A DAINTY, MOTTLED cat paws at the dining room window of Sarah Ban Breathnach's Takoma Park home, asking to be let in. Perhaps she is thinking about sampling the tea and scones set out on the lace-draped table; more likely, she wants a caress behind the ears from the mistress of the house and author of "Mrs. Sharp's Traditions," a nostalgic book of Victorian family traditions, crafts and games.
"Victorians had a rich family life because they had seasonal traditions," says Ban Breathnach over a cup of tea. "It's so much to look forward to every year, giving both adults and children a sense of comfort and joy."
Easter and its commercialized bunny is an image we know well; what we don't know so well are the old-fashioned foods and crafts and symbols of the holidays in years past. Adding a dose of tradition to a holiday is something children and adults can both enjoy.
"Traditions are like recipes, they are not carved in stone," says Ban Breathnach. "Suit traditions to your family's taste. If you try a recipe and you take a lot of time and your family doesn't like it, you probably won't do it again. But if you try an easy recipe and everyone loves it, you are likely to try it again."
Ban Breathnach's easy attitude is echoed in the voice of her book's narrator, the fictional Victorianna Sharp. Mrs. Sharp is 125 years old with a dozen children to her credit-- unlike Ban Breathnach, who has just one daughter, eight-year-old Katherine, and a husband, Edward Sharp, who is the newly elected mayor of Takoma Park.
Mrs. Sharp, who guides mothers and children cheerfully through "crisscross days" and on "fairy walks," seems to be the model mamma. In truth, Ban Breathnach says that the hectic nature of her days differed so completely from Mrs. Sharp's she felt she was writing "science fiction." Still, she points out that a few lessons learned from Victorians can make anyone's home life sweeter.
"Victorians idolized home and believed the truest happiness lay in house and family," says Ban Breathnach. While industrialization was taking its hold outside the 19th century home, and bicycles and trains were carrying children to points beyond their mothers' eyes, the Victorians tried to create an ideal retreat at home.
Whether today's family is intact, blended through remarriage or headed by a single parent, Breathnach believes everyone can benefit by celebrating the rituals of life, ranging from family dinners to May Day celebrations. One of the easiest ways to draw children into seasonal celebrations is by building traditions during holidays they know.
"Holidays live more in the child's imagination. Kids love natural rhythms," says Ban Breathnach.
The Victorians liked Easter so much that they called it "Eastertide" and celebrated it for over one week. Germans brought us the concept of hunting for eggs and the Easter Hare, but the post-Civil War Americans shaped the holiday into a happy festival complete with egg-rolling and flower-trimmed Easter bonnets.
"Today, we just celebrate a holiday on one day and then wonder why we can't do it all or were depressed," says Ban Breathnach. "If we would spread it out, it wouldn't be so overwhelming."
Palm Sunday started Eastertide off in style in Germany, Austria, and Holland, with children wrapping leaves around crosses and parading through the streets. Throughout northern Europe and America, the week continued with egg decorating, using natural dyes from foods such as spinach, shredded raw beets, turmeric and blueberries. Hat decorating for mothers and daughters also was a pleasure, tying assorted ribbons, flowers, feathers and veiling atop plain straw hat bases for a fashionable debut in church on Easter Sunday. Egg hunts took place on Easter Sunday, after going to church. Easter Monday, the day after the holiday, was the best day for an egg roll, a tradition started on the grounds of the Capitol by Dolly Madison. To play, children rolled hard-boiled eggs they found down a sloping surface using a long-handled spoon. Eggs had to stay on a chalked path or the child was "out."
An old-fashioned taste of Easter is delicious, following the abstention of Lent. On Good Friday, two days before Easter, families bought or baked hot cross buns. Since the 14th century, the spicy currant buns, iced with a cross to symbolize the religious holiday, were given to paupers to impart protection. In the 18th and 19th centuries, street vendors sold them to the general population as good luck morsels, "one-a-penny" or "two-a-penny." Although hot cross buns are sold in bakeries throughout Lent, Ban Breathnach prefers to honor tradition by eating them only on Good Friday.