I grew up as a Catholic in India, and one of the holiest times of our year was Lent and Easter. In India Christian Easter (and Christian traditions in general) is probably even holier and a more important religious holiday than even Christmas, as it represents rebirth and renewal. It is a time to spend with family and friends, and has a host of traditions associated with it.
Here's a peek into my family's traditions of Easter in India.
The Mourning Period of Lent
Officially Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, and during Lent, most Christians in India follow a fairly strict abstinence from alcohol and meat. I grew up in a liberal family, but growing up, we were brought up steeped in religious traditions. During Lent, we would almost always go to church every day, early in the morning, where we would attend mass, and then the stations of the cross.
Religion was particularly important in our families, and it wasn't just spiritual, but also encompassed social and cultural rituals.
Churches, for us, were extensions of our family, and almost everyone who went to the same church knew each other and celebrated festivals with each other. In many ways, this embedded cultural relevance of churches came with the coming together of a small minority community within a country in which another religion (Hinduism) was dominant. This is not to imply a lack of secularity in India, yet minority communities are very protective of their own traditions and festivals, while at the same time, these festivals are also inclusive and welcoming.
The Easter Season: A Time for Community
For me, Easter is a time to relive memories of my family and community back in India. Easter week begins with Palm Sunday. At mass in church, everyone is given a frond of coconut leaves (used instead of palm leaves, which are not really available in coastal India).
After the mass, there is usually a procession where the community waves the coconut leaves in the air, symbolizing togetherness. As children, Palm Sunday was particularly exciting for us, as we loved receiving those coconut fronds and shaping them into crosses, which we would then display on our family altars.
After Palm Sunday came Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. These three days were considered some of the most holy in our traditions and it was not unusual to follow rigid rituals that were part of these days. Late in the evening of Maundy Thursday, we would all head back to church, where our priests would symbolically wash the feet of 12 laypeople. We were also given loaves of bread in memory of the Last Supper. As a child, I think that was really my favorite part of this ceremony, as we munched our way through the remainder of the service.
Good Friday was more somber, with most of us in church almost the entire day, ritually following stations of the cross and attending long church services. Fasting was almost de riguer on this day, and most people only ate very simple food, if they ate at all. I recall my grandmother making us plain congee, which we ate with a spicy mango pickle on the side, to represent austerity and mourning.
How We Celebrated Easter Sunday
Easter celebrations, however, were not far away, and come Holy Saturday, they were in full swing. Food was prepared late in the evening, ready for midnight when fasting came to an end, and the celebration of Easter began.
Easter Sunday started off early, as we were woken up and put into our best clothes for the day. My mom, as a special treat, also made us appams and chicken curry, a traditional Kerala-style Easter breakfast. We were shepherded to church where the colors were bright and the bells tolled all morning. After church, we visited our families, bearing traditional Easter sweets and cake, and then celebrated with another huge, festive lunch with meats, vegetables, rice breads, and desserts.
Easter With My Grandparents
One of my favorite memories of Easter, growing up, was celebrating it with my grandparents. My grandparents' home was in a small village outside my hometown of Mangalore, and one of their famous landmarks was this beautiful church.
Aba and Mai, my grandpa and grandma, lived right behind that church, and behind their home – on a tall hill – was an old, ruined cross. They took their religious duties quite seriously, and on Good Friday, we all made an arduous hike from the church, over the hill behind their home, and to the cross.
It was exciting for us, as children, but a serious endeavor for my grandparents. After the mourning of Good Friday, my grandmother was up early on the Saturday, preparing for the feast on Easter.
We were allowed to stay up late, and accompany her to the market, where she sourced pork, chicken, and mutton, along with fresh vegetables. She then spent the rest of the Saturday pounding spices; chopping onions, chilies, garlic, and ginger; preparing vegetables; and grinding wet masalas in her large stone grinder. Batters were prepared, and a Easter cake was ordered. We were careful not to be caught within any kind of distance from her, as we knew that we would summarily be conscripted into chores, and no one wanted to spend the holidays doing chores. Grandma also cleaned our small house from top to bottom, in readiness for the guests who would descend there on Easter Sunday.
My grandparents have both now passed on, and for me, Easter Sunday is a melancholic reminder of my time with them and the memories I have of them. In Canada, where I currently live, we celebrate Easter with my daughter, who will have very different memories of this holiday, when compared to mine.
For my grandparents and parents, Easter was all about family. They celebrated it with the joy and gusto that comes with knowing that the community has pulled together to celebrate another year, and that we would continue to be part of this family for a long time, whether we live in the same country or not. This is what makes my Easter so special, and I hope that one day I will be able to take my daughter back to India to celebrate it the way I did growing up.