“At Easter let your clothes be new; Or else for sure you will it rue.” A 15th-century proverb
There was a time. I remember. Little Donnie, a flat topped, big eared and nosed, slender boy of eight or nine, dressed in his Easter duds. His little brother isn’t smiling but frowning in the bright, pre-Sunday School light. A clip-on bowtie fastened to a short-sleeved button-down Oxford cloth shirt over pants held up by suspenders. I’m sure my mother dressed us, and I blame her for our lack of fashion sense. He looks like he just uttered a profanity for being dressed this way. “This is bull…!”
Another picture from the scrapbook of life shows us a year or two older, better dressed in front of our ’58 Ford. New clothes in front of what might be a new car and my neck is too skinny to hold up my head it appears.
I’m listening to the song Easter Parade in my head with Bing Crosby singing it. “In your Easter bonnet with all the frills upon it, you’ll be the grandest lady, in the Easter parade.” I don’t remember my mother, despite being the grandest lady, wearing anything other than a pillbox hat but my wife…she loves wide brimmed hats with “all the frills upon it.”
New clothes at Easter were once a tradition, they may still be, but I am unsure. With all the Targets or Old Navies, we tend to buy clothes quite often instead of once or twice a year…if we can afford to buy and in the greatest country in the world many can’t. My fashion choices tend to be tee shirts and blue jeans anyway, the older the better. I still remember being told we were headed to Belks to pick out our new Easter Sunday clothes and the excitement that insued.
The tradition of wearing new clothes pre-dates the Christian celebration of Easter and crosses religions and ethnic groups. Like Easter bunnies and eggs, the tradition dates to the Pagans and their festival honoring Ostera, the Germanic Goddess of Spring. The German Pagans believed wearing new clothes brought good luck.
The Iranian new year, celebrated on the first day of Spring, has traditions rooted in the ancient pre-Islamic past. These traditions include spring cleaning and wearing new clothes to signify renewal and optimism.
Similarly, the Chinese celebrate their Lunar New Year wearing new clothes. It symbolized not only new beginnings, but the idea that people have more than they need.
So why did Christians make the wearing of new clothes a tradition? During the early Roman days of the Church, newly baptized Christians wore new, white linen robes at Easter to symbolize spiritual rebirth and new life.
New clothes became the law around 300 A.D., at least for Patricians, the Roman upper class. Roman Emperor Constantine made it mandatory to wear them in his court on Easter. Eventually, the tradition came to mark the end of Lent, when after wearing weeks of the same clothes, worshipers discarded the old clothes for new ones.
It took a while for the Easter traditions to take hold in the United States. You can thank the Puritans and their Protestant offshoots who didn’t believe such celebrations were necessary or called for. Many Puritans saw traditional feasts of the established Anglican Church, such as All Saints’ Day and Easter, as abominations because the Bible does not mention them. Others claimed that it was derivative of pagan practices that were incompatible with Christianity. It would take a terrible event to make Easter celebrations a part of Americana…The Civil War.
After the death and devastation of the war, churches saw Easter as a source of hope for Americans…a true rebirth. Easter became “The Sunday of Joy,” and women traded the dark colors of mourning for the happier colors of spring.
One of the more famous displays of “wearing of new clothes”, including Easter bonnets, began in 1870s with the New York Easter Parade. It has evolved into the ultimate “dress up day.” Men and women don their finest, even dressing their pets, and stroll down Fifth Avenue. New Yorkers celebrate the Easter parade and bonnet festival with great enthusiasm and of course, it is a boom the for retailers who sell the clothes and bonnets.
During the mid-Twentieth Century the wearing of new clothes became more secular than religious. even patriotic. It was about American prosperity and, in some ways, became a part of the Cold War’s battle of words between Capitalism and Communism.
During the Sixties I had given up my bowties for a necktie and blue oxford cloth shirts and starched khakis became mainstays. The flat top was traded for longer, but not long, hair featuring longer sideburns. A light blue sports coat covered it all. It was another family Easter picture in front of my grandmother’s birdbath and flower garden. Iris, roses, and lilies had yet to show their Spring colors.
The picture is poignant to me. My mother is not showing the ravages of ALS that would cause her to trade the lawn chair for a wheelchair within two years. Except for my brother, have you seen an unhappier looking group?
I remember my mother being child-like celebrating Easter. Big smiles and laughter as she helped us dye Easter eggs. The expected Easter ham and deviled eggs for Easter lunch. Delighting in hiding the eggs and helping us find them. Chocolate bunnies and malted milk eggs. For some reason, a chocolate cake for dessert.
After lunch and the Easter Egg hunt there might have been a rerun of The Robe or Easter Parade on one of our two local TV channels. Either would have been acceptable to watch and napping might have warranted.
I’ve become more spiritual and less religious over the years but will still celebrate the day. In addition to the Christian and Pagan celebrations of resurrection and rebirth, I was born on an Easter Sunday and will celebrate my birthday this Easter Sunday. I expect both my celebrations will be spent quietly. No Easter parade, just family.
Happy Easter to all who read this, may you all experience your own form of rebirth.
Most of my research drew from https://www.fabrictopia.net/blogs/news/93018497-easter-fashion-a-history-and-a-look-ahead#:~:text=Before%20Easter%20became%20a%20majestic%20celebration%20of%20spring%2C,in%20the%20new%20season%20following%20the%20vernal%20equinox.
The collection of short stories, “Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes”, is available for download or in paperback at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B09GQSNYL2/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o07_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1