My memoir about growing up gay in a fundamentalist Christian home comes out in a couple of weeks, and I've been thinking about what a big role Easter played in my young life. Holidays were a big deal in my pre-Internet Kansas City home. We didn't have a TV, we weren't allowed to attend movies in the movie theater, and even "Christian rock" was off-limits. As my father explained it, "You can't put God's words to the Devil's music." When Amy Grant's Heart in Motion hit Billboard's top 10 my sophomore year in high school I begged my Dad to attend her concert with the church youth group. Dad shook his head and said, "Son, I understand that Amy Grant has crossed over. I want to know: Did she bring the cross over?"
The cross where Jesus died for our sins was paramount in my family, and nowhere was this more evident than during holiday celebrations -- especially at Easter. Sure Christmas was a non-stop juggernaut of festive manager scenes and gifts beneath the tree, but each year after we sang "Happy Birthday" and blew out the candles on Mom's red velvet birthday cake for Jesus, she reminded us the cake was crimson because Jesus was born to die. That cake wasn't red for Christmas cheer; it was the color of blood.
In this way, everything pointed to Easter. Most cartoons were off limits due to violence, so at the age of three or four, I couldn't tell you much about Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner. I could tell you how to crucify a man, and nothing was more exciting to me than our family's traditions when celebrating Jesus' death and resurrection. Here are the four I loved the most:
1. The Palm Leaf Pastry
Easter always kicked off the week prior at our house at breakfast on Palm Sunday, the day we remembered Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Once we were all dressed for church, Mom would greet us at breakfast with a cheery, "Hosanna!" and an edible palm leaf drizzled with green icing. We could each have a frond after we'd finished our hardboiled eggs.
2. Passover Dinner
Believe it or not, conservative evangelicals LOVE the Jews. I was taught as a child that the Jews are God's Chosen People, and they simply missed the Messiah the first time. As Dad put it, "They thought the Messiah was coming to deliver them from actual bondage to Rome, not spiritual bondage to sin." Not to worry. Born again Christians believe that when Jesus comes back to save Israel from annihilation by the Anti-Christ they'll all finally believe in him. (See the book of Revelation for juicy details.)
In the meantime, most years Mom would whip up a Passover dinner complete with parsley and salt water as bitter herbs and tears, and a delicious Charoset. Dad would read from a Seder guide written by Messianic Jews, and explain how each item we were eating pointed to the fact Jesus had been the prophetic fulfillment of the promised Messiah. Mom usually had us dress up in bathrobes as Old Testament characters like Moses and Abraham for the event, and I'm pretty sure this is where my penchant for a good theme party began.
3. Passion Plays & Choir Cantatas
Easter Sunday at our church usually meant a big concert by the choir. Our children's choir was often involved, and one year in high school, I was even asked to sing the Jesus solos. This was my true introduction to musical theatre, and at the time, anything was better than a long sermon--especially if there was an actual crucifixion scene. This didn't typically happen at my non-denominational Bible church, but my parents would often take us across town to the Southern Baptist mega church that hosted the Living Christmas Tree every December. Come Easter week, they'd do multiple performances of a passion play musical complete with a live donkey and a hunky Jesus who eventually stripped down to his little white loin cloth to be whipped and crucified. In the Midwest, there weren't a lot of adult men with abs you could see, and the light bondage giving way to full on S & M at the death of the sexy savior all set to live singing made for a deeply...well...religious experience.
4. The Empty Tomb Cake
Still an annual staple at my parents' house, Mom's homemade Empty Tomb Cake is usually baked and decorated on Good Friday. A delicious chocolate cake shaped into a dome, the Empty Tomb Cake is frosted entirely in gray or brown, surrounded by shredded coconut dyed green to look like grass, and finished with a Hostess Ding Dong as the stone that was rolled away. On Saturday night, after everyone else has gone to bed, Mom steals into the kitchen under cover of night and rolls the Hostess Ding Dong away from the door of the Empty Tomb Cake then retouches the frosting. The next morning, Jesus has risen right there in the kitchen, and after Easter Sunday services, our earthly centerpiece becomes a heavenly desert.
My Easter celebration looks a little different now than it once did. My boyfriend and I go to brunch with our friends instead of church with our far-flung families. However, one thing has not changed: the pure glee inspired by the Empty Tomb Cake. I started making my own version during college. On Good Friday, I dye the coconut "grass" green with food coloring, and while the recent implosion of the Hostess snack cake has made Ding Dongs increasingly harder to come by, Mom and I still text one another pictures of our cakes across the country each year.
Her Tomb Cake remains a remembrance of the resurrection of Christ, while mine has become a different sort of tribute. I make the cake not to mock her tradition, but to remember the joy and wonder it inspired in me as a child. In a way, it's my own celebration of coming out of the dark; of triumph after struggle; of faith, not in life after death, but in this life before death -- and in the love of a mother who taught me that happiness could be as simple as batter poured into round nine-inch pans, and baked at 350-degrees until a toothpick comes out clean.