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There are varying Christian beliefs and practices relating to the season of Lent, the observance of Holy Week, the celebration of Easter (or Resurrection Day), and the post-Easter holy days such as Ascension Day and Pentecost. Spring is also a time when many families, Christian as well as Jewish, celebrate Passover. Some families already have a rich background of church and/or cultural heritage, but may be looking for new ways to enrich those traditions. Others may come from backgrounds without such observance, but want to do something more than the common, secular holiday traditions. This page lists our suggestions for books, music and other activities that (we hope) speak to both needs.
Note: The word "Easter," while controversial, is nevertheless handy, short, and understandable, and we will use it here as needed.
Reclaiming the Holiday
Fortunately or unfortunately, it is easier these days to "reclaim" Easter than it was forty or fifty years ago. Easter, throughout much of the twentieth century, threatened to become as much of a secularized, mainstream holiday as Christmas: giant pink rabbits and new clothes ruled.
Ellie and Brenda were already fighting about what they were going to wear to church. Since Momma got mad at the preacher three years back, Easter was the only time in the year that the Aarons went to church and it was a big deal . . . Brenda [said she] would go if she at least got a new skirt. (Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia)
However, the story of Christ's suffering and death, though followed by resurrection, has never been as appealing and marketable (thankfully) as that of His birth. While costumed rabbits still appear in shopping malls, the Bunny has never held quite the adoration of Santa. As the secular world has withdrawn much of its claim on Easter (largely in favour of Earth Day), Christians may feel they have to be a little more inventive and distinctive in their observance--and that's not a bad thing! Although we may create brand-new traditions, in our own families or within the church body, we often find ourselves searching back through the poems, stories, art, hymns, and music that spoke to believers in earlier eras.
Do We Even Need a Special Easter Literature? Or Music?
There are some churches that do not call Easter Sunday a special holiday, because, they point out, every Sunday is Easter Sunday. In the same way, we might say that every really good hymn is an Easter hymn; and any number of novels, stories, and poems can be seen as retelling the story of God's love for us and Christ's victory over death. Think of Christian biographies and missionary stories; think of the profound message of renewal in stories such as Pinocchio, Heidi, The Secret Garden; or in more obviously Christian novels such as Treasures of the Snow. Advisory member Anne White writes, "In our own family, we created Holy Week devotions based on readings not only from C.S. Lewis's Narnia, but also (as the children got older) from his Space Trilogy." But it is not necessary to work these readings into a special devotional time; often simply reading the book together over a period of time is enough.
"Son of Adam," said Aslan, "go into that thicket and pluck the thorn that you will find there, and bring it to me."
Eustace obeyed. The thorn was a foot long and sharp as a rapier.
"Drive it into my paw, son of Adam," said Aslan, holding up his right fore-paw and spreading out the great pad toward Eustace.
"Must I?" said Eustace.
"Yes," said Aslan.
Then Eustace set his teeth and drove the thorn into the Lion's pad. And there came out a great drop of blood, redder than all redness that you have ever seen or imagined. And it splashed into the stream over the dead body of the King.
(C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair)
One AO mom writes, "I start reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on Palm Sunday. I spread it out over the week so that we get up to Aslan's death on Good Friday. Then I put the book away (without comment) until Easter Sunday, when I finish the book."
Observing the Passion with Young Children
The events of Holy Week, especially Christ's suffering, can be a difficult story to tell in families that include young children. Sensitivity is required when choosing paintings, reading descriptions of the crucifixion, or watching videos that may make even adults shudder. However, these stories are central to Christian belief, and should be taught to children in whatever ways they seem ready to see and hear.
Advisory member Donna-Jean Breckenridge writes, "My most powerful child-connected Easter weekend memory is Rembrandt's Raising of the Cross--I would hang that print nearby each year. One year [my daughter] wanted to paint (she was about 6 years old)--and ended up painting herself in the scene of the Crucifixion, just as Rembrandt included his own self-portrait in the work, indicating (along with the soldier in the painting, who extends a sword, hilt out to the viewer) our involvement in the cross. I still have that child-like 'reproduction' of it--a little girl with blonde braids, tears dripping down, with a sword in her hand. Michelangelo also has a sculpture--and it's believed that he used himself as Joseph of Arimathea. (It's called The Deposition, and the man is considered to be either Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus, but it's a self-portrait.)"
Anne writes, "One year when our oldest daughter was very, very small, I put a piece of green paper on the kitchen wall, about ten days before Easter. I cut out small paper sheep from a Sunday-School pattern, and also a shepherd. Every day we added more sheep to the picture. We may have drawn flowers and things on the field too. By the Thursday before Easter we had quite a few sheep. We talked about how the shepherd takes care of the sheep and makes sure they are all where they belong. But when we woke up on Good Friday, the shepherd was missing from the picture. Some of the sheep were gone as well. The others were all topsy-turvy or stuck somewhere else on the wall. I told her that this is Good Friday and people were sad today because Jesus the shepherd was gone. I've wondered since then if that was kind of a mean thing to do to a little kid. Some children (our next one, for example) might not have taken the idea of the missing sheep and shepherd too well. But this child caught the idea perfectly. When we went to the Good Friday service and things were sad and serious, she understood why. The scene remained a mess until Sunday morning; and then the shepherd was back in the picture, with sheep jumping all over him. We celebrated! We hurrahed! Jesus came back! The sheep were back! And it was, I think, later that day that an older relative asked if an Easter Bunny had visited us. Our daughter looked at her blankly. The relative said kindly, 'She's just too young to understand Easter.'"
In a similar vein, Auxiliary member Kathy Livingston gave her young daughter a Good Shepherd clothespin doll and cotton ball sheep to play with and talk about. She says this idea came from Celebrating the Church Year with Young Children by Joan Halmo, a book that is out of print but which might be found used or in libraries. ($amzn)
Favourite Family Activities
First and most obviously for Christians would be reading Scriptures together, either throughout Lent or in some special way during Holy Week; and adding extra times of prayer and/or worship.
There are simple and more complicated versions of "Lent Calendars," similar to Advent calendars. This can be anything from a paper chain, to something to be coloured in, or something set up with candles.
Some families collect coins in a jar, to be donated later to those in need.
Some families use Lent as a time to emphasize simplifying (such as eating simpler meals) or decluttering.
A widespread favourite tradition for either Good Friday or Easter Sunday is baking some sort of buns or bread, perhaps Hot Cross Buns if you are from a British background, but many ethnic groups have their own special baking for this time of year. Anne writes, "Many Mennonites make Paska bread at Easter, and our adult Sunday school class started an Easter tradition of bringing in their Paska to share with the class. As the word got out, we noticed that there were more and more drop-in guests for the class every Easter, so we finally turned it into a whole-church Paska Party with coffee, juice and fruit in addition to the baking. Our family does not have a Paska-making tradition, but we do make Schwabian buns called Kiffle, so we always brought those instead. Another tradition we inherited from my husband's Schwabian family is eating popcorn on Good Friday."
Some families make foods that tell the Easter story, such as "Resurrection Rolls" (that magically have an empty space in the middle), and "Easter Story Cookies" (the ones that sit all night in the oven--recipes can be found online). Pretzels are another food with a special meaning (you'll have to look it up).
Other favourite foods at this time of year include various types of cheese, often homemade; and of course, eggs!
An AO user in England writes that their family decorates "a bare tree branch with paper flowers, painted eggs, chicks, butterflies etc. on Holy Saturday, ready for Easter Sunday." They also arrange a small basket of decorated eggs to be used as an Easter centerpiece; and bake a "simnel cake," which traditionally has eleven balls of marzipan on top to represent the eleven remaining disciples.
Auxiliary member Kathy writes, "We usually construct a tomb of some sort of rocks from our backyard, put a small doll inside it, and put a rock in front of it."
Some families use a set of plastic eggs that hold Scripture verses and/or small objects to represent parts of the Easter story. AO mom Melisa Hills recommends the video Miss Pattycake's Egg-Strava-Ganza, which tells the story using Resurrection Eggs, and also the picture book Benjamin's Box by Melody Carlson. ($amzn) (K)
Depending on where you live, Good Friday may include planting activities such as bulbs or seed potatoes. Donna-Jean reminds us that "Lilies are perennials, and once planted (after they fade), they will likely bloom again the following year in most places." She also writes, "One year, I made a small resurrection garden from the base/plate of a terracotta pot, with soil and stones/gravel, grass seed, and a much smaller empty pot on its side in the soil. A larger stone was propped nearby. It could also have twig crosses on it. But the idea of planting the grass seed and tending it was a good one. Lots of tutorials for this, under Resurrection Garden. I did it with my grandkids, and also with a women's group at church. It was more moving than I expected, I think because it involved nature, dirt, seeds, watching . . ."
Hiking, or otherwise enjoying the outdoors together, are favourite Easter-weekend activities for many families.
The Passover seder is observed not only by Jews but by many Christians as well. One picture book that tells the story is Exodus by Brian Wildsmith. ($amzn) Kathy recommends the picture book The Matzah that Papa Brought Home by Fran Manushkin. ($amzn) Some parents may also remember reading about Passover and other Jewish feasts in Sydney Taylor's All-of-a-Kind Family series of books.
We have a page of favourite Good Friday and Easter hymns here.
An Advisory favourite from the archives of contemporary Christian music: "Easter Song," written by Anne Herring (Second Chapter of Acts) *, but also recorded by Keith Green *. And while we're going down that road, the crucifixion and resurrection are frequently explored by Christian songwriters. You may want to dig out your stash of albums (or CDs or music files) and rediscover some old favourites. (A suggestion from Advisory member Leslie Laurio: Don Francisco's "He's Alive." *)
An online search for "classical music Easter" will bring up a variety of suggestions, many of them choral music. One frequent suggestion is to listen to Handel's Messiah, which we often think of at Christmas time but not always at Easter. If you didn't get the chance to read Cindy Rollins' book Hallelujah! Cultivating Advent Traditions last December, maybe now would be the time! ($amzn) (K)
Bach is frequently mentioned, particularly the St. Matthew Passion *, about which the NPR site says, "This is the apex not just of the Passion form -- but it may just be the summit of all choral music, full stop."
Here are a few other ideas:
Easter Oratorio, by Johann Sebastian Bach, 1725 *
The Resurrection, by George Friedric Handel, 1708 *
"Resurrexit" from the Messe Solennelle, by Hector Berlioz, 1824 *
Stabat Mater, RV 621, by Antonio Vivaldi, 1712 *
Lament of the Mother of God, by Sir John Tavener, 1988 *
One further suggestion from Anne: "One year our family taped the Peanuts special 'It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown,' and we watched it every year after that, complete with the old commercials. Besides the show's memorable views of Woodstock's funky apartment and its lessons on how not to cook Easter eggs, its soundtrack features a Bach minuet and also parts of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Opus 92. Those who are looking for something other than choral music at this time of year might want to spend some time listening to Beethoven, and then watch the Peanuts special as a bonus."
Books for Increasing Ages
As noted above, Melisa Hills recommends the picture book Benjamin's Box by Melody Carlson. ($amzn) (K) The Hills family also reads The Parable of the Lily by Liz Curtis Higgs, ($amzn) (K) The Tale of Three Trees by Angela Elwell Hunt, ($amzn) and The Very First Easter by Paul Maier. ($amzn) (K)
Here are some other suggestions which have been drawn from posts on the AO Forum and /or recommended by AO Advisory and Auxiliary members:
Easter is Coming, by Marion Dane Bauer ($amzn)
Little Rose of Sharon, by Nan Gurley ($amzn)
Miss Fannie's Hat, by Jan Karon ($amzn)
Rechenka's Eggs, by Patricia Polacco ($amzn)
Petook: The Rooster Who Met Jesus, by Caryll Houselander, illustrated by Tomie de Paola ($amzn)
Michael Hague's Family Easter Treasury, by Michael Hague. ($amzn) An oversized, tastefully illustrated hardcover book; includes Scripture readings, "The Selfish Giant," and a number of poems including one by Hilda Conkling. Not as entirely bunny-free as one might wish, but nearly so.
Good Stories for Great Holidays, by Frances Jenkins Olcott. ($amzn) (K) The Easter-related stories in this anthology include an adapted version of "A Lesson of Faith" from Parables from Nature; "A Child's Dream of a Star," by Charles Dickens; and "The Loveliest Rose in the World," adapted from Hans Christian Andersen.
Poems and Prayers for Easter, by Sophie Piper ($amzn) (2009, Lion Hudson/Paraclete Press). Aimed at children; some poems are more winter/spring-related than Easter, and there are a few chocolate bunnies in there; but the Christian content is foremost.
Before and After Easter: Activities and Ideas for Lent to Pentecost, by Debbie Trafton O'Neal. ($amzn) A useful little book, packed with crafts and other activities such as baking pretzels. As some reviewers have pointed out, doing everything suggested every day would probably wear you out; it might be more useful to pick and choose activities that suit your own family's schedule.
Family Celebrations: Meeting Christ in Your Holidays and Special Occasions, by Ann Hibbard (OOP). ($amzn) This is a book of devotional activities for several different holidays. It includes patterns for a Lent-to-Easter felt banner with symbols to be added throughout the season (and accompanying readings). Ann Hibbard published a later book called Family Celebrations at Easter, which sounds similar to the plan in her first book.
Amon's Adventure: A Family Story for Easter, by Arnold Ytreeide, the author of the Jotham's Journey books that some have used during Advent. ($amzn) (K) Melisa writes, "This book has 28 chapters to read. You could easily stretch them to cover 40 days or just the 28 days leading up to and including Easter Sunday."
Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter, by Malcolm Guite. ($amzn) (K) "Following each poem with a helpful prose reflection, Malcolm Guite has selected from classical and contemporary poets, from Dante, John Donne and George Herbert to Seamus Heaney, Rowan Williams and Gillian Clarke, and his own acclaimed poetry."
Offering Ourselves: A Lenten Journey with Charlotte Mason by Anne White. ($amzn) (K) Advisory member Anne White has written a Charlotte Mason-style Lent devotional drawn from Ourselves Book I, which is aimed at adult readers but which can be adapted to use with children as well.
For adventurous and mature readers: Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy. ($amzn) (K) "Tolstoy never did anything more delightfully infectious in fiction than the scene of the Easter service in the village church, where the young hero and heroine, after the traditional Russian greeting 'Christ is risen,' exchange kisses with the carefree rapture of mingled religious exaltation and dawning affinity for each other." (Ernest J. Simons, Introduction to Tolstoy's Writings)
And finally, an "art" book. Although many books of paintings contain images of Christ, one that is especially worth looking for is The Faces of Jesus, by Frederick Buechner, with photographs by Lee Boltin. The book can be found in a small, unillustrated version; but the large illustrated edition (1974/1989) is much better. It is divided into six chapters for the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Ministry, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. The oversized edition contains examples of paintings, sculptures, and even children's drawings of Christ, both past and current-day, from around the globe, in addition to Buechner's commentary. As with any book, parents will need to use discretion about which images will feed their children's minds and hearts, and which should be left until later. The book is out of print, but it can be found through various used-book sources. It can also be borrowed online at archive.org.
Poems to Share
by Christina Rossetti
Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood's slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;
Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.
Yet give not o'er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.
An Easter Carol
by Christina Rossetti
Spring bursts to-day,
For Christ is risen and all the earth's at play.
Flash forth, thou Sun,
The rain is over and gone, its work is done.
Winter is past,
Sweet Spring is come at last, is come at last.
Bud, Fig and Vine,
Bud, Olive, fat with fruit and oil and wine.
Break forth this morn
In roses, thou but yesterday a Thorn.
Uplift thy head,
O pure white Lily through the Winter dead.
Beside your dams
Leap and rejoice, you merry-making Lambs.
All Herds and Flocks
Rejoice, all Beasts of thickets and of rocks.
Sing, Creatures, sing,
Angels and Men and Birds and everything.
All notes of Doves
Fill all our world: this is the time of loves.
On Easter Day
by Celia Laighton Thaxter
Easter lilies! Can you hear
What they whisper, low and clear?
In dewy fragrance they unfold
Their splendor sweet, their snow and gold.
Every beauty-breathing bell
News of heaven has to tell.
Listen to their mystic voice,
Hear, oh mortal, and rejoice!
Hark, their soft and heavenly chime!
Christ is risen for all time!
From "The Dream of the Rood", Anglo-Saxon, 8th century, trans. Richard Hammer (1970; the earliest Christian poem in English)