I've been thinking a lot about the spring holidays lately. For the obvious reasons, of course: we do brisk business in chocolate bunnies and other cute critter confections this time of year. But the long break between Valentine's Day and Easter that 2022 offered up proved to be a time of expansion; not only of our product line, but for my thinking, as well.
I had the opportunity to learn a little about Passover when I started developing a line of sweets that might be suitable for a holiday that comes with a pretty long list of dietary restrictions. I had the good fortune to connect with Rabbi Jared H. Saks, who made time to share with me about Passover food traditions and their meaning. He volleyed my questions and brainstorms about confectionery appropriate for the Seder plate and for gifting. And even challenged me to create a confection from the ingredients in haroset, or to create chocolates for all the plagues (not just frogs).
"We'd love to know what you might come up with for death of the firstborn," he joked.
Which surprised me. Not the idea of a chocolate that somehow symbolized the last plague, but the lightness and good-natured enthusiasm Rabbi Saks exuded about a holiday that to me has always seemed, frankly, sad and intense. Our Jewish customers have been suggesting for years that we offer a line of Passover-appropriate sweets, bemoaning the lack of truly good chocolates for the holiday. But I've felt stymied by the absence of a secular gateway to Passover. Easter has its bunnies, and baskets, and eggs. Passover has slavery, and suffering, and plagues. Is it a lack of imagination on my part that I can't conjure up a lightness of being about boils and blood? Or simply my ignorance?
(Clearly, as evidenced by the savvy humor in the cartoon below drawn by my friend's adolescent son, Ezra, it is probably both.)
Growing up, my agnostic mother managed to craft Easter celebrations without ever once mentioning Jesus. We had baskets full of See's chocolates, pastel colored jelly beans, and walnut fudge-stuffed chocolate eggs. We took an annual pilgrimage to a state park to dine on a picnic brunch of pineapple-glazed ham, jello salad, and mini marshmallow-studded ambrosia, rain or shine. And, given that it was March or April in northern California, it often was raining. And the four of us - older sister, brother, mom, and me - would eat from soggy paper plates in our rain gear, under a tarp slung between live oaks or redwoods or lodgepole pines, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Later we would attend a feast of roast lamb and spring vegetables at my aunt and uncle's house, where we would be forced into an awkward pre-dinner grace at my Catholic uncle's behest. His prayers fell, for the most part, on uncomprehending or disinterested ears, until one year when I ventured the query as to why we always ate lamb at Easter. There was a short flash of pride on my uncle's face, believing that he had somehow managed to break through the wall of my religious indifference. This was quickly followed by a horrified silence as the reality of explaining to a squeamish pre-teen the dissonant symbolism of consuming lamb at Easter sank in.
In following years my most prominent spring-time/Easter memories would be marked by dead rabbits. A stray rabbit we found on Thanksgiving and kept as a pet until its gruesome demise to snail bait the following spring. A house-mate's experiment in rabbit breeding which resulted in the doe eating her entire litter of kits. A spring-break roadtrip to the southwest, which included running over a giant jackrabbit in the pre-dawn hours of Easter morning. And my sweet-natured girl cat, Joey, who felled a baby bunny one spring morning a few years ago and guarded her kill for two full days with the ferocity of a lion.
The other day I received a text from my sister who is struggling with some emotional fall-out from her recent life-altering interstate move. Among other distressing events there was this:
"Yesterday was rough. The bunny that has been bringing me great joy died or was killed right underneath our bedroom window near the bird feeder. Too much death for me. Doing my best not to ‘read into this’ but also listen if there are warnings (dead rabbits are not the greatest omens but I’m working on finding something there that could work for me)."
Oddly, what immediately came to my mind when I read her text was a the story of my mother's second pregnancy. It was the late sixties and my father was stationed overseas at the time. The only way to share the happy, but somewhat delicate news with him was through a volley of multi-manned radio transmissions. Not super private, to say the least. So instead of simply saying she was pregnant, she chose a euphemistic phrase which was in use at the time, based on the newly obsolete practice of using rabbits in pregnancy tests. Her message was, "The rabbit died," and it echoed on radio waves across mountains and oceans and continents, bringing joyful news to a man far far away.
I shared this memory with my sister. "Perhaps," I texted, in this long-shot attempt to cheer her up, "the dead bunny signals a kind of rebirth for you."
But I guess if we're really going to try to not 'read into' things, we'll remind ourselves that spring brings bunnies, and lots of them. Which results in higher mortality rates. But also in happy, secular, spring-time holiday mascots.
Same with baby sheep. A symbol for the son of god? If that's your thing. Delicious springtime eating? For me, anyway, that's a big thumbs up.
As for frigid picnics in the rain, I got nothing. Except that somehow, even 40+ years later, it's just not a spring holiday without a paper plate piled high with pineapple glazed ham and mayo-coated marshmallows.
And also this: the experiential knowledge that the surcease of pain and suffering brings a kind of relief that can only be known as a result of such. And that, for chrissakes (or not), is certainly worth celebrating.