Celebrating Easter in Bermuda
My childhood memories of Easter are filled with kite-flying on Good Friday, going to Sunday school and Easter dinner with my grandparents. There were also the feminine activities revolving around the purchase of a new hat, white shoes and hair ribbons bought from the wide selection at The Woman’s Shop. I had very little say in selecting any of these purchases; my mother’s decision was always final.
My husband’s memories revolve around making and flying kites. He grew up on Dundonald Street in North East Hamilton and recalls waking up on Good Friday to the sound of humming kites and the smell of freshly baked hot cross buns. He would leave home with his brothers and several friends, clutching bags of hot cross buns, kites securely tied to their backs, carrying the cloth tail and string in the one free hand.
One year, a friend arrived with an extra large bag of buns. They later found the reason for his mother’s generosity. They were as hard as rock, the obvious result of a baking disaster and only suitable for target practice. Towards the end of the day, some boys pulled their kites in a little, attached razor blades to the string and let them out again. This was when kite-fighting began. The goal was to cut the strings on other kites.
The two most popular areas for kite-flying in Hamilton are no longer found on the local map. Parker’s Hill, located between Princess Street and Brunswick Street is only a distant memory. This hill, and the houses built upon it, have been levelled and is now the location of a parking lot. The other location was Crisson’s Hill, which has been greatly reduced in height and is the present location of the Victoria Street Clinic.
The earliest written account of kite-flying was described thousands of years ago in China. They used them to measure distances, information necessary to assist armies moving across difficult terrain. Often they were designed to make frightening sounds to terrify the enemy. Other uses included wind readings, carrying messages, explosives and, more recently, for pleasure.
I have always heard that a Sunday school teacher used a flying kite to explain Jesus’s ascension on Easter Day. The kite was launched and the string cut, allowing it to drift off into the heavens. In my quest to discover the validity of this story, I contacted several seniors who provided me with their memories of Easter.
The late Louis Smith was 93 when interviewed in 2000. He explained the construction of the original Bermuda kite and its relevance to Easter. It was made with three sticks: two upright and one cross-stick. He preferred sticks from discarded wooden salmon crates. The colourful tissue paper, sticks and twine — or string as we call it today — came from the small neighbourhood shops. The Phoenix on the corner of Queen Street and Reid Street also sold supplies. The glue was made by mixing flour and water into a paste. The rounded cross-stick was made of bamboo. Once the kite was airborne, the rounded cross-stick resembled the head of Jesus. The piece of wood to which the cloth tail was attached represented the post to which Jesus was nailed. The hummers, which produced that droning sound, represented the crowd crying out, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”
Mr Smith, an avid kite-maker in his youth, recalled going off to fly his kite with codfish cakes and a bag of hot cross buns with crosses clearly marked on the top. This was to remind us of the cross upon which Jesus was nailed. The spices in the hot cross buns symbolised those used to embalm him.
Mr Smith flew his kite in the area of St Monica’s Mission, which was far less populated when he was a child. He described women in the neighbourhood selling coconut cakes and gingerbread to supplement their husbands’ incomes. These funds went towards purchasing shoes for the children at Easter. Children attended school barefoot and wore shoes only on Sundays and special occasions.
More than 50 years ago, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington advertised a kite competition. My brother, who was then a student at Howard University, entered a Bermuda kite. When he arrived at the competition site, there were a variety of kites representing countries from all over the world. To his amazement, the Bermuda kite was the winner, not only for its beauty but also because it was the only kite making a sound in the otherwise silent sky.
The late Alice Simmons remembered Holy Thursday when people put an egg white in a glass of water. By Good Friday, it would form a shape depicting your future. An example would have been a boat, representing travel. During the 1950s, St James Church had a three-hour service on Good Friday where everyone wore dark clothing. She always had a new dress for Easter, which was saved for Sundays only.
Iris Mae DeShield, now deceased, recalled the year 1919 when she made paper flowers for Easter. She sold them by the dozen for 1/6 (one shilling and six pence). She said everyone always had a bunch of paper flowers on the table for Easter. The tissue paper and hat wire for making the flowers was purchased from The Nelmes Shop on Reid Street.
My aunt, Thelma Packwood, remembered the perfume and the beauty of Easter lilies grown by Howard and Reeve Smith in fields around the area of Ruth’s Bay in St David’s. The fragrance drifted in the air for miles.
Howard Smith has been credited with developing an entirely new species of Easter lily, which was hardier and bloomed much earlier than the older species.
In 1853, Easter lilies first arrived in Bermuda on board a ship that limped into St George’s Harbour. A passenger on the distressed vessel was a missionary and botanical collector who was travelling from Japan. His friend, the Reverend J. Roberts, the rector of churches in Smith’s and Hamilton parishes, lived here and gifted him several lily bulbs. The rest is history.
Evelyn Smith, aged 94 when interviewed in 2000, recalled young children making kites using spruce or fennel sticks and newspaper. As they grew older, they learnt to make traditional tissue-paper kites. When children were not flying kites they spun tops, played marbles and jacks. All the girls had a new Easter bonnet, dress and white shoes. It was a time to “show off” your new outfits.
For this article, I also discussed Easter with Brownlow Place, who is 105. He remembered families being more closely knit and Easter being celebrated in a more godly way. His great-great-grandmother had been enslaved and her cooking skills passed down through generations to his mother, who was an excellent cook. All baking took place in the brick oven, while other cooking took place in the chimney. He remembered collecting the cedar firewood to prepare the chimney. There was a grate that sat upon stones or bricks. The wood was placed under it. Cedar was long-burning and maintained an even temperature . On Easter Day, pork, chicken and beef were cooked together in one pot, where the flavours mingled to create a unique and delicious flavour.
Mr Place also remembered Clifford Richardson, a Sunday school teacher at The Salvation Army Citadel. He always used a sandbox to illustrate his Bible lesson. The box sat on a table with the children standing around it. Various figurines were used to convey the message. On Easter Day, there were the three crosses and the grave from which Jesus arose. Many today still remember Clifford Richardson and his creative Sunday school teaching.
On Good Friday, he recalled the smell of boiling codfish permeating the air of every neighbourhood. His kite sticks came from The Pond and much skill and pride was taken in the art of designing hummers that would make the most noise. There was no specific time for kite-flying unless you were Methodist or Anglican — they flew their kites after 3pm. While the children flew kites, the grown-ups played marbles and made more noise than the children. Girls played jacks and some boys played with spinning tops.
On Easter Day, the Salvation Army held a well-attended sunrise service at Fort Hamilton where the band could be heard playing Christ the Lord is Risen Today.
On the Saturday, before Easter Day, my mother would gather the grandchildren and make the drive to St Peter’s Cemetery in St George’s to place flowers upon my father’s grave. We would stand in quiet reflection and then she would take us to visit the graves of our relatives. Some were buried on the Anglican side, while others were on the Methodist side. It was her way of remembering those who went before us.
One octogenarian remembered that although kites were flown on Good Friday, it was a very spiritual day. Her grandmother made the usual hot cross buns and codfish cakes but she also made a codfish pie. The codfish-cake batter was placed in a pastry with an upper crust. It was, like hot cross buns, baked in the brick oven.
Families whitewashed graves as white as snow and placed bunches of Easter lilies and amaryllis beside them. The church was beautifully decorated with Easter lilies and other seasonal flowers.
Easter Day was a real fashion show: new hats, white shoes and outfits purchased from various shops in Somerset. There was Robinson’s, Foley’s Dry Good Store and Meyer M. Malloy’s shop, which became Gibbons, and later, Martha Carter’s. In Mangrove Bay, there was Patterson’s and Bon Marche, which later became The National Store run by Millie Hassell.
The interviewee’s father, like most homeowners, had a flower garden. After church on Easter Day, he hastened home to make small bunches of flowers, which included lilies, sweet peas, phlox and marigolds. He handed them as gifts to passers-by, on their way to events at Allen Temple AME Church.
Easter Day dinner was a grand affair and similar to Christmas. There was always cassava pie.
Over the Easter season, St James Church had a re-enactment of the Crucifixion at the old church hall under the direction of first cousins Frances Philpott and Grinnel Simons. Brownies, Girl Guides, Sunday school students and church members were involved.
During the penitential season of Lent, no flowers were placed in churches; however, on Easter Day they were elaborately decorated. Ellen Hollis recalled the beautifully decorated Holy Trinity Church in Bailey’s Bay. The wooden Rood Screen, which separates the Altar from the congregation was spectacularly beautiful, trimmed with fern and entirely covered with Easter lilies donated by the Perfume Factory. People in the City of Hamilton recalled visiting all the churches after leaving afternoon Sunday school. Others recalled the Easter Monday holiday when everyone visited churches all over the island, comparing the floral decorations and later enjoying the dancing of the Gombeys.
Bermuda is credited with having the oldest college week in the western hemisphere. In 1935, the Bermuda Athletic Association invited rugby teams from Harvard, Yale and Princeton to play against British teams and Bermuda. Over the years, thousands of students descended on Bermuda for the week. By April of the 1950s and 1960s, the numbers steadily increased and the name then became College Weeks. They rented bikes, held continuous parties on the beach or wherever they could. It was the era of wild abandon. Many tell the tale of students who borrowed a cow from an unsuspecting farmer, led it to Elbow Beach and took it in the elevator to join their party. The end of this story no one seems to recall, but that cow was probably Bermuda’s first “party animal”.
The first floral pageants was held in1930. Eventually, a beauty queen was selected from the college students and she returned to be the star of the parade. Portuguese farmers played an important role in providing the vast amounts of lilies and flowers required to build the floats. Regrettably, this was the era of segregation and Black people were not allowed to participate. When the change came about, I do not know, but eventually there was change.
The Floral Pageant was discontinued during the war years but resumed in the 1950s and over time, the name changed to the Easter Parade. In April 1968, there was a riot after a fair at No 1 Shed on Front Street. This, along with other disruptions, led to the temporary discontinuation of the Easter Parade. In 1977, there was another riot resulting in the Pitt Commission, which studied the causes of our civil unrest. It suggested the Government consider an event that would bring all Bermudians together. There was the belief that this would help to resolve the island’s racial and social problems. The decision was made to use May 24, as it was already a holiday. Today the island celebrates this glorious and much anticipated event as Bermuda Day.
I am extremely grateful to everyone who assisted me in recording our often-forgotten past.
• Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons, the mother of Sandys South MP Jamahl Simmons, is the 2020 winner in the Adult section of the Dr Stanley Ratteray Memorial Christmas Short Story Contest. References: Bermuda Journey by William Zuill 1963, Bermudian Magazine Golden Jubilee Magazine February 1980, Bermudian Magazine Special Commemorative Issue 2009, Wikipedia — the History of Kites
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