For many years on Good Friday I would drive across town to a late-afternoon religious service at the house of a Catholic religious order in my city, Washington, D.C. Then, as dusk fell after the two-hour liturgy, I would drive back across town to my home. Each time I would be shocked to realize that I was a member of a dwindling minority of people who regarded Good Friday as different from the other 51 Fridays in the year.
Different neighborhoods on my route home provided little variance in this trend; whether the genteel and expensive post-Christian enclave in Northwest Washington where I lived, or the mostly African American and presumably fervently biblical ward in which the religious order that hosted my Good Friday liturgy resided, the general atmosphere remained consistent. A line of blue-jeaned college students snaked outside the door of my neighborhood pickup bar, the Cactus Cantina, as it did every other Friday night. Cars cruised and horns honked, and clusters of young people on the prowl for weekend adventure crammed the sidewalks.
The working-class Latino neighborhood through which I drove, whose residents nominally shared my Catholic faith and for whom Viernes Santo is a solemn fast day commemorating Christ’s death, was unseasonably merry: roaring crowds on the sidewalks, glittering lights from the bars, beer bottles smashing periodically against the asphalt.
Each passing scene on my tour confirmed the cultural obliteration of Easter — that most sacred of Christian feasts — in a society whose members still define themselves overwhelmingly as Christians. The “war against Christmas” — the campaign to force everyone to say, “Happy Holiday!” and banish the crèche from public places — is still ongoing and met with considerable resistance, à la Mike Huckabee and his in-your-face December campaign ad reminding viewers that Dec. 25 celebrates the day Jesus was born. The war against Easter, by contrast, seems sadly over.
My latest issue of Fine Cooking magazine arrived the other day, featuring what would have been known in former times as an Easter dinner: roast lamb, asparagus soup, angel food cake. Here, it’s identified as a “spring” dinner, and the issue otherwise contains not a hint that some of its readers might wish to mark the spring by celebrating Jesus’ triumph over death. Not even a recipe for dyed eggs or baby chick-shaped cookies graces the pages of the magazine.
More ominously still, St. Patrick’s Day falls this year during Holy Week for the first time since 1940. The usual green-beer binges did not abate in honor of the solemnity of this week. The saint himself, famous for having brought the bonfires of the Easter Vigil to Ireland, may well turn over in his grave.
Millions of American Christians will nonetheless celebrate Easter this year with church and sunrise services, and family lunches and brunches. But these commemorations are nowadays generally private and muted. Most schools and workplaces drone on in routine without even acknowledging the holiday (except in Hawaii, whose Good Friday legal holiday somehow survived a constitutional challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union). The “Easter parades” of yore in which people strolled in their finery after church are much diminished, if they continue to exist at all. Even the famous White House Egg Roll on Easter Monday has turned at least in part into a political occasion for gay and lesbian parents.
Given the solemn nature of Easter, which celebrates not the happy birth of a child as does Christmas, but the awesome themes of suffering, death, atonement, and resurrection, it is always conceptually difficult to festoon the paschal season with the rounds of merrymaking that characterize the end of December.
Still, it is sad and disconcerting that the oldest and holiest of Christian festivals is simply ignored by the media (and almost everyone else), and that Christians have acquiesced to the near-disappearance of their highest feast day from public consciousness.
Though we may — like the soldiers who boozed and gambled at the foot of the cross as salvation unfolded before them — ignore the phenomenon of redemption, Easter is above all a feast of hope. And as Augustine of Hippo wrote, “We are an Easter people.”
— Charlotte Allen is author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.