Throughout the United States, Easter is the big kickoff to spring. Sort of like Memorial Day is to summer, the emergence of white shoes and hidden eggs brings most of us out of the funk that a season of cold weather can bring.
Here in the South, Easter can be as much a well-anticipated social event as it is a religious holiday as well as an opportunity for food overindulgence (and you know we love any reason to lay out a good spread down here). So for those of you unfamiliar with Southern customs (and charm), and those of you who live it daily, here is a very small sampling of what makes a Southern Easter. We know these aren’t all strictly Southern, which maybe makes us love them all the more.
- Easter from Head to Toe
While hats were once all the rage in women’s fashion, the trend has fallen in recent decades. But for Easter and derbies, Southern women bring them back once again.
While elsewhere in the U.S. Memorial Day is the official “OK” to don those white strappy sandals or slip into a pair of white peep toes with the three-inch heels, here in the South you will have committed a fashion faux pas to haunt you for years if it’s not Easter instead. White may have evolved as an appropriate color for other attire throughout the seasons (who doesn’t love a winter white?), but it is still commonly accepted that proper Southern ladies stick to the rule of thumb (or toe).
The tradition is thought to go back to post-Civil-War society. As a way for the social elites to differ themselves from the lower classes in a changing society, new rules of fashion and living were set. And let’s face it, white during the hot summer months just made sense in an era before air conditioning. However it came about, by the 1950’s it was a steadfast rule gracing the covers of women’s magazines and wardrobes everywhere.
But white shoes aren’t the only fashion go-to for Easter. Only when placing a bet at the Kentucky Derby will you see more ladies in hats than at any given Southern church on Easter Sunday. Although the tradition had become less popular in the last two decades or so, a reemergence of the hat has been seen in many of the more affluent Southern social circles. (Much thanks to Duchess Kate for this. She would make a great Southern girl.)
- Egg Hunts on the Courthouse Lawn
Boys in seersucker and girls in lacy frocks and white shoes race to find eggs in the premier social event of spring (photo courtesy of Jay Baker)
If ever there was a parade of small, nicely-decorated children, it would be the traditional egg hunt on the courthouse lawn. Girls in their new Easter frocks complete with lace socks and white patent leather shoes, and boys tugging at the ties of their seersucker suits flock to the courthouse lawn to see who can gather the most eggs. And of course, ladies in hats and white heels chase after the tiniest of tots because this is often the first chance to show off your Easter attire.
As much as we love him, the Easter bunny nor the Easter basket is Southern by birth. That sneaky yet generous rabbit is believed to have been brought to the United States by German immigrants in the late 1700’s. German children awaited the arrival of “Osterhase,” a hare that laid colored eggs. Children made nests from hats or other items and laid them out to receive the eggs the following morning.
The Easter Bunny is believed to have made his way to the U.S. by German immigrants (photo courtesy of Benson Kua)
- Dogwood Blooms, and a Lily or Two
Christian folklore tells a story of lilies springing up from drops of sweat from Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (photo courtesy of Kai Yan)
Two flowers came to symbolize the Easter story for the Christian community and have become a staple in Easter decorations: the dogwood blossom and the Easter lily.
The Easter lily’s history with the holiday is thought to go back to the resurrection of Christ. Christian folklore tells the story of lilies springing up where drops of Jesus’ sweat fell in the Garden of Gethsemane where he was later arrested. Today, the lily adorns altars and crosses at Easter as a symbol of the purity and hope of Christ.
As any true Southern gentleman knows, when the dogwoods bloom, the crappie bite. But Easter reminds us of another story of the dogwood. The history behind the legend of the dogwood is a bit hard to pinpoint, but it suggests the cross on which Jesus was crucified was made of dogwood. This is highly unlikely considering the size of a typical dogwood tree, but the story has encouraged the correlation of the shape of the dogwood bloom to the shape of the cross. The center is said to resemble a thorny crown and the edges of the petals marked by nails.
The shape of the dogwood blossom symbolizes the cross, while the center represents the crown of thorns
- The Sunrise Service
Winston-Salem, North Carolina, hosts the South’s oldest sunrise services, held annually since 1772
Many Southern Protestant churches still offer sunrise services on Easter Sunday to recognize and remember that Christ was not in the tomb on Easter morning. The South lays claim to the oldest continuing Easter sunrise services in the United States. The Moravian Salem Congregation goes back to 1772 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. For nearly 250 years, church members and others in attendance have gathered in front of the church to worship and finish services after a short walk to the historic “God’s Acre” graveyard—making the trek in white shoes and hats, no doubt.