A very different Easter

Easter 2020 – in response to the Prime Minister’s request, children around the country decorated their windows with Easter eggs.

With this most unusual Covid-19 Easter almost upon us, the country was relieved to hear the Prime Minister announce that the Easter Bunny is an essential worker who is still welcome to travel around the country delivering eggs.

Despite the bunny’s comforting presence, Easter 2020 will be quite different from any other Easter in New Zealand history.

Religious celebrations

Easter and the period leading up to it have always involved solemn religious observances for many Christians. Church services on Good Friday and Easter Sunday are often some of the best-attended of the year. Some, such as the Auckland Catholic Filipino community, take part in Stations of the Cross processions on Good Friday to commemorate Jesus Christ’s journey on the day of his crucifixion.

This year, however, churches are closed and gatherings cancelled. Instead churches are taking their celebrations online. In Timaru, all the churches in the town will hold online services to join their communities together.

Public holidays and travel

Although we are now very used to Easter being a public holiday, this wasn’t enshrined in law until 1873, and even then many people still had to work. It was quite a while before Easter holidays were extended to everyone, but when they were, these holidays became particularly precious, as until 1944 there was no legal requirement for paid annual leave for workers. The four-day weekend became associated with non-religious activities, and it was a good time to explore the country before autumn set in. New Zealand Railways knew this was a great opportunity to persuade people to take a trip, as illustrated by the glamorous lady at the beach (not keeping her social distance!) in this poster.

Easter train travel hasn’t always been so easy. In 1944 all non-essential rail travel at Easter was cancelled, to the great disappointment of many. New Zealand suffered a coal shortage during the Second World War, and although the miners were asked to work over Easter, the country simply didn’t have enough coal to fire up all the trains. Those most affected weren’t holidaymakers, in this case, but people who had been ‘directed’ by the government to leave home to work in wartime essential industries, usually in cities, and had been hoping to spend the Easter break visiting their families.

In words similar to those being used at Easter 2020, Minister of Railways Bob Semple said in 1944,

I know that there are hundreds of womenfolk and men compulsorily directed to work in centres far removed from their homes and I sympathise with them in their very natural desire to be with their families at this time …  but my decision is dictated by cold hard facts, and I would be failing in my duty to the country if I were to agree to unrestricted travel now and be forced to impose even further and more severe restrictions immediately following Easter. [Evening Post, 27 March 1944, p. 6]

Festivals and celebrations, sport and leisure

In the 19th century camps, picnics and hunting trips were popular at Easter, and later many sporting events were held, including the universities’ Easter tournament. Some towns had their annual horse-racing meeting at Easter. Riverton in Southland  still does so – but not in 2020.

In the 20th century, many festivals have become associated with the Easter period, including Warbirds over Wanaka and the Tauranga Jazz Festival, which has been running since 1963 – although not this year. The Middlemarch Singles Ball has been held every second year since 2001 to help the lonely single farming men of the district meet someone special.

Despite being in the depths of war at Easter 1941, many Wellingtonians  enjoyed a performance by an Australian magician, ‘The Great Levante’, at the Opera House. The Evening Post told its readers:  

What Levante does in this revue is baffling in the extreme. Rabbits, ducks, canaries, pigeons, and the like appear and disappear with amazing speed and uncanniness, swords and bullets pass mysteriously through young ladies, a young lady assistant is pulled through a small keyhole. [Evening Post, 4 April 1941, p. 11]

Easter traditions

Many English Easter traditions were brought to New Zealand, such as the Shrove Tuesday pancake race

Traditions such as eating hot cross buns on Good Friday and Easter eggs on Easter Sunday were also maintained in New Zealand. Chocolate Easter eggs were introduced in the early 20th century.

Easter shopping

A feature of Easter in New Zealand for many years has been the tussle between retailers and the government about whether shops can stay open. In the 1990s and 2000s, by which time shops could open seven days a week, most were still required to close for three and a half days each year, including on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, reflecting the continued religious importance of those days. While some people argued that shops should be able to open, others were worried that  staff would lose their right to a holiday. Some shops opened illegally, as can be seen in this clip.

Easter 2020

Though New Zealanders traditionally enjoy opportunities for recreation, travel and shopping at Easter, visiting holiday destinations this year is out of the question. The police have warned people not to drive to their baches; they will be policing holiday hot spots. Supermarkets will close on Good Friday to give essential workers a break, but open on Easter Sunday to ensure access to food supplies. Stay local and enjoy being with your family!

By Elizabeth Cox, 9 April 2020

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