My parents, especially my Mother, were devoutly observant Catholics. Lent, the 40 day period of fasting and abstinence before Easter Sunday, was strictly observed in our house. Lent began on Ash Wednesday when we attended Mass and received ashes in the form of a cross on our foreheads. The ashes came from burning the previous year’s Palm Sunday fronds. During Lent we had only one large meal a day and two small ones with no snacks in between. We ate meat only once a day, except Ash Wednesday and Fridays when we ate no meat. Of course, during my childhood we abstained from meat on all Fridays as penance because that was the day Jesus was crucified. On days without meat we ate eggs, fish and cheese. Agnes and I were also required to give up something for Lent, usually candy and sweets. We lived a simple life, so there wasn’t much else to give up.
We strictly observed Holy Week, the days from Palm Sunday through Holy Saturday. Maundy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper and Jesus washing his disciples feet and commanding them to “love one another.” Church bells were silenced and the organ not used from Thursday through Saturday. Also, all the statues were covered, the altar was stripped and the tabernacle stood open and empty. Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion, was observed with the Stations of the Cross. The 14 stations are images or sculptures usually on church walls depicting Jesus’ passion and death. Prayers are said at each station. I remember as a small girl kneeling and thinking the prayers would never end.
Many of the early settlers of Assumption, including my relatives, the Kaiser, Theisen, Hoffman, and Mousel families were from Saint Donatus, Iowa. The first outdoor Way (or Stations) of the Cross in the United States was erected at Saint Donatus in 1862, winding up a steep hill behind the church cemetery. Every Good Friday the congregation still climbs that steep hill stopping to pray at each station.
To a small child the six weeks of Lent were a long time. My Mother did not allow us to break our abstinence on Sundays. Her reasoning was “If you fill up on sweets on Sunday it isn’t a sacrifice to do without it during the week.” I always looked forward to Easter Sunday because that day we got to wear our spring clothing for the first time. Agnes and I usually got something new for spring–white patent leather shoes, or a new hat or purse or gloves. Mom made all our dresses so we usually had a new spring dress for Easter. Dotted Swiss, a sheer fabric with small fuzzy dots, was popular when I was a girl. I remember one year we both got new light weight spring coats. Whether they were purchased or Mom made them I don’t recall.
We set out our Easter baskets on Saturday evening and the next morning they contained colored hard boiled eggs and some candy. Of course we couldn’t eat any until we got home after Easter Mass because we had to fast for twelve hours before taking communion. The tradition of the Easter bunny and the Easter basket dates back thousands of years. In European folklore the hare and eggs are symbols of fertility and the rebirth of spring. These ancient spring equinox traditions eventually combined with the Christian celebration of the resurrection and were brought to the United States by early German settlers.
Ham is the traditional Easter meat because cured pork was about all that was left to eat by the end of winter. In a 1979 interview my great aunt Lizzy Pittz recalled “Easter was a special time for baking pies and cakes. For Easter Mother always took a big ham and boiled it. And we ate it cold [after Mass] with chicken noodle soup. We always had a big Easter. And we fixed colored eggs. Kate and Matt [Trausch] came over if they could.”
Unfortunately, I do not have any pictures taken on Easter during my childhood. I did find a picture of Penny and Pat Renschler with an Easter basket. Pat appears to be about three years old.
When my children were young, we observed Easter the same way I had as a child. We attended Mass in Assumption and then usually ate Easter dinner with my parents.