The first holiday that my great-grandparents and their families would celebrate in their new homes was Easter as it fell on April 6th in 1890, just 3 weeks after they arrived in the United States from the Netherlands. Easter celebration at the turn of the nineteenth century was primarily religious in nature here in the United States as well as in the Netherlands. For the Dutch immigrants, the focus would have been on church and family, and encompassed more than just Easter Sunday.
Easter week, sometimes referred to as Holy Week, would begin with morning church service on Palm Sunday and may have included a tradition from their homeland – the making of Easter palms, known as palmpaasje. These Easter palms, which were carried by the children, were sticks formed into the shape of a cross, that were decorated with ribbons, strings of dried fruit (usually oranges, currants or raisins, and figs) and baked dough figures in the shape of swans or cockerels (called palmpasenbrood). On the Thursday evening preceding Easter Sunday, known as Maundy Thursday here in the United States, the family would attend church service together and partake in holy communion in remembrance of the Last Supper of Jesus Christ before his crucifixion. Most Protestant Reformed denominations held services on Thursday evening, in contrast to the Catholic churches which normally held special services on Good Friday afternoon. Since most businesses usually closed briefly on Good Friday, typically between 1PM and 3PM, so Christians could have time for reflection, my great-grandparents likely spent this time with family. Saturday would have been a busy day for my great-grandmothers preparing for Easter Sunday. There was food shopping to be done, clothes to prepare for Sunday, eggs to decorate, and the baking of special Easter bread, Paasstol (a stollen bread stuffed with almond paste).
The climax of the week would be Easter Sunday (referred to as pasen – which is derived from the word pesach, the Hebrew name for Passover). My grand uncles and aunts, then children, would have been delighted with the Easter morning treat of chocolate eggs and chocolate shaped bunnies, a rare treat. The entire day for the families would have been dedicated to church and family. In fact, Easter Sunday in the Dutch Reformed Church I grew up in was like a huge family reunion. Even though on most Sunday mornings one would find nearly every row of pews at least partially occupied, on Easter Sunday the sanctuary would be literally filled to overflowing. Every pew would be packed, and extra chairs were need in the overflow rooms next to the sanctuary to accommodate all who would attend that morning. Going to church on Easter morning was special compared to other Sunday mornings. It was like a new beginning, and we all came dressed to prove it, despite our modest economic status, in our new spring Sunday best attire.
After church, families would all gather at one relative’s home to enjoy dinner together and socialize for the remainder of the day. For Easter dinner that first year in the United States, my great-grandmothers would probably have followed their Dutch tradition of serving lamb, which was considered symbolic of the death and resurrection of Jesus, instead of ham. But as years past the lamb would be replaced by ham, which was more readily available in the United States. At the turn of the century, the United States was still primarily a farming nation, so pigs were usually slaughtered in the fall, cured over the winter months, and then ready for consumption in the spring, thus making ham the meat of choice for Easter Sunday dinner.
Although Easter falls in the early months of spring, the weather here in Michigan can be very unpredictable and it seems that Easter Sunday is often more cold and winter like than spring. The nights still remain quite cold even on those days when the sun shines and temperatures rise enough to discard our heavier winter coats. So we still gravitate to our comfort foods for warmth to fend off the damp chill of Michigan’s spring. One such food that my Dutch great-grandmothers would prepare that was a staple in their homeland was pea soup. If there was one thing that most Dutch immigrant women would salvage from their home in the Netherlands and bring to the United States if they could, it was a stock pot for making soups. I am not sure whether it was the Dutch or the German immigrants in Michigan that introduced this soup, but even today you will find it on many restaurant menus throughout the state during the winter months.
So once that Easter ham was stripped of most meat, the bone would be used by my great-grandmothers, grandmothers and mother to make one final pot of pea soup until winter returned later in the year. As a child, I liked most vegetables, but never peas. I detested the taste and texture of peas, especially canned peas which is all you could get in the winter months. But a bowl of homemade pea soup…I could hardly wait for dinner. This “stick to your ribs” kind of soup was considered a meal in itself in the Dutch household. It was usually served with just cold cuts, cheeses, bread and crackers.
Since spring this year in Metro Detroit has seen mostly lower than average temperatures after having one early week of mid-summer like weather, I decided to take out that ham bone I threw in the freezer and indulge in one last pot of simmering pea soup on a cold and wet day in April in Michigan. But unlike my grandfather, who wouldn’t eat his pea soup unless he actually saw the peas (my grandmother use to fool him and throw a handful of peas into the soup just before serving), I will make sure my pea soup is smooth and thick and doesn’t show a trace of those dreaded peas.