Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Changing Nature
of Holiday Celebrations

When we think of holidays, we often think "tradition." And when that topic of tradition comes to mind, we think of never-changing patterns. For those who celebrate Easter today, you likely think you are re-enacting traditions as they were kept by your parents and their parents before them.

A quick check through our own memory banks should reveal a slightly different viewpoint. While today's holiday celebration may come with Easter egg hunts or the same big dinner we ate last year at this time, I can remember a time in my own childhood when Easter was all about going to church and rejoicing in the choir's rousing rendition of favorite hymns—and Easter bonnets and new outfits, as well.

On a lark, I turned to the U.S. Library of Congress online catalog to check out what I could find on Easter festivities of prior generations. As it turned out, there was an ample selection of photographs of Easter activities in New York City in the early 1900s. From the George Grantham Bain Collection, representing files from one of America's earliest news picture agencies, these photographs gave a glimpse of holiday preparations and festivities from an era perhaps better known to our great grandparents.

Yes, there was the Easter Parade down Fifth Avenue. And all those stunning bonnets adorning the heads of church goers awaiting Easter morning services at Saint Thomas' and Saint Patrick's. Perhaps some things never do change. But there were also several photographs of people heading to the thriving market at Union Square on "Easter Saturday" to purchase "Easter flowers." That may or may not be a principal feature of your holiday festivities this spring.

While the changes in holiday celebrations occurring from generation to generation may be more nuanced than, say, the way wars have been fought from century to century, or how the modes of transportation have changed since your great grandparents' time, they do open one's eyes to the influences the cultural contexts of our ancestors' experiences bore upon their everyday lives. Knowing what our great grandparents experienced in their daily routine—and even their special celebrations—can help us see who these people were so much better than just finding the paper trail confirming the basic dates of their existence.

Above: Easter Saturday, Union Square in New York City; undated photograph, early 1900s, from the George Grantham Bain collection; courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.


  1. Happy Easter! We broke with tradition, stayed home and cooked steak which my husband likes much better than Ham :)

    1. Hope you enjoyed your nice, quiet Easter, Far Side! Yeah, steak is just great, if that's your fav. We ended up, unexpectedly, going traditional with a leg of lamb...and a quiet day, which we all appreciated!

    2. We cannot get Lamb up here, I have asked for it and they say it comes in frozen and is horrid tasting. I talked with a sheep farmer he said he will have us over for lamb some day since I have never had it!


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