This was today’s e-card from my daughter, Caitlin.
Happy Easter. Every year it amazes me how the United Kingdom, an aggressively secular nation by rhetoric, shuts down for a minimum of four days to celebrate Easter. I have nothing against religious holidays, mind you. I just think it’s important not to be hypocritical. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, people journey back to their ancestral homes for Easter and may be gone for a week. Because Africans are unapologetically religious, this behavior has some integrity.
So what to make of the United States’ Easter practices? Here is a nation that is, measurably, the most religious of the Western industrialized countries, but does not close business for Good Friday or Easter Monday. Indeed, most stores will be open today. (Back in the homeland for the holiday, I just asked Jim to bring me back a vente Americano and I am sure he will only have to stop once.)
We might say that Americans adhere to another faith, “retail religion,” which has its own calendar of observance, including Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s, Easter, Mother’s Day, and the Fourth of July. Most of these include a minimal retail shutdown (maybe half a day grocery outage on Christmas), on the heels of a shopping surge.
The shopping is, of course, done primarily by women, who labor in the aisles of department and gift stores to acquire the ritual trappings so that their loved ones may have the expected religious experience. Today, they will dispense little Easter candies in secret places so that their children can squeal with delight as they find treasures hidden by “the Easter Bunny” (aka “the Tooth Fairy,” “Santa Claus,” or, if you please, “Mom”). Just as earlier civilizations used incense or drugs to alter consciousness in preparation for epiphany, Americans ingest loads of sugar and sentiment to induce a momentary sense of well-being several times a year. Without mothers to ensure our compliance, we would be left with no soft-focus memories at all.
Moms can be excused, perhaps, for the occasional ironic thought even while acting in service to the society. That is why I laughed out loud when I opened the e-card from Caitlin this morning. My daughters know well that I had those moments of black humor–and that I occasionally pinched from their Easter (Halloween, Valentine’s, Christmas) candy. I would never have eaten the chocolate rabbit (they would never have let me get away with it), but the mad impulse evoked by this e-card spoke to me.
My family, spiffed up for Easter, circa 1965. By that time, hats were out of fashion (someone please tell my mother), but we did have Easter baskets to match. Mind you, Mother made all these clothes.
I am enough of a traditionalist that I took my kids to church virtually every Sunday of their childhood. Certainly we went on Easter, though I admit one big reason we did so was that I enjoyed putting together their Easter dresses, shoes, hair ribbons, socks, and so on. I came from a seriously Southern Baptist family where a new hat and dress were as much a part of celebrating Easter as singing “The Old Rugged Cross.” When the girls were little, I still adhered to the notion that all god-fearing people should have an Easter outfit. (I don’t have access to those photos from here, so please take my word for it that my daughters were really cute on Easter.)
That’s me, having a Roger Rabbit moment, next to Susan, both of us in costume for Kathy’s birthday party, which falls near Easter most years. My mother really pulled out all the stops for this one. My own least favorite part of motherhood was throwing birthday parties, followed closely by parent-teacher conferences.
Nevertheless, I have come to see this compulsory shopping work–inevitably accompanied by equally compulsory cooking, cleaning, gift-wrapping, and so on–as another important touchpoint between women and the world economy. Everywhere in the world, there are holidays like Easter where women will spend sums of money and hours of time pushing goods through the systematic potlatch we call “the global marketplace.” Without this activity, a significant percentage of retail sales would disappear, throwing many consumer-facing companies into ruin and shuddering through the entire global supply chain. The contribution of this economic activity–even if done from the warmth of the heart and the depths of the soul–should be recognized. But, like so many of the contributions of women to the proper functioning of the world provisioning system (growing food, rearing children, volunteering, as well as working for pay and investing) the ritual shopping that accompanies religious observance goes unnoticed. If some of us occasionally feel the irony as a result, perhaps it is just the glimmer of awareness.
So, if you feel the impulse to nab a small chocolate egg today, think of it as an act of resistance, a tilt at the holiday windmill machine. And enjoy the day.