Easter is a big deal in the United States but for different reasons than in Italy. I know this is a blanket statement, but after living in the United States for many years, combined with being born and raised in Ireland, and finally, being a witness to the Easter procession this past Good Friday in Cortona Italy, I have a definite opinion on the matter.
The reason I know Easter is approaching in the United States is I begin to see front lawns and yards decorated with everything from trees and bushes strung with painted plastic eggs, to giant blowup Easter bunnies tied down to lawns (not discounting wheelbarrows full of eggs, inflatable yellow chicks, and giant Easter baskets sporting colorful ribbons). North America takes on every holiday, religious or not, with a tacky kind of gusto that you either love, or hate.
I came from a country where the only visible sign of a Holiday was during the Christmas season when sometimes you caught a glimpse of the neighbors christmas tree lights through a window. There was no question that anyone would decorate the outside of their house with bunnies at Easter time (in fact, I had never heard of the easter bunny!), giant plastic snowmen at Christmastime, big red hearts on St. Valentine’s day, shamrocks and leprechauns on st Patrick’s day, or fake turkeys and pumpkins during Halloween.
I’m not saying that all of this hype is completely abhorred by me. It is just something I was not used to, and still find it a little odd, although it does make for interesting driving with plenty of stuff to distract your eyes from the road. My point is that the glitz and the commercial hype that surrounds a religious holiday suffocates the actual reason for the observation in the first place.
The first sign that Easter was on it’s way in Ireland was when my teacher would ask what selfless act we were going to do during lent. From that day I knew it was exactly forty days to Easter Sunday. The purpose of Lent is to prepare you for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through acts of prayer, penance and self-denial. Good Friday was a day of fasting, with fish for dinner, and Easter Sunday was marked by a colorful mass and a great feast afterwards, usually involving a leg of spring lamb.
It was not without it’s commercial side, because I also looked forward to being given (and devouring) a giant hollow chocolate egg after dinner. These brightly wrapped eggs were displayed in shop windows for the duration of lent, which was a painful temptation if you happen to deprive yourself of chocolate for the whole forty days as an act of penance and self-denial!
Here in Cortona the first sign of Easter was at the bakeries in the form of a bread made only during lent called Spoleto. This Umbrian spelt bread is considered a humble enough breakfast for devout Easter observers, which is a little deceiving as it is more of a treat than a punishment.
The culminating event in Italy is the Good Friday procession where massive statues of Jesus Christ are carried through town to the steps of the Commune Building in the main piazza. These statues represent Jesus on the day he was crucified, and the stations of the cross are reenacted. A statue of the crucified Jesus is laid on a bed in front of the steps (while also being reunited with Mary, his mother), and prayers are said by the officiating priests and cardinals, before the body of Jesus is removed in another solemn procession to his resting place, before rising on Easter Sunday. The whole community of Cortona either participated in the procession or was a witness in the piazza. It felt serious and sad, and whether I admit to being a good catholic or not, I was moved by the devotion and respect displayed by the entire country who were having processions like this one at the very same time.
The American students who had been studying abroad in Cortona for the past three months were also thinking about Easter, and, whether catholic or not, were sure to have been missing some sort of Easter celebration back home. From living there I know that many families have a big Easter egg hunt where eggs are hidden (egg could be anything from a real painted egg, to a plastic egg with a prize inside) and found. This is followed by a big Easter dinner, which varies from culture to culture.
So, there was something that these students were probably thinking about, perhaps making them homesick and a little sad, missing their families more pointedly. I had the idea that I could cook them an Easter dinner in their dining room, and have them all eat together as this new family. When I made the suggestion the response was an overwhelming “yes please!” and so I began to plan it out.
We had a meeting to collect names, money for food, and to discuss the menu. I told them that they could help in certain important ways (set the table, wash the lettuce, show up!), but that I wanted to cook for them, just like their mother would have done. For this project, I wanted to treat them like my children and the task was to feed them, and hopefully make them feel like it was a special day, and they were being taken care of in a more maternal way.
The worst part of the whole event was going to the town in the valley (Camucia) to buy the food from the giant supermarket there. I had become so use to shopping on a very local level that being in this place with aisles and aisles of food made me want to cancel the whole thing. I spent the most gruelling hour of my life since arriving here, pushing a giant trolley of food from one department to the next under the glare of hideous lighting, while dodging other tormented shoppers. I knew for absolute sure that cooking for over 20 people would be a breeze after that nightmare.
On sunday morning I went to the school to see what I could snag from their kitchen by way of pots and pans. My rental apartment was adequate enough but had nothing much when it came to baking trays and containers that could hold large vats of food. I decided to borrow four or so big oven proof tray and planned to cook in steady batches. When it comes to figuring our food, quantities and timing, I will admit to being experienced. I cooked for a solid seven hours and was ready exactly when a group of the students rang my doorbell to carry everything up the steep hill to the school’s Breakfast Room.
After several trips the food was safely installed in their modest kitchen area. It was a challenge to keep everything warm, but I managed. The thing that took any stress that I might be feeling away was the atmosphere in room. All the students were milling about doing everything from making beautiful flower arrangements for the long clinical tables, to sticking bunny ears made out of white napkins on the handles of every fork. Another reason I smiled is that all of them dressed for the occasion. There was a parade of spring dresses, high heels, fancy scarves and sophisticated hairdos. I was delighted that they were genuinely excited, and not just happy to have a convenient meal.
Lettuce was washed, cheese was sliced and arranged on platters, and within an hour of my arriving everyone was ready to sit for Easter dinner. Each place mat was a piece of drawing paper, and each student decorated their mat with all sorts of Easter-themed doodles. When everyone was served I sat with them and experienced my moment of belonging to a group that had knit itself together into a family of sorts. I thought about the day I had met all these strange faces in Rome and felt daunted by the task of trying to get to know their names, forget forming any sort of connection beyond that.
I was now sitting in the Breakfast Room on Easter Sunday with each of their names firmly in my mind, and also aware that despite myself, I had formed enough of a connection I was compelled to feed them like I do my own children, to make sure they were happy on this Holiday away from home. I will remember this Easter Sunday, not alone because I was here in Cortona, but because I got a chance to cook for a gracious group of college students, who found they were missing Easter more than they had realized.