The customs of Easter in the small Mennonite town in which I grew up were simple. By the standards of Eastern Christian communities or even by the secular measure of an affluent society, they were much too simple. No beautiful baskets of elaborately decorated eggs and lovingly braided Easter bread to be blessed by the priest on Easter Sunday; no Easter egg hunt or abundant chocolate eggs and chocolate rabbits, either.
Instead, the official highlight of the day was a more celebratory church service than usual, with choir and congregation making the square wooden building resound with favourite hymns, sung in four-part harmony. I always loved “Up From the Grave He Arose.” The lilt of rising chords in the chorus seemed as lovely as a meadowlark’s song.
On the women’s side of the church, there was also unspoken, half-guilty pride in some new dresses or hats, all suitably conservative in style and color. My mother always sewed my new “goin’-to-meeting” dress for Easter Sunday (if I had grown enough to need one).
For me, Easter still looks and feels like the morning sun in spring, its rays slanting through the back door of our farmhouse to gather itself in glory on the landing of the stairs to the second floor bedrooms. To skip down into that sunshine, wearing my new dress, was as close as I could get to rapture.
In the days before Easter, my mother often helped me dye eggs. This was nothing like the elaborate art of Ukrainian Easter eggs. We just immersed boiled eggs in water with vinegar and food coloring. That was it. Then the bold red, green, blue, and yellow results were put away in the cold room, to be brought out for the traditionally light Sunday evening supper. I can still feel the edge of the cracked shell against my thumb as I carefully uncovered the lightly tinted egg, perfect for slicing and putting on homemade rye bread with butter, or eating alongside Easter bread (paska), spread with icing and sprinkled with orange rind.
This Easter we once again hosted one of our sons and his wife and three children. A mixed culture family, they had already established a tradition of an Easter egg hunt, initially to spy the hidden small foil-wrapped chocolate eggs, but now, since the children were old enough to follow written clues, to track down the final prize of one large chocolate egg.
Two years ago, in a nostalgic mood, I suggested that we dye our own Easter eggs – real cooked eggs. But I wanted to use fruit juices and infusions made from onion peels, beet peels, and various flowers. The children (then aged 5 and 3) had to be convinced, first of all, that we were not going to draw on the eggs with markers (is that the primary designing tool in kindergarten and pre-school these days?).
Each egg was lowered into its color bath and then rotated slowly, with a teaspoon, to make sure the color “took” evenly. There was astonishment that grape juice really does make eggs deep purple, almost instantly. That was the favourite choice. Raspberry juice produced a delightful wine-red, although it took longer. The onion peel infusion was so slow that I impatiently added turmeric powder, which produced a deep yellow with odd streaks. The black pansy infusion seemed to make no difference at all, not until the almost white egg began to dry. Then, to the children’s amazement, it was a pale aquamarine. I was not surprised. Having often made flower jellies, I knew that the first color to emerge from black pansy petals was a dark turquoise, even though the completed jelly was always purple.
That first effort at natural egg-dying is now a tradition. Months ahead of the actual departure date for this year’s Easter celebration, the children were talking eagerly about coloring eggs. They remembered how surprisingly varied the results had been; the colors had marbled and streaked in inexplicable patterns. Who knew that would happen? None had turned out exactly as I had expected. Yet the finished products were beautiful. Not perfect, but beautiful.
Last week, once again, the newspaper was spread on the kitchen island, and the glass tumblers of various solutions were set out, to the accompaniment of anticipatory giggles. This time I prepared some of the infusions in front of their amazed eyes: as the boiling water hit the frozen black pansy petals, they gasped at the aquamarine blue which eventually turned to deep purple. We didn’t bother straining out the petals, and hence at least two eggs emerged later with the imprint of an actual petal or two. After the first set of eggs was dyed, we mixed solutions at random, producing an utterly unexpected green egg out of an ugly slurry of yellowish brown. Who knew?
On Easter Sunday, the eggs were served at lunch. “I want this purple one,” one granddaughter declared while her twin sister reached for a pink egg. “Look, it’s colored inside!” Shards of colored shells accumulated beside each plate.
Easter is indeed a time of mystery and simple joys—the sacred face of spring. All things resurrect in spring, when dry grasses and barren trees (lovely in their austerity if we choose to see them as they are) breathe out a wispy green, and color-starved people wander the open prairie looking for the first crocuses. None of those first colors are dramatic; they’re gentle, as if only patience can overcome the resistance of frost. As if color has been brushed on with a divine, pussy-willow touch in the midst of winter detritus.
As if failed expectations and shameful mistakes and loves gone cold need to be recognized as doorways into grace, before our hard, protective shells can be cracked open. Sometimes, indeed, the wisdom of winter is that surrendering to whatever processes are underway and abandoning our compulsive desires to achieve proud perfection is the first step to regeneration.
(Originally published in Prairie Messenger May 3, 2017)