The happy confusion of Easter

2009-04-10 00:00

Easter brings back a lot of memories for me, one of them — a painful one involving a blackboard duster with a wooden handle — reminding me that we all tend to do things differently.

“What is Easter?” asked the teacher.

I was about six at the time and my hand shot up. I knew the answer and was jumping up and down with excitement. “It’s when you get Easter eggs!” I blurted out without asking permission to talk. A second later, a projectile hit me on the head.

“Total ignorance!” shouted a voice I didn’t recognise. It was a guest speaker. How he’d slipped into the classroom unnoticed I don’t know, but clearly he’d been holding the blackboard duster.

As he started telling the class that Easter was to do with someone being nailed to a cross, dying and coming back to life, all I could think was that my temple was burning where I’d been hit and that I was now bright red from embarrassment because I’d got the answer wrong. Had he been a nicer person, I would have found his story quite fascinating.

Visiting friends, I realised that Easter was also watching mothers and grandmothers dyeing eggs. They’d hard-boil vast quantities of them in vats of natural colours: onion skins gave you brown or orange ones, nettles made them green, and some were blue or red. When cooled, they’d let us children rub them with oil to make them shine.

Some households were spookily quiet and secretive about their methods; others would be full of loud chatting and laughter. This was in Switzerland, and my parents, being English, didn’t follow all these traditions and were apprehensive when we children were invited to our first Easter egg hunt.

I sensed that they would rather have stuck to their idea of Easter, which was having a day off and getting a chocolate Easter egg or bunny. I remember feeling sorry for my rabbit as soon as I’d broken off its ears; so I’d smash it into small pieces so that I couldn’t see its accusatory eye. But one day my parents did let us join an egg hunt and finding all those coloured eggs in the long grass was magical.

Another memory I have is of my parents buying my grandmother a massive egg. It was a work of art made with the finest Swiss chocolate, with marzipan flowers and chicks and rabbits running all over it. It was packed in a see-through box on green paper straw and it was half a metre tall. How we got it from Switzerland to the United Kingdom in one piece I can’t imagine.

We drove there with it, Dad probably hoping that the car wouldn’t get too hot and that we wouldn’t throw our coats on it. It took up precious space in the boot along with luggage for six people and just missed being crushed by the bottles of duty-free spirits.

This egg remained uneaten for many years, and eventually was inedible anyway. First my grandmother displayed it, still in its box, in her front-room window so that passers-by could admire it and friends and neighbours visit it. Gran would content herself by eating a little Easter egg she’d bought in its silver foil, the way she always did.

Three years later it sat in the slightly less prominent bedroom window overlooking the street, the egg by then resembling some cobwebbed relic of Miss Havisham’s wedding feast in Great Expectations. My grandmother would turn in her grave to hear me saying this and insist that she’d dusted its box every day.

So, whether for us Easter has religious significance or not, I’m looking forward to the Easter egg hunt and watching my children laugh as they scamper all over the garden looking for them.

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