Jelly beans! Easter baskets! People in giant, creepy rabbit costumes in the center court of the mall!
Easter is a religious celebration, but in the wider American culture, Easter has become a small-scale celebration of all things spring.
Personally, I’m OK with that. I mean, let’s face it: Many of the symbols of the Christian high holy day—eggs, rabbits, flowers—have been symbols of new life and fertility in cultures that pre-date Christianity.
I’m not getting into a fistfight with any Aztecs to reclaim the Easter Bunny from Ometochtli.
Yet, as someone who grew up in the Catholic faith and who attended 12 years of Catholic school back when nuns still bloodied knuckles with rulers, the religious symbols and rituals of Easter and Holy Week impart an added layer of meaning to this holiday—
A layer so ingrained over the years that Catholics easily give themselves away, even when they’re not wearing plaid uniforms.
1. Catholics have bad knees.
During the 40 days preceding Easter, many Catholics attend extra church services. Extra church services mean extra kneeling and standing and kneeling and standing. During just one Stations of the Cross service, a Catholic kneels and stands up enough times to make even the most devoted CrossFit enthusiast tremble with respect.
Catholics may need knee replacement surgery by age 35, but they all have great quads and glutes.
2. Catholics have really good recipes for grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.
In preparation for Easter, there are several days when Catholics fast and abstain from meat. In spite of the hundreds of delicious and exotic vegetarian recipes on Pinterest, at some point, Catholics settled on grilled cheese and tomato soup as the Lenten meal of choice.
Research points to The Great Constantinian Cheese and Tomato Edict of 314 AD as a possible source of this dietary idiosyncrasy. However, that research was done on the Internet, so take it with a grain of salt in your Campbell’s soup.
3. Catholics are almost never surprised by snowstorms in March and April.
Especially for Catholics who grew up in the north and northeast part of the country, snow after March 21, on its own, isn’t a harbinger of global environmental disaster. Every girl child remembers freezing her patootie off while dressed in a short, frilly dress on her way to Mass during an Easter snowstorm. Every boy with newly shined shoes clearly recalls getting slapped upside the head for treading in slush piles.
And nothing jogs your memory of past weather incidents like the time your mother yelled at your father to turn up the heat in the car, her damn orchid corsage was wilting.
4. Whenever someone lights incense, Catholics begin drinking coffee and feeling guilty.
Some people light incense because they’re Grateful Dead fans. Some light incense as a ritual of their eastern religion.
For Catholics, incense is abundant throughout the year, but especially during the Holy Thursday (or Last Supper) Mass. I was once at a Holy Thursday Mass with so much incense in the air that the smoke detectors started blaring, in a kind of 150-decibel “Hosanna!”
Holy Thursday services also memorialize the night Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane while his disciples kept falling asleep. This is recreated every Sunday by Catholics who nod off during the priest’s homily, only to be elbowed awake by the most pious member of the family for the Profession of Faith. That’s why Catholics often suggest a Starbucks run—or offer unsolicited apologies for not listening, not being a better friend, and not calling to say hello at Christmas—every time they smell a stick of Nag Champa.
5. Catholics love chocolate, but at a price.
Easter morning, in ways, is like Christmas morning—anticipation of goodies that will magically appear after an extended trial of being extra good. But Easter is also one of the itchiest and overly fragrant holiday celebrations.
Children sit through an hours-long service while wearing uncomfortable bonnets, tights and lace socks. Everyone gets new outfits from the base up, and there’s always a tag somewhere in a pants leg that feels starched and pointy. Aunt Helen and Great-Aunt Gloria arrive for brunch, fully steeped in Avon’s Lily-of-the-Valley perfume. The whole world smells like hyacinths and Old Spice cologne.
But there is chocolate, and chocolate is always a blessing. Thank you, Jesus, for giving us Godiva.