The Art of Easter Sunday

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A scene from the Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue.

Monday, April 18, 2022. Yesterday, Easter Sunday in New York, was a bright sunny day, a little on the chilly side with temps in the high 50s. After dark it was topped off by a brilliant Full Moon.

In New York the center of Easter Sunday is the parade — its origins extended by several centuries when Christianity was gaining ground in Europe. The Christians were a fairly new group. They would gather together at an appointed location and make a solemn walk to their church of the new religion.

It was also the Christians demonstrating their solidarity, as well as drawing attention to it in their communities. In the early days of this new country, by the end of the 18th century in Pennsylvania, the German immigrant farm families celebrated the day on Easter (Monday) changing into some kind of finery to observe the Resurrection of Christ.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday — the earliest precursor to modern Easter parades.

At the end of the 19th century here in New York, religion reigned in motivation but the “parade” that originated on Fifth Avenue, on the fashionable blocks of newly built mansions, ran from Washington Square to 58th Street and the block long mansion of Cornelius Vanderbilt II (where Bergdorf Goodman stands today). It was in that area where several members of the Vanderbilt Family had newly built very large and imposing mansions.

On Easter Sunday, its residents gathered and strolled, dressed in newly fashionable clothing, with many men in black tie and top hats and the women ensconced in stylish coats and hats.

The Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue, New York 1890.

The parade became an exciting spectacle of fashion and religious observance. People would stroll from their own church up and down the avenue just to see and be seen. Those who came from the poorer and middle class neighborhoods nearby would also attend just to learn the latest trends in fashion.

The tradition of a parade was observed in several American cities but nothing like the production that was New York. The custom lasted well into the middle of the 20th century by which time it was almost legendary. In 1947 it was estimated that the Parade drew more than one million people! That number has dwindled markedly as has the religious devotion that initially motivated it.

Looking south along Fifth Avenue at 51st Street on Easter Sunday in 1900. The first two mansions are the Willliam Vanderbilt houses, and then on the corner (52nd Street) is the William K. Vanderbilt house.

As a young boy growing up in New England, Easter was notable because many of the women and the girls who went to church on that day, dressed for the occasion. Even us boys wore suits and ties, and polished our shoes. In memory, the young girls outfits that said “Easter” — were in colors like those we dyed on the eggs for our Easter baskets. This “habit” can be attributed to early Christianity with the introduction of elaborate Easter ceremonies. This included the gaudy dress and display of personal finery to the Roman Emperor Constantine I in the early 4th century, when he ordered his subjects to dress in their finest and parade in honor of  Christ’s resurrection.

From the 1880s through the 1950s, however, New York’s Easter parade was one of the main cultural expressions of Easter in the United States. In the mid-19th century, these and other churches, for example, began decorating their sanctuaries with Easter flowers.

Dressed in their Easter Sunday best. LOC/Bain Collection

Women on Fifth Avenue wearing their Easter hats, c. 1910. LOC/Bain Collection

Beginning in the 1880s, the annual procession along Fifth Avenue had held an important place on New York’s calendar of festivities. The press publicity had become very important. The parade was a vast spectacle of fashion, religious observance, and Society. People would stroll from their own church up and down the avenue. Those coming from the poorer and middle neighborhoods would observe the parade just to see and learn the latest trends in fashion.

The Queen Mum from the Easter Parade in 2001.

By the beginning of the 21st century, the culture had changed dramatically. Christianity itself had faded from the intensity of its presence. My first and only experience of the Parade was on Easter 2001. JH and I had launched the NYSD a little more than six months before. It was a beautiful bright and sunny Easter Sunday but we’d missed the core of the parade by noontime. There was a small crowd of perhaps a couple hundred milling about in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

What was notable was the predominant crowd of drag queens, dressed for the occasion. Their costumes were a creative variety of fashion marking the day. Many were interesting and “dressy” and amusing. But my memory retains the presence of Elizabeth, the Queen Mum in an ensemble of powder blue — shoes, dress with matching coat, and wide-brimmed hat that looked like it had come directly from the Queen’s closet. Truly chic, funny in its way, but nevertheless chic. The Queen Mum’s Double did a brilliant job of capturing the persona, ensemble, comportment et al. There was the art.

In retrospect, that gathering was already making way for the 21st century Easter Parade where the participation is motivated by the tendency to amuse and truly enjoy oneself and the company participating. Its connection to the ancient religious tradition remains, broadly and widely altered to the consciousness of the early 21st century.

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