Although life could be tough in the Appalachian Mountains, the people living there still managed to pause and appreciate the finer aspects of life. They had many different celebrations throughout the year, and many of those had their roots in religious beliefs. Easter Sunday was one such celebration, and there were many Appalachian Easter traditions practiced in the mountains.
Church and Easter Traditions
People of Appalachia were, if nothing else, practical about their clothes. But when it came to Easter Sunday, the fineries would come out. The walk into the church on that day would be like a parade, with everyone dressed well for the occasion.
If anyone got new clothes for the season, it was for Easter Sunday. Many dresses, hats, and shirts were sold each year for that reason. Small children were dressed up like mail order catalog dolls. Many men had their hair slicked down and held in place with any number of creative solutions.
With everyone wearing something other than their regular clothes, Easter Sunday was probably one of the most uncomfortable days of the year. But it wasn’t just the outfits that made it torture; the church had its demands as well.
Sunrise Service Came Early
Locals would gather in the quiet pre-dawn darkness of Easter Sunday and hold a church service. This gathering was the Sunrise Service, part of the Easter traditions, where the congregation would watch the sunrise as they worshipped.
The service was a very peaceful one, and the resurrection celebrated new life and the promise of the coming year. Easter was like a renewal of their own life, and in many ways was a close parallel with the story of the resurrection itself.
Now, by the time everyone had been stuffed into uncomfortable clothes and hauled to church in the wee hours of the morning, tempers were no doubt starting to peak. But soon enough people would have their reward for the day, and that would be a full belly and plenty of fun.
Easter Sunday Usually Meant Eating
If there was anything pleasurable to the adults about Easter Sunday, it was probably the food. Easter was a time to gather and eat, and huge meals were prepared on this day. Easter Sunday in the Appalachians was one of the largest food celebrations of the year.
On many Easter Sunday dinner tables, you would find such favorites as ham, green beans, mashed potatoes, corn, and deviled eggs. There were usually plenty of desserts on hand as well.
Kids looked forward to Easter not only for the food but the fun as well. As part of the Easter traditions, there would be many egg hunts taking place that day. The hunts involved hundreds of hidden eggs for the kids to find.
The older kids and many adults took pride in stashing the eggs, and sometimes it took the younger kids a while to find them all. This extended hunting time was especially true if the ones hiding the eggs had a mischievous streak that day, which usually happened.
While they did not have the plastic prize eggs that we see in use today, there were nonetheless eggs that had a reward attached. Some eggs would have distinct markings, and an announcement at the start of the hunt teased that these specific eggs, if found, meant real prizes, sometimes even monetary ones.
This promise of reward whipped up the anticipation, and soon determined egg hunters, with dreams of rich rewards in their heads, scoured the barnyards and meadows looking for their quarry.
When it came to the community egg hunts, there was a silent but understood rule: you did not bring home more eggs than you took. People in Appalachia were efficient when it came to such matters. This practicality extended even down to the number of eggs you kept from the egg hunt.
The Mystery of the Missing Eggs
Kids always wanted to take plenty of eggs to the hunt. After all, if you only kept the number you brought with you (or less), you had to carry in a lot of eggs before you could look like a big winner.
Now, most people kept chickens that provided eggs, but the hens didn’t keep track of the local calendar. Consequently, the egg-producing line didn’t exactly ramp up for Easter production. Some of the kids, whose job it was to gather the eggs, figured out an enterprising solution.
That is, sometimes they would hold back an egg or two on the days leading up to Easter to have plenty to take to the celebration. Suddenly it seemed like the hens had stopped laying eggs as they should. Many times, missing eggs were retrieved from the private stash of overly ambitious egg collectors.
When it came to Easter egg decorations, it was impossible to have any that were too bright or too colorful. The method used to decorate the eggs depended on whatever resources were close at hand. It wasn’t unusual to see kids collect scraps of colored paper throughout the year for use at Easter time. A dye for coloring eggs was created by soaking the colored paper in boiling water.
There were natural egg dyes as well. Pokeberry dye was prevalent in the Appalachians, and it had many applications, including coloring eggs used in Easter traditions. Onion skins, the colored outer shell of onions, were also an excellent source of dye for colored eggs.
There were also store-bought options that eventually found their way into the mountains, making for an even more festive color egg palette on Easter.
Finding the eggs was only part of the fun. A favorite game among many of the older egg hunters was an egg fight, where champions rose up until a crack in their egg knocked them off their throne.
This fight starts with the challenger picking out their best, most durable egg. No doubt it took an experienced and judging eye to make this determination. Once they find a potential winning egg, the two opponents stand to face each other.
To fight, they hit each other’s egg on the small, pointed (and most resilient) end. The opponents take turns tapping the eggs together, and the first one that has an egg to crack is the loser.
Now, you had to be careful when it came to an egg fight, and make sure there were no shenanigans taking place. Some competitors used a glancing blow instead of a straight on tap, and this was cheating.
Even worse, sometimes competitors would sneak a Guinea egg into the competitions. While they could pass for a colored chicken egg, they are much harder. No chicken egg could compete against it, so experienced players kept an eye open for such trickery.
Today you can find planned egg fighting events, and it is more than just kids taking part. No doubt many of the competitors grew up celebrating these Easter traditions.
Brightly Colored Chicks
It wasn’t just the eggs that got colored at Easter. Baby chicks were also tinted, often with the leftover dye from the eggs. It wasn’t surprising to find many brightly colored chicks running around a few days before and after Easter, most given as pets to the younger children.
Unlike this practice in more urban areas, colored chicks in the Appalachians usually ended up as part of the hen house, a productive member of the farm. The colors faded after a few weeks, and the chicks would grow up as usual. There were tales, however, of a colored baby chick becoming a permanent favorite pet of a few children, even coming when called.
Dogwood Blooms at Easter Time
Dogwoods were also part of the Easter tradition in the Appalachians. The trees were a symbol of renewed life in the Spring, with their lovely flower-like blooms that arrived just in time for Easter. Dogwoods dotted the landscape, and even today you will find celebrations centered around the tree.
The Dogwood tree even made its way into the folklore of the area. According to one Appalachian legend, the tree was part of the story of Christ. The story claims that the Dogwood was in the past a sizable tree and the source for many wood projects.
However, as the legend continues, the tree was the source of the wood for the cross of Jesus. Because of this, God both cursed and blessed the Dogwood. For the curse, it would remain small, never again used for crucifixion. God also blessed the tree, and from that time on it produced the flowers just in time to celebrate the resurrection.
The Dogwood flowers now form the shape of a cross. The tips of each petal dent inwards as if they contain a nail print. Then there are the colors of the petals, which according to legend represent the blood spilled during the crucifixion. There is a famous poem that explains it:
Legend of the Dogwood Tree
In Jesus time, the dogwood grew
To a stately size and a lovely hue.
‘Twas strong & firm it’s branches
interwoven for the cross of Christ its
timbers were chosen.
Seeing the distress at this use of their wood
Christ made a promise which still holds good:
“Never again shall the dogwood grow
Large enough to be used so…
Slender & twisted, it shall be
With blossoms like the cross for all to see.
As blood stains the petals marked in brown
The blossom’s center wears a thorny crown.
All who see it will remember me
Crucified on a cross from the dogwood tree.
Cherished and protected this tree shall be
A reminder to all of my agony.
With its strong religious backdrop, the Appalachian Mountains have many Easter traditions. With the coming of the new spring after a possibly harsh winter, it was often a time to celebrate a new lease on life and a positive outlook on the future, even if the dressing up was sometimes a bit uncomfortable.