Easter: a time of candy-coated Robin Eggs, colorful pastel jelly beans, and chocolate bunnies; of melting snow, muddy slush, an influx of visitors from far away, and hours upon hours of church services.
For me, childhood memories of Easter don’t include sunrise services, new bright-colored Sunday hats, or egg dying. No giant bunnies delivering baskets of spring-themed treats, no egg hunts on lawns. No, when I was growing up in a Christian commune in Northwestern Ontario, I knew that the bunnies and eggs of worldly Easter celebrations were a nod to Ishtar, a fertility goddess of long ago, and to be avoided at all costs lest our pure hearts be darkened by the taint of paganism. Well, except for those egg-shaped candies and chocolate bunnies. After all, it would be wasteful to miss the once-a-year opportunity to savor the best confections the village’s tiny general store had to offer.
My parents are part of the Move, a commune-based Christian movement that started in the early 70s, notable in part by the eschewing of all worldly entanglements. This category most emphatically included paganism-tainted celebrations like Christmas or Easter. Paganism, in this case, was a convenient catch-all description for any and all non-Christian religions, especially (but not limited to) ancient ones. By now, I should mention, Easter hats and shiny plastic eggs most probably abound in the communes right about this time of year. But when I was a child, they were frowned upon.
Instead of egg hunts on the lawn and brightly-colored baskets of treats, the children of my community looked forward to Convention. Convention was one of the Big Three, three yearly celebrations that were far more important than secular, pagan, or misguided religious holidays like Christmas, Easter, or Halloween. In our close-knit trio of communes, the Big Three were graduation, Thanksgiving, and Convention. Convention was a yearly long-weekend event. The important leaders of our network of communes and churches were known hierarchically as the “Traveling Ministry” (the lesser traveling preachers and teachers) and “Father Ministry” (the ruling class who handed down decisions both religious and practical). They would arrive the first weekend in March, along with other visitors who would come from all directions to attend all-day revival-style services, causing our group to double or triple in size for several days.
We’d cook and shop in a frenzy for a week ahead of time. Zucchini bread, banana bread, poppyseed muffins, blueberry muffins, and hundreds and hundreds of cookies, all were baked off and stored in the big freezers in the cellar below our main building. Someone good at both cooking and shopping, like Aunt Robin, who was in charge of our commune’s bookkeeping and thus preferred to do the shopping herself, would do a huge shopping trip and come home with plenty of supplies for making easy meals for three hundred people: lunch meat (a rare treat), lots of mayonnaise, store-bought bread and kaiser rolls (more rarities), fresh oranges and bananas, and cases of disposable dishes.
The kids would whisper excitedly, sharing overheard gossip about the coming visitors. Did you hear that John and Sarah started their year? That means a wedding soon! Wonder if we’ll go? or, Guess who’s staying at our house! Nooooo, we wanted them! We’ll probably have someone with five screaming babies! We’d be enlisted for huge cleaning projects and for once wouldn’t try to dodge out, reveling in the excitement as we scrubbed floors, cleaned the tops of cupboards, washed windows, and helped touch up paint.
And then the visitors would start flooding in. We’d share our rooms with kids our age, if we were lucky, or give up our rooms to older visitors while we slept on living room floors or couches. Younger singles (properly chaperoned, of course) would camp out in the big dining room of our main building, the Tabernacle, while the building’s living room was turned into a bedroom for a family. The other two communes in our church were doing the same, stretching their borders and crowding their homes to welcome visitors from hundreds of miles around who’d come for the yearly convention. Freshly mopped floors would be flooded with slush and mud from visitors’ boots, to the consternation of the guilty visitors and silent frustration of the teens who’d been on their knees scrubbing just a day before.
The first meeting was on Friday afternoon. We rented the village’s community hall for the occasion, since none of the three commune’s Tabernacles could hold the swollen congregation. After a flurry of extra hairspray and double-checking of favorite dresses or parentally-inflicted ties in the mirror, we’d traipse through snow, slush, or mud up the long hill to the community hall in clunky boots, dress shoes in hand. There would be a flutter of activity as older children took advantage of the exciting situation to beg permission to sit with their cousins and friends with more permissive parents, and teens claimed the right to sit separately from their families (but always in a row ahead of their parents, to prevent out-of-sight shenanigans). Older teens and young singles found friends and prospective beaus, shyly sitting next to their crushes knowing that it would create a stir of speculation — “Did you see Paul sitting next to Jennifer? Are they an item? I guess we’ll see if they sit together tomorrow too.” One’s choice of seat during convention was of immense importance.
The excited chatter of friends greeting each other after a year or more apart filled the hall, only quieted by the first chords from piano or guitar near the front of the room. With a rustle and hush, people found their Bible-marked seats and prepared to sing with gusto for forty-five minutes or more, three hundred voices raised in exuberant song while feet tapped, hands clapped out rhythms, and bodies swayed. During the more upbeat songs, you could get seasick if you looked out over the undulating crowd of dancing worshipers, hands lifting upward and hips keeping time.
All too soon, the music came to an end, and our reluctant bottoms found the seats that would hold us for the next two or three hours. Out came teacher-mandated notebooks, pens in multiple colors, Bibles, and… rustle rustle rattle crunch — the bags of candy we’d stockpiled for the occasion. Malt-filled, hard-shelled Robin Eggs; pastel jelly beans; sour gummy worms; chocolate eggs; all the best Easter candy. We’d share down the row with our friends, making sure those with sugar-conscious parents got a secretive handful while their moms and dads were absorbed in finding I Thessalonians.
There was more to Convention than the candy, of course. There was the easing of aching toes out of high-heeled shoes after a vigorous song service. The preaching. The trick of keeping double notebooks, one for dutifully recording the message of the preacher (one message per meeting), one for communicating with friends, doodling, and writing silly poems. The rustle that spread across the room as one hundred women expectantly worked their feet back into the shoes in response to the winding-down tone of Brother Buddy’s voice after a two-hour message; the audible sigh of disappointment as he revved back up for another thirty-minute run. The youth meetings…. oh, the youth meetings, fertile ground for planting seeds of terrible doubt and anxiety with the messages of purity directed at hormonal teenagers.
Yes, there are plenty of Convention memories. But what will always stand out in my mind, and what I always remember when I see stores filling with Easter signs and merchandise, is sitting in a long row of giggling teenagers, passing our favorite spring candies back and forth. The crunch and sweet chocolate malt flavor of Robin Eggs is inextricably entwined in my mind with friendship, with notes passed, with collaboration on goofy rhymes about Brother Joe’s enthusiastic speaking style. Easter candy makes me homesick.
Happy Convention, everyone.