When Easter Wasn’t Our Thing

Due to our Puritan roots, New England-based Congregational churches have traditionally been much more reserved in their Easter traditions and expressions than other more liturgically based denominations. For them Easter was the joyous culmination of a series of elaborate rituals and observances: Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Passion Week, Grand Processions, and Great Vigils. And here’s why Bradford Congregational Church didn’t always celebrate in kind.

In 17th century England, after spearheading the drive to arrest and execute the Catholic king, Puritan Oliver Cromwell named himself the Lord Protectorate of England. Under his reign, the whole culture experienced a ban on religious celebrations. So-called Holy Days were forbidden, including Easter. In January 1645, a group of ministers declared: “festival days, vulgarly called Holy Days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued.”

Stained glass windows were smashed throughout England and were frowned-upon in our New England as ornamental, a distraction from focusing only on God. Our church’s lovely windows would have shocked our Puritan forebears, as well as the wearing of Easter bonnets and colorful new clothes!

Many Puritans fled to the American Colonies under the early reign of Elizabeth I (where raucous and irreverent celebrations were the norm), and Boston was a stronghold of Puritan belief. All Holy Days were banned there, including Christmas and Easter, for an entire generation. The law stated: “observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting or any other way any such days as Christmas day, shall pay for every such offense five shillings.”

The Boston law banning Holy Days was lifted in 1681. but it took quite a bit longer for Christmas and Easter to become recognized and observed by the local population. As late as 1869, Boston schoolboys could be expelled for skipping school on Christmas Day. Easter was also considered a heathen holiday and was banned: the only holiday allowed was a somber Thanksgiving Day.

So it’s no small wonder that our Bradford Congregational Church didn’t regularly “celebrate” Easter (or Christmas) until the 20th century. After all, we did have those pesky Puritan roots. Prior to the Civil War era, our church’s observances were much more conservative, filled with prayer, the singing of (Newbury’s) Jeremiah Ingalls’ hymns of redemption, salvation, and fortitude in a world of crop failure, pestilence, and sin. And 4-hour long sermons broken only for a short time to eat.

Evergreen decorations were forbidden from Puritan meeting-houses like our original church building, and schools remained in session on Christmas Day until it was declared a federal holiday in 1870. It would be a very interesting exercise to locate (our first settled pastor) Silas McKeen’s Easter sermons and see if he even used the word “joy” to describe the day.

Eventually, these Puritan-based views toward Easter, Christmas, and other Christian holidays softened. At Bradford Congregational Church we have slowly “rediscovered” liturgical seasons as something to observe and celebrate such as Advent, Lent, Pentecost, special days and traditions. We have seen how these rituals help us learn even more about God the father, God the son, and God the holy spirit.

Now it is our Bradford Congregational Church custom

  • to host a great Palm Sunday Choir Festival
  • to present a Maundy (commandment) Thursday candle-extinguising service of Tennebrae (darkness)
  • to partake in an ecumenical vigil of prayer on Good Friday
  • to join our Methodist friends for an Easter sunrise gathering singing “He is risen” and to answer “He is risen, indeed!”
  • After gathering together over a communal Easter breakfast we celebrate in joyous worship at our respective churches.