The customs of Easter in the small Mennonite town in which I grew up were relatively simple. By the standards of Eastern Christian communities or even by the secular measure of an affluent society, they were too simple — abbreviated, even. 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 colour. 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. 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 colouring. 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 light supper that was traditional on Sunday evenings. I still remember carefully lifting the cracked shell with the side of my thumb to uncover the lightly tinted egg, perfect for slicing and putting on homemade rye bread with butter, or eating alongside iced Easter bread (paska), sprinkled with orange rind.
This Easter we 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 for small foil-wrapped chocolate eggs, indoors or outdoors as weather determined. In a nostalgic mood, I suggested we colour real cooked eggs, using fruit juices and infusions made from onion peels, beet peels, and various flowers. The children (aged 5 and 3) had to be convinced, first of all, that we were not going to draw designs with markers (is that the primary designing tool in kindergarten and pre-school these days?).
Each egg was lowered into its colour bath and then rotated slowly, with a teaspoon, to make sure the colour “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 turned pale aquamarine. Having often made flower jellies, I knew the first colour to emerge from black pansy petals was a dark turquoise, even though the completed jelly was always purple. That miraculous colour transformation has never ceased to delight me.
There were giggles, messy splashes of dye on the counter, happy exclamations. Whether we dried the eggs or just let them drip, the results were surprisingly varied. The colours had marbled and streaked in inexplicable patterns. Who knew that would happen? None of them turned out exactly as I had expected. Yet the finished products were beautiful. Not perfect, but beautiful.
On Easter Sunday the eggs were served at lunch. “I want this purple one,” one granddaughter declared, while her twin sister reached for the raspberry dyed egg. “Look, it’s pink inside!” Shards of coloured 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 colour-starved people wander the open prairie looking for the first crocuses. None of those first colours are dramatic; they’re gentle, as if only patience can overcome the resistance of frost. As if colour 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.
As I was reminded this past weekend, mystery and surprise are preferable to perfection. Next year, whether we have grandchildren as guests or not, I shall still dye some eggs with whatever natural food stuffs come to hand, and wait to see what happens.
Froese taught English literature at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon for many years until her retirement. She currently works part time as academic editor while relishing the freedom to read and write for pleasure.