An Easter Basket
by Mel Robertson
In looking over the stories I have written about a Burford childhood of the 1920's, I note several Christmas articles but none about Easter. Since Christmas and Easter were two of the main holidays in a 1920's child's calendar I have been wondering why I have not written about Easter.
I think the omission is due to the religious background that influenced most children at the time. Churches were the centre of village life offering activities, both sacred and non-sacred, from the time people could walk until they couldn't. Almost every Bur-ford child attended two Sunday schools every Sunday, their own in the morning and the Baptist Sunday School (now the Rebekah Hall) in the afternoon. If they did not attend the afternoon Sunday School they were put on their father's knee and read stories from "Hurlbut's Stories of the Bible" which most homes possessed.
From this background we became familiar with Jesus from the time of His birth and through His life on earth. Christmas we could understand for it commemorated Jesus' birth and we were familiar with the joy with which babies were welcomed into our own and other families. Our only problem was that we were too young to understand the location of the Holy Land and Bethlehem. Our geographical knowledge was so limited that we imagined that the angels and the shepherds had got together on the big field behind the Public School and that Jerusalem was somewhere out there. We were happy with these suppositions and even though we didn't understand we knew that Christmas was a very happy time and that God's gift to people was commemorated by the little gifts we gave and received. We did not realize that some of the magic and mystery of Christmas, like Santa Claus, was pagan in origin but we were happy nonetheless.
From this beginning most 1920's Burford children developed a close and friendly feeling toward Jesus and we could not imagine anyone harming such a friend. The Crucifixion and the Resurrection were too theological for us to understand, but injury and death were not unfamiliar to us. Thus Easter was not the happy time that Christmas was and thoughtful parents recognized this fact by introducing such things as the Easter Bunny and Easter Eggs. This attempt at whimsy was not completely successful for many of us had rabbit pets that did not lay eggs and were too lazy to take on the job of hiding them for children to find. As a result, the holiday of Easter was not like that of Christmas and the feeling among children was quite different.
At this time all you down-the-nose theologians can fix me with a scornful eye
and bury me under reams of multisyllabic prose and abstruse quotations. However, that is the way I felt about Easter as a child in the 1920's - like it or not!
There was no build-up to Easter in the 1920's like the build-up we experienced for Christmas - no special trips to Brantford, no school concerts and no parties. The only activity in many homes was that children were permitted to get out a box of Easter decorations and make little nests of Easter
eggs in the front parlour. On Easter Saturday there were apt to be Easter Cards thrust under the front door by grandparents and family friends who, like at St. Valentine's Day, would ring the bell and run. Then on Easter Sunday morning :here would be a hunt for hidden Easter eggs that parents had concealed behind pillows, etc. That constituted our Easter activities.
As we grew older Easter Sunday in Sunday School was taken up with fatuous about how many boiled eggs kids bad consumed at breakfast. Since I hated wiled eggs I could not enter this boasting contest and had to suppress a major desire to throw up. I doubt very much if boasts about eating five or six boiled eggs were true but the very thought of such extravagance fills me with acute nausea even i today and I hope that the people who took part in such bravado will now realize how ; silly it was.
Some of the "boughten" Easter eggs of the 1920's were gastritis gems being big red, blue or yellow concoctions made of concrete-hard sugar adorned with chocolate or sugar lace. These inches in diameter. They were intended to be used as decorations and I never heard of a child who attempted to eat one. If any have survived in Burford attics I imagine that they have even withstood the nimble teeth of attic mice. The real significance of such monstrosities defies description but children of the time cherished them.
The 1920's Easter season brought children both a plus and a minus. This was known as "Easter Holidays" which were given to us around the time of Easter every year. However, before going further I must explain that our "Easter Holidays" had no resemblance to the present "March Break" or "Spring Break". In the present holiday "break" the emphasis seems to be on how far kids can travel and how much they can spend whereas in the 1920's "Easter Holidays" were the exact opposite. Kids had no money to travel anywhere and thus a trip to Toronto during a 1920's Easter was the equivalent of a safari to Nepal in the 1990's.
The plus side of "Easter Holidays" was that we got a respite from the severe military-type discipline that existed at Bur-ford Public school. The minus aspect was that we were out of school at a time when it was too cold to swim, too warm to skate, too wet to sit on the grass and too muddy to walk very far. There were no places, like the arena, where kids could relax and no organized sports programs. Consequently, kids just stood around, "got in the way" and made nuisances of themselves. Children who could amuse themselves by reading or who had imaginative mothers were lucky for there was little else to do.
About the only outside activity was going for pussy-willows or sifting on the "High Sidewalk" watching fish in the drain. Occasionally, if it was real warm expeditions might be made to our summer haunts at the creek to see it our friends of Nature were ready to end their winter sleep. However, such trips were depressing for all they revealed were messes of dead woodchucks and old brush that the spring freshet had
deposited in fence corners. All this was on our own for there were few adults who would take time to give us leadership and suggest better things to do.
Where were our teachers? Well, they were off somewhere attending a "Teachers Convention". They never told us what went on at these famous conferences but we surmised that if all the teachers cracked the whip the way they did at Burford Public School the "Teachers Convention" must have sounded like a training session for admission to Noah's Ark.
Adult Easters in the early 1900's were celebrated with music and song. Most of it was joyful and commemorated the Resurrection. All over the township, cantatas, song services and sacred concerts filled churches almost every night during the week that preceded Easter Sunday. Most of these are mentioned in old newspapers merely as "song services", but a few are worthy of note. However, before going into details it should be noted that early in the century part-singing was a favourite past time and many people were adept at reading music and singing four-part harmony. In addition, there were a number of conservatory-trained singers and musicians, such as my mother, who offered their services freely. Most churches had competent choirs consisting of a couple of dozen singers with good soloists and organists. In Burford the strong Ladies Musical Club sponsored afternoon concerts in rectories, parsonages and manses that featured both vocal and instrumental music.
Instrumental accompaniment was also available for there were a number of skilled violinists such as Mrs. A.D.H. Luard, Marjorie Cavan, Prof. Carpenter, Ed Standing, Alfred Apps, Chas. Howey and Emerson Disher to name a few. On the band side there was the Burford, Scotland and Northfield bands and orchestras such as the Smallman and Middleton orchestras who were always ready to assist the hardworking church organists. I say "hard working" for most church organs were large reed instruments which required the assistance to make them work. For example, Burford Methodist church had a large two-manual reed organ with a foot organ. This was a fine instrument but it needed a very active pumper to help the organist. Mother, who played this organ on many occasions, used to say that even with a pumper it was a real handful. The only real pipe organ in the area seems to have been the Karn & Morris organ at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Burford and it required a pumper in the early 1900's.
One of the most frequently heard Easter cantatas was "Esther" by W.B.Bradbury, an American organist who was born in Maine in 1816. He began by teaching singing to large groups of children in 1841 and in 1845 brought out his first book of Church music. In 1847 while living in Leipsig he became associated with such composers as Berlioz. On returning to America he brought out his first book of "Sunday School Ballads". The Cantata "Esther" was composed in 1856. Wm. Bradbury was one of the chief originators of music in American schools. At one time Bradbury's music was very popular at music "conventions".
The cantata "Esther" was presented several times in the Burford area. One of the largest presentations was not at Easter, but on July 1, 1870 when it was a Dominion Day concert in the skating rink on King St. I East. There massed choirs of all churches were accompanied by Brantford and Bur-ford military bands under the directorship of John Lint on, a local school teacher, and Sam Flewelling. Other performances included a Princeton Easter presentation on March 10,1910. On this occasion a choir of 35 sang and the Rev. J. Henry read passages from the Book of Esther. Large crowds attended this concert and contributed considerable money to "Missions".
I had the good fortune to obtain a copy of the score for "Esther" at the Brantford Symphony Book Sale in 1977. It had belonged to F.W. Perrin whose address is listed as 27 or 127 Burford Road.
Another favourite Easter cantata was "From the Manger to the Grave" whose
composer's name I do not have. This musical work was presented on a number of occasions, the most notable being at Easter in 1915 when the 50 voice Burford Methodist choir was accompanied by a string orchestra consisting of Marjorie Cavan, Emerson Disher, Leslie Howey, Ed Standing and Charles Howey. Soloists were Mrs. Mclnally, Alan Kneale, Roy Frid and H. Wooley. Names of the organist and pianist are not given but the entire presentation was under the leadership of Mr. Wooley. This cantata jammed the church for two nights and was highly praised by visiting music critics.
During the same Easter season Holy Trinity Anglican church in Burford presented an organ recital and choral evening at which Mrs. Hugh Adams of Brantford was guest soloist. Easter Sunday of 1915 was a busy one for the Anglican choir for not only did they sing at their own morning service but also they traveled to St. John's, Cathcart and were back in Burford for the evening recital. I don't know if all this traveling had anything to do with a notice in the "Advance" of the following week requesting more men for the choir. The appearance of Mrs. Adams at a Bur-ford Easter recital brings to mind that my mother, who was a pupil of A.D. Jordan at the Brantford Conservatory of Music, was guest soloist at Brant Avenue Methodist church, Brantford on several Easter occasions.
Burford Easters were notable for other things. During the Easter season of 1910 there was a severe rabies scare in the area and any dog that looked "dumpy" or "meager" was shot on sight. The Rev. George Lounds of Burford Methodist church, who was a very innovative preacher, took advantage of this situation to preach his "Beware of Dogs" sermon on Easter Sunday. It is difficult to know how this sermon tied in with Easter unless it was to illustrate the treachery of Judas for it was a barely-concealed attack on church members Lounds felt were opposing him. A brighter note was struck at Easter, 1911 when the Burford Congregational that Sorrows" would be "as bright as the newly-installed electric lights".
And so we take a brief look at the way the Burford area celebrated Easter in the early part of the century. Why do I write about "that old stuff", as some people have described it? Well, I write about it because in the 30 years I have been doing so a very large number of people (some newcomers and some young people) have written, or 'called, to tell me that they enjoy it and that it makes them feel a part of the community. Another reason is that a look at history should make us take a look at ourselves and realize that we are not the only people who have ever had problems or who have had moments of joy or sadness. In this "Me" generation of "lean and mean" people, I think that such self-examination is important. If you don't agree with that point of view no one is forcing you to read my articles or my weekly column.
You may also ask why I chose "An Easter Basket" as a title for this article when the basket is really not a part of Easter. I chose the title for, at the time I described, many people (including men) carried baskets. In these baskets were a variety of things and when children of the 1920's saw parents, grandparents or "aunts" approaching with a basket and calling "Toot Toot" at the foot of the stairs they knew that the people concerned loved them enough to bring them a token of their affection. Baskets, strange to say, became a symbol of love, hope and good news (call it avarice if you are a sourfaced cynic). However children of the 1920's had never heard the word, and since It heir field of vision and expectation was small, they rejoiced in little things and greeted the contents of the baskets with the same joy the bearers displayed in bringing.
So how does that tie in with Easter you may ask? Well, at that time the gift was often a little cloth-bound book telling the Easter story and the great Gift it revealed. Since I am not a theologian I will leave it at that.