The arrival of spring and approach of Easter hold promises of rebirth and resurrection, especially this year. People from all walks of faith share the yearning for an end to pandemic life and careful return to holiday traditions held dear.
One example: the Easter basket. Polish Catholics consider it sacred, more than a sweet rush of sugar from jellybeans and chocolate-shaped rabbits. The tradition is to fill a basket with symbolic foods that a priest blesses one day before the holiday.
Ham signifies abundance. Bread and wine represent the Eucharist. Eggs stand for new life, and salt is the seasoning of life. Butter shaped like a lamb is a “Lamb of God” reference.
Then there’s horseradish, to recognize the suffering of Christ and harshness of life. The Rev. Mike Hammer of Milwaukee, Wisconsin knows the angst of 2020 makes this item particularly relevant.
Hammer, assisting priest at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, did not see his family for a year as a COVID-19 precaution. The 81-year-old is high risk, living with a pacemaker, lung disorder and double-cancer history.
Much changes on Sunday because Hammer, ordained 51 years ago, will officiate Mass on Easter morning at St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church in Beaver Dam, his hometown. Afterward, he and his sister Mary Hammer will co-host a meal for about 16 relatives, including two brothers.
Pre-pandemic, as many as 25 indulged in a sit-down meal around tables elegantly decorated by the priest with Polish crystal, fine china, flower arrangements and a display from his collection of Slavic decorated eggs.
Although elders will be fully vaccinated against the virus when they meet, the pandemic nevertheless slightly disrupts longtime Easter traditions. They will share Easter brunch instead of a five- to nine-course meal, “so we can stay separated better” instead of being tightly seated around dining tables.
The menu likely includes ham, one or more egg dishes with meat, side dishes and kielbasa (simmered in water 45 minutes, then moved to a 200- to 250-degree oven for two hours, “to soften it”).
The priest knows his Polish mother would have frowned on moving kielbasa from Easter breakfast to the main meal. The family used to make their own kielbasa, then switched to a Klement’s product as they got older. They use frozen dough instead of making bread from scratch.
Hammer says his sister still follows the family tradition of introducing something new to the Easter feast, be it a salad, type of potato or dessert.
Their grandmother’s round, wicker basket will be filled and blessed, either at church or at home. It will include a little loaf of freshly baked bread that relatives will share with wine or sparkling juice, after the blessing. Mimosas begin the gathering, too, and blackberry brandy slush counts as one of at least three desserts.
“We don’t think alike, but we share beautifully,” Hammer says light-heartedly, of his family. All are Catholic, but he says not all are on the same page politically. His Lenten message, on Vimeo, mentions the value of “doing that which gives light to others” instead of raising rancor.
Sending a fun card to a friend or paying the lunch tab for a stranger are examples. So is the cinnamon coffeecake that a longtime friend made and brought to the priest, climbing seven flights when his apartment elevator wasn’t working.
Hammer and siblings learned to cook from their mother, and the priest raises money for the cathedral by hosting a multicourse dinner. Its theme and menu change each year.
Feeding families in need
At Parklawn Assembly of God in Milwaukee, Bishop Walter Harvey shares his late mother’s love of hospitality, which he describes as “caring for the poor, the widow and the orphans.”
Johnnie Harvey, born in Mississippi, “cooked large soul food dinners and invited several less fortunate families to join ours for the holiday meal,” including Easter. On her menu: fried chicken, ham, collard greens, candied yams, baked macaroni and cheese, cornbread, green beans and sweet corn. For dessert: banana pudding, coconut cake, sweet potato pie.
“I believe Easter is a season that focuses on the resurrection of Jesus and the power he gives each person to care for others by his spirit,” Harvey says.
His parents, part of the Great Migration from the segregated South to the North, moved to Milwaukee in the late 1950s. Although his mother died in 2012, the tradition continued — until the pandemic — with the same china that she used for holidays and church fellowship dinners. The bishop’s sister, Karon, would use a second set of family china to do the same thing.
“We won’t share a physical meal with extended family or friends, but we have been having family holiday Zoom calls” after siblings have their own gatherings, Harvey says.
He and his wife, Judy, will buy grocery store gift cards, for distribution to families in need.
“It is another way of demonstrating love and hospitality,” the minister says.
‘See people for who they are’
Brother Robert Wotypka of Capuchin Community Services says food is an essential part of ministry at House of Peace and St. Ben’s Community Meal programs.
“Our sites are a place for connection — we purposely don’t call them a soup kitchen,” he says.
They served a hot meal six nights a week at the 930 W. State St. meal hall, until the pandemic, and now deliver meals to those in need. The programs, which depend on support from businesses and the faithful, introduce those who otherwise might not have crossed paths.
“To meet across the table is a way to stop ‘othering,’ to see people for who they are, to see how they are hurting,” Wotypka says. “It helps change perceptions and realities.”
When the St. Ben’s meal hall was open on Easter, ham steaks would be a traditional part of the meal. This year, donated ham will be delivered to people in need. About 200 households a week are assisted.
Wotypka, ministry director, used to travel the world as a quality control auditor in the high-end hotel business. So now he gains a much different perspective about the value of hospitality. The change of lifestyle, from corporate to faith-based work, means he takes turns cooking with three other Capuchin friars.
At first, as he was learning, “if it was my day to cook, I’d start at 1 o’clock for a 6:15 (p.m.) meal.”
A vegetarian since 1988, he learned quickly from Capuchin brothers raised on farms that “making curry might raise eyebrows,” as in “where’s the rest of the meal?”
They will share a traditional Easter meal, and Wotypka hasn’t decided how to adjust it. For Thanksgiving, he ate faux chicken cutlets while others ate turkey.
“I know we are in a time when there is enough” to feed those in need and ourselves, he reflects, “but I have a commitment to ecology and believe the time is coming when there won’t be enough” because of climate change and energy issues. “I saw what the derecho did to (flatten) Iowa cornfields” in August 2020.
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