Thinking back on it now, I’m not surprised that I found the entire season incomprehensible. I was baffled by far simpler things — carbon paper, reversible shirts, and those tiny cereal boxes that you could pour the milk directly into. Still, I went to Catholic school, always completed my religion homework, and attended Mass on a regular basis when I remembered to go. I should have had a better handle on the Easter story. But as with many other life events, I looked forward to the time when the holiday would be over, and I’d have another whole year to figure it out.
The trouble started with Ash Wednesday, an otherwise regular school day, except that we were expected in church early that morning. At some point, everyone would line up near the altar and the priest would dip his thumb into a pot of ashes and form a cross with it on our foreheads. On any other day of the year, a smudge on your face would have drawn ridicule, but on Ash Wednesday it was a sign that you were obedient and holy. After church, we all walked around school with good posture and heads held high, making sure to hold the gaze of nuns and priests long enough for them to spot the ashes. To be smudge-free on Ash Wednesday often demanded an explanation; at best, it attracted curious or disapproving looks.
And so began Lent, the seven-week period leading up to Easter. We were given small cans in which to collect nickels for the Catholic missions. The cans had a slot in the top, and a label on the side with forty blank squares. We were supposed to deposit a nickel each day and mark the boxes with an X. At the end of Lent we were to turn in the cans, now packed with two dollars in coins. In the early 1960s, that was enough money for a grandstand seat and a hot dog at Yankee Stadium, a sinful thought that never failed to escape my distracted little mind. Our return to school on the morning after Easter inevitably erupted into a frantic search for stray nickels, because by the third day the can had gotten misplaced, lost behind a jar of Ovaltine or a box of Brillo soap pads.
We were also urged to give up something for Lent, to abstain from a favorite food or activity as a way to acknowledge the enormous sacrifice Jesus made by dying on the cross. This was tricky. Back then, forty-six days took forever, which caused me to wonder why they called it a fast. More to the point, boldly declaring that you were giving up ice cream or television got you a nice dose of wide-eyed attention for a while, but after a couple of days nobody really cared anymore, and you still had to follow through with your promise. Changing your mind about what you were giving up for Lent was a complicated matter, we suspected, involving letters to the Pope, sanctification with incense, and special prayers that had to be chanted in Latin. And, of course, there was the possibility of burning in Hell for the rest of eternity. It was important to choose carefully, and to take the decision seriously. One year I gave up cabbage, and actually got away with it, but I think that was because everyone else was too busy designing bomb shelters and hoping to avoid nuclear annihilation, so thoughts of my immortal soul may have seemed less than pressing.
I recently learned that the Sundays in Lent weren’t considered part of the abstinence period. In other words, even if I had given up Milk Duds for Lent, I could have had them once a week. But that was the only break from the rule. If I went to the movies on a Saturday to see Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster, say, or Mary Poppins, I’d be forced to forego the Milk Duds in favor of a Baby Ruth bar or bubble gum cigars — unless there was another loophole nobody had bothered to mention, such as some esoteric exemption that became activated during horror films or impossibly unbearable musicals.
Here’s a common question about Easter: Why does it sometimes fall in March and other times in April? Intellectual types who majored in religious studies often try to argue that it’s connected somehow to the Jewish festival of Passover, which in turn is based on the lunar cycle. But this is one of the few parts of the holiday I understand, so please allow me to correct the misconceptions. In fact, the Easter schedule is tied directly to the major league baseball schedule: If the St. Louis Cardinals are playing at home on opening day, the holiday lands in March. Otherwise, it’s delayed until April. And this is only fitting. After the long, lifeless winter of football and hockey, baseball is the ultimate symbol of rebirth.
What I didn’t like about Easter was that I was required to get dressed up, even beyond the nice clothes I always had to wear to church. No one could explain this to me. The people in my religion book walked around in robes and sheets. Why did I have to wear a suit?
However, the basket of candy made up for everything. I didn’t get the connection, and still don’t. Bunnies and eggs don’t seem to go together, any more than jelly beans and resurrection. But none of that mattered. All I knew was that on the afternoon of Easter Sunday, the forty-six days of Lent were finally over, and I could go back to thinking about the truly deep mysteries of life. Like, how did the milk stay in that little box of Cocoa Puffs? Why didn’t the Catholic missions send smaller cans and ask for forty dimes, instead? And when is Ghidorah vs. Mary Poppins coming out? I’d give up anything to see that.