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Kansans celebrate Easter with passion

  • Published Sunday, March 31, 2013, at 6:25 a.m.

Easter traditions in Kansas revolve around faith, food and family gatherings.

From Easter egg hunts to the opening strains of Handel’s “Messiah” in Lindsborg, Kansans celebrate with passion.

But surprisingly, many Easter traditions are 20th-century additions and weren’t part of the Easter observations of early Kansans.

“The Easter in our world is more commercial than it would have been earlier,” said Jay Price, Wichita State University’s history department chair and director of the public history program.

Early Kansas Easters

In Kansas, churches stand as sentinels to the history and legacy of early pioneers. They were often built before pioneers started their own homes.

Pioneers constructed these churches and helped establish permanent communities. There were outdoor Easter services, but only until the first structures were built.

Kansas has always had a wide range of religions in its history. In the 1870s, about 5,000 Mennonites settled in Kansas from Russia, bringing with them Turkey red wheat and a tradition of service to others.

About the same time period, Arab Christians came to Wichita looking for economic opportunities and spiritual freedom; Jewish farmers created their own community near Dodge City, as they escaped persecution in Russia; and the second Baha’i community in the Western Hemisphere was established in western Kansas.

But three denominations have always been the most prominent in the state: Catholics, Methodists and Baptists.

Once religious groups settled in Kansas, the wide-open prairie offered them a safe haven to practice their faith. Nineteenth-century Kansans often observed Easter indoors and matter-of-factly.

“George Hall spent Easter Sunday with us. Gus Amos & the cousins Joe & Steve have been very busy ever since we came working on our new store house,” Mary Magdalene Brulport of Rush County wrote in her journal of 1877.

The Swedes called Kansas framtidslandet, “the land of the future,” and they would begin one of Kansas’ most enduring Easter traditions.

On March 28, 1882, the Bethany Oratorio Society performed the “Messiah” in Bethany Lutheran Church as a fundraiser for the new college, beginning what is now one of the longest-running Lenten performances in North America.

There was a push by many of these early settlers to “Americanize” as soon as possible, so many of the ethnic or cultural traditions were downplayed.

“I think the early Swedes probably didn’t bring so many Swedish traditions with them,” said Charlotte Anderson, director of international studies at Bethany College in Lindsborg. “The people who came here were very pious. They were very religious and started the fantastic Messiah festival.”

Other traditions also survived, said Kevin Rupe, administrative assistant, liturgist and organist at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Hays, where one of the largest Volga-German settlements in Kansas still thrives.

As a child, he remembers there was no sound on Good Friday in his house from noon to 3 p.m. – no playing records, no television, no playing outside and no work in order to observe and be respectful of Christ’s death. At 3 p.m., Easter eggs could be dyed and readied for Sunday.

And kuchen, a German sweet bread with blackberries or cherries on top, would be prepared.

A ‘time for new growth’

At the turn of the 20th century, the commercialization of Easter began in earnest.

A newspaper, the Liberal Democrat, in 1921 linked Easter and spring as synonymous. Newspapers throughout the state advertised Easter sales.

Candy companies, including the one started by Kansan Russell Stover, began production of chocolate Easter bunnies and eggs.

Easter was seen as the time to dedicate new church buildings, baptize new Christians, introduce new members to the congregations and celebrate communion. Second- and third-generation Kansans of all faiths began celebrating Easter with pageants and sunrise services.

The Easter vigil always took place in the dark as the story of salvation was told, according to the Rev. Jeffrey Gannon, senior pastor at Chapel Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita. The story of Christ’s resurrection is then celebrated at the first light of day.

“The sunrise service was an invention of non-liturgical churches with a simple service at daybreak to remember the Resurrection took place at the break of day,” Gannon said.

By the 1940s and 1950s, sunrise services had become fairly common throughout the state. The Easter Sunrise pageant at historic Pawnee Rock is one of the oldest in the state. It began in 1937 and always includes the hymn “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.”

In Reading, a town of about 230 residents near Emporia, the nearly four-decades-old service used to be timed to the rising of the sun.

“We would gather in the stone shelter at Lyon County Lake 15 minutes before the sun was scheduled to rise so that by the end of the service, the sunrise had begun, which was wonderful,” said Reading resident Barbara Schlobohm. “Until the year it was pouring rain and freezing cold. At that point, we moved to Schlobohm’s Hill south of town – the highest point around – and followed the same pattern.”

But now, Schlobohm said, the sunrise service starts at 7:30 a.m., “because we are older.”

The service is always followed by a community breakfast.

“We’ve done it for so long,” Schlobohm said, “ that everyone expects Peg’s egg casserole, Joan’s kolaches, Debbie’s fresh fruit basket and Charlie’s pancake flipping,”

Price, the WSU professor, said food continues to be a component of most Easter celebrations.

“If you think about living in an agricultural society, you harvested the crops in late fall. That’s Thanksgiving,” he said.

“Easter is the time for new growth. It is an explosion of celebration, of color and fanfare.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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