prefer to start eating the bunny ears first.
In our 1950’s Easter baskets, marshmallow peeps were the second most popular candy. First mass produced by the Just Born Company in 1953, they came in three colors only—white, pink, and yellow. Those peeps were responsible for making Just Born the largest candy manufacturer in the world at that time. In the 1960’s, bunnies and other shapes were also produced. Today “peeps” are sold in a variety of shapes and colors, such as trees and snowmen at Christmas and ghosts and pumpkins at Halloween although they still reign supreme at Easter. Now they can be found in five colors: white, pink, yellow, blue, and lavender.
FYI—According to Wikipedia, “An annual “Peeps Eating” contest is held each year at National Harbor [MD] in front of the Peeps & Company store. 2016 winner, Matt Stonie of California, ate 200 Peeps in five minutes.”
FYI—According to Just Born, 25% to 30% of their customers prefer eating Peeps stale. My daughter and son also prefer stale peeps. When I gave Leslie this little bit of trivia, she said, “I’m not weird after all!”
An Easter basket wouldn’t be legitimate without jelly beans, first marketed for Easter in the 1930’s because of their egglike shape. In the 50’s and 60’s, there were eight flavors in a bag, but now Jelly Belly jelly beans, created in 1976, come in a wide range of colors and flavors, such as buttered popcorn, pancakes and maple syrup, and even draft beer!
FYI—Jelly beans were President Ronald Reagan’s favorite treat, which he indulged in to curb his pipe smoking habit. He even sent them on the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1987.
Some boomer kids received real chicks, dyed in bright Easter colors. It was common to see large batches being sold in stores before the holiday. Many chicks fell victim to people who bought them to entertain their children but were clueless as to how to care for them, leaving them to die from neglect when the novelty wore off. My husband and his brother were thrilled to get natural undyed chicks at Easter, but then they were transported to his grandparents’ home, where the boys could visit them often. Meanwhile his grandmother raised them for their eggs . . . and later as Sunday dinner. Today dyeing chicks is banned in many locales.
Once the excitement was over, we prepared for church. Here are four of us five siblings in 1956, dressed and ready, except for little Sandy, who would be staying home.
Here are Eddie and Shirley in their formal outwear on Easter 1957.
Walking into church was like strolling into a blue-ribbon spring garden show. Not only did the Easter lilies adorn the altar, but all the girls and women were wearing their finest from head to toe. I still remember that being the case in the 1980’s when my own kids were young.
Today the most you can expect at some Catholic churches on Easter Sunday is that people will refrain from wearing jeans. Maybe I’ve just seen the exceptions. The last church in which I’ve seen people dress commensurate with the holy day was St. Anne’s in Houston, Texas, when I visited my daughter at Easter a few years ago.
At St. B’s on Easter Sunday in the 50’s and 60’s, the pews were packed, with ushers coming around to squeeze in those extra parishioners who only went to Mass on Christmas and Easter.
All stores in the 50’s and 60’s were closed on Easter Sunday, and on all Sundays, for that matter. Christian individuals and businesses observed the fourth commandment, “Remember to keep holy the Lord’s day.” So, instead of shopping, Sunday was “family day.”
After church, as was the tradition, my father donned the cook’s apron, making his specialties of pancakes or French toast and serving them on apple-shaped glass dishes used only on Sundays. His parents gave a set to each of their children. I now have my Aunt Mary’s set.
We rarely had company for Sunday dinners. Cooking for seven and corralling five children was quite enough for my mother. Nor would she infringe upon others to add seven place settings to their dinner table. I don’t remember much about Easter except that we had a big ham.
Here’s an Easter dinner suggested in my mother’s 1959 Better Homes and Gardens Holiday Cookbook. Notice the request for “meatman” to slice the ham.
I’m sure that Eddie, Shirley, Billy, Sandy, and I went to bed happy that night after celebrating the preeminent event of the Christian calendar . . . and knowing that tomorrow we would wake up to a basket still full of chocolate, marshmallow chicks, and jelly beans. I’d knock off the earless chocolate bunny feet and then pick off the black licorice jelly beans. We were kids. What can I say?
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.