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A Boy's Town by William Dean Howells

But most Easter eggs never outlasted Easter Day


My

boy would have liked to do all that too, just to be with the crowd, but at home he had been taught to believe that Catholics were as good as anybody, and that you must respect everybody's religion. His father and the priest were friendly acquaintances, and in a dim way he knew that his father had sometimes taken the Catholics' part in his paper when the prejudice against foreigners ran high. He liked to go to the Catholic church, though he was afraid of the painted figure that hung full length on the wooden crucifix, with the blood-drops under the thorns on its forehead, and the red wound in its side. He was afraid of it as something both dead and alive; he could not keep his eyes away from the awful, beautiful, suffering face, and the body that seemed to twist in agony, and the hands and feet so cruelly nailed to the cross.

But he never connected the thought of that anguish with Christmas. His head was too full of St. Nicholas, who came down the chimney, and filled your stockings; the day belonged to St. Nicholas. The first thing when you woke you tried to catch everybody, and you caught a person if you said "Christmas Gift!" before he or she did; and then the person you caught had to give you a present. Nobody ever said "Merry Christmas!" as people do now; and I do not know where the custom of saying "Christmas Gift" came from. It seems more sordid and greedy than it really was; the pleasure was to see who could say it first; and the boys did

not care for what they got if they beat, any more than they cared for what they won in fighting eggs at Easter.

At New-Year's the great thing was to sit up and watch the old year out; but the little boys could not have kept awake even if their mothers had let them. In some families, perhaps of Dutch origin, the day was kept instead of Christmas, but for most of the fellows it was a dull time. You had spent all your money at Christmas, and very likely burst your pistol, anyway. It was some consolation to be out of school, which did not keep on New-Year's; and if it was cold you could have fires on the ice; or, anyway, you could have fires on the river-bank, or down by the shore, where there was always plenty of drift-wood.

But New-Year's could not begin to compare with Easter. All the boys' mothers colored eggs for them at Easter; I do not believe there was a mother in the Boy's Town mean enough not to. By Easter Day, in that Southern region, the new grass was well started, and grass gave a beautiful yellow color to the eggs boiled with it. Onions colored them a soft, pale green, and logwood, black; but the most esteemed egg of all was a calico-egg. You got a piece of new calico from your mother, or maybe some of your aunts, and you got somebody (most likely your grandmother, if she was on a visit at the time) to sew an egg up in it; and when the egg was boiled it came out all over the pattern of the calico. My boy's brother once had a calico-egg that seemed to my boy a more beautiful piece of color than any Titian he has seen since; it was kept in a bureau-drawer till nobody could stand the smell. But most Easter eggs never outlasted Easter Day. As soon as the fellows were done breakfast they ran out of the house and began to fight eggs with the other fellows. They struck the little ends of the eggs together, and if your egg broke another fellow's egg, then you had a right to it. Sometimes an egg was so hard that it would break every other egg in the street; and generally when a little fellow lost his egg, he began to cry and went into the house. This did not prove him a cry-baby; it was allowable, like crying when you stumped your toe. I think this custom of fighting eggs came from the Pennsylvania Germans, to whom the Boy's Town probably owed its Protestant observance of Easter. There was nothing religious in the way the boys kept it, any more than there was in their way of keeping Christmas.


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