Many nonreligious Americans still feel attracted to Easter traditions
By MICHELLE BOORSTEIN | The Washington Post | Published: April 20, 2019
You're not a churchgoer. Don't consider yourself religious in any way, and might say you're not Christian if asked. Yet here comes a Sunday in spring that marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Christian faith, and you feel a pull, anyway — toward Easter.
It might mean hosting family for lamb (a tradition with roots in pre-Christian Passover and customary among Eastern Orthodox Christians, who celebrate the holiday on April 28), a liquid jazz brunch out or taking photos with a human-size bunny at a shopping mall. Whatever it is, the season of a core commemoration in Christianity retains a communal power in America, even for the nonreligious.
America's fastest-growing "religious" group is composed of people who say they don't have a religious affiliation, or are "nothing in particular." The "Nones" make up nearly a quarter of the country, so those "Easter Keg Hunts" or whisker-painting sessions or annual treks through a church door matter in understanding religion in 2019. And for the nonreligious themselves, taking part in some type of Easter experience can still matter a lot, for reasons that can be complex, based on childhood faith or nostalgia or finding community in these harried times.
This brings us to Emily Johnson, who stood in line at the Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, Virginia one day last week with her sisters, waiting to pose for a photo with a large bunny in a patterned suit. For the trio of siblings — in their 30s and 40s — the photo and Thai lunch out afterward is their Easter tradition, and their commitment to it is orthodox and nonnegotiable.
"We went to church [on Easter] growing up and taking pictures with the Easter Bunny, and that eventually turned into family dinners and then . . . " the 43-year-old lab technician said, her voice trailing off as she made circular motions with her hand, like a wave rolling on. Her younger sisters nodded.
One parent passed away. A sister moved to Maryland. Even holiday weekends got crowded with kid baseball practices and grocery shopping. Two of the sisters call themselves Christian but Johnson says she's not religious whatsoever. Yet the bunny-photo tradition lingers, she says, maybe because the ritual feels lighthearted after the oppression of winter, and it produces an annual image of her together with her sisters.
"Maybe it seems ridiculous for a bunch of women to snuggle up to a bunny in a costume, but it's the only time of the year we get a nice photo together," she says. "It's just a part of our lives. It's what we do."
More than half of all Americans say they attend religious services about once a year or less, according to the 2018 General Social Survey. Among the 23 percent of Americans who say they have "no religion" — a number up from 14 percent in 2000, according to the GSS — a full 88 percent say they never go to religious services, and 3 percent go once or "several times" a year.
Pastors and researchers long ago used the label "C&E Christians" for churchgoers who attend services only on Christmas and Easter. They also know there are plenty of nonreligious people in church on the date that technically marks Christ's resurrection. But for Americans not affiliated with a religion, Easter may be more apt to symbolize spring, hope and renewal, or just an excuse for new duds. And it calls for new rituals.
Bret Kollmann Baker, a 32-year-old brewery operator in Cincinnati, says if you push him to define himself religiously, "I'd say I'm into sun worship. Without the sun, we'd have no energy. I see it every day. It goes away at night. So it seems like the natural thing to say." Baker says he grew up being "forced" to go to Lutheran church and confirmation services, and rejected religion because he felt there was no room for questioning something that, to him, is based on myth.
But he and his wife have carefully-considered communal traditions, including each saying something for which they are thankful before dinner, doing monthly neighborhood group meals (organized via email list), and on Easter, making lamb with his wife's family. It's pretty much always the same people: "Core family, or friends that don't have any family thing going."
On Sunday, their guests will each say a little thanks. "It gives me a chance to spring on lamb," he says. Easter means nothing to him. "I don't really care [about the religious holiday], but it's an excuse to get together with your family."
Restaurateurs and people who sell foodstuffs know how powerful the pull is to mark any event with a meal, and how rituals evolve through eating.
Cathal Armstrong, who owns four restaurants in the Washington area, says he opened Kaliwa on Easter last year, and that every year the holiday becomes busier for his industry. He thinks that's because Americans — especially in areas such as Washington — are working and so busy that there are fewer opportunities to "take a pause from our mayhem schedules."
On Easter, he'll serve a spring lamb dish, along with a wide-ranging menu.
His family used to make sure to do the holiday together, including his sister in Maryland. However, varying school calendars means people take out-of-town trips at different times, and now it's not a must. His family is Catholic, and he says he encounters other Catholics who have moved away from the church, partly because of clergy sex-abuse scandals, but they still want to do something to mark Easter.
"Regardless of your faith, there are more ways to celebrate it than participating in some institution. It's an opportunity for families to connect," he says.
Like any special date, Easter for many people is associated with certain foods: a Honey Baked ham, maybe Peeps — a marshmallow candy that's been sold since before the 1950s around Easter.
Kevin Wyatt mentions Honey Baked Ham as part of the Easter Sunday dinner he'll have with his mom and stepfather and other relatives.
Wyatt, 26, considers himself an agnostic, but just moved back to his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, after some years in very secular Portland, Oregon, where Easter seemed totally invisible and he did nothing to mark the day.
Now, he said, they'll eat some ham, maybe say a prayer at dinner. And there will be no further discussion of the significance of the day.
On Saturday, the day before Easter, he'll do an Easter Keg Hunt, which involves teams of people in some costume finding 10 kegs hidden around the neighborhood, through clues (and a mandatory drink at each stop, proved with a photo).
Wyatt grew up going to Methodist services on occasion, but his view of faith was shaped strongly by his father, who was an agnostic but shared little tidbits of different faiths with his children, and was fascinated by how similar world religions were, Wyatt recalls.
"So for me, doing Easter and dinner — it's the novelty, the tradition," he said. Outside of religious holidays, there aren't many rituals "to break up the monotony of day-to-day life."
American families connecting in a nonreligious way on Easter is not new. Bunnyville, a spring fair that has been running at the Detroit Zoo for 29 years, has grown so popular that it was recently expanded from just the day before Easter to the two days before Easter. They expect 30,000 guests this weekend, said Gerry VanAcker, the chief operating officer of the Detroit Zoological Society.
Bunnyville isn't a purely Easter event; it's more of a spring welcome from the zoo to a freezing cold city where April can sometimes require a warm hat. It includes a golden-egg hunt, photos with a bunny, a strolling puppet master, whisker (face) painting and other entertainment. Guests are encouraged to bring canned food, and last year Bunnyville donated 8,000 pounds of provisions to a local food bank, VanAcker said.
The zoo is open on Easter. It's only closed on Christmas, New Year's Day and Thanksgiving, but Easter is a lower-attendance day.
The tens of millions of secular observances around Easter, a holiday rooted in a spiritual mystery, may reflect a search for meaning among the nonreligious, even if they aren't looking for explicitly Christian answers. Fifty-three percent of Americans who say they have no religious affiliation say they believe in an undefined "spiritual power or higher force," Pew Research found last year.
The Rev. Clayton Childers, who works in advocacy for the United Methodist denomination, said his church — Grace United Methodist in Manassas, Virginia — has twice the attendance on Easter as a usual Sunday. It's the most-attended day of the year, including by nonreligious people.
They come, he said, "because there are people they love who do believe and they go to support them. I think people, even those who doubt, are hungry for depth of meaning and belief in mystery," Childers said. "We can't explain it all, and the mysteries of Easter point to something beyond ourselves. A mystery. A hope. I think we want to make a difference, and we appreciate seeing other people who live beyond themselves. It inspires us to want to do more. To be more loving."