Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter in Australia

Hot cross buns.
Hot cross buns.
One a penny, two a penny --
Hot cross buns.

I remember singing this song as a kid growing up in Iowa. I had no idea what hot cross buns were. I thought they were just some sort of made up thing. I mean, who would put a hot cross on a bun? Or why would the buns be hot and cross - did they not like steamy weather? And why sing about pennies?

Then, when I first moved to Australia ten years ago, Paul introduced me to a delicious Easter tradition: hot cross buns. He was amazed that I had never eaten one. I told him that I thought they were only something from a children's nursery rhyme. Then I had a revelation -- hot cross buns are a yummy baked item that make their annual appearance at Easter. They are hot. They have a cross on the top (a nod to the Christian origins of the Easter holiday). They usually have small bits of fruit in side (like raisins). And they are delicious - especially with a nice scrapping of butter on them. In the weeks leading up to Easter, these sweet rolls start showing up on the shelves of bakeries. In fact, I bought a half-dozen of them on Saturday - baked fresh (and they did not cost "one a penny" or "two a penny" - rather, they were six for $3.)

Since first living in Sydney more than a decade ago and then marrying an Australian, I have come to realize that even though Australian culture and society is in many ways similar to my experiences in the USA, there are lots of differences - often in ways that I would never imagine. Variations in Easter traditions serve as excellent examples of these unexpected differences. And hot cross buns are at the top of the list.

First, it is probably worth while to give a bit of perspective of where I am coming from. I was raised Catholic, and each year Mom, Dad, Laura and I celebrated Easter with my grandma and grandpa (and small extended family) in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. As a young girl, in the weeks leading up to the holiday, my grandma would take my sister and me shopping for an Easter dress and Easter hat.

On the day before Easter (and this is a tradition that my family in the States continues to do), we would all gather at my grandparents' house and sit around the kitchen table (protectively covered in a textured light tan paddled plastic tablecloth) and color dozens and dozens of hard-boiled eggs (of course, my grandmother never called them "hard-boiled" - they were "cooked" eggs). My grandparents had a collection of large wide-mouthed jars, white and pink waxy crayons, and a mess of those little wire egg dippers used to dip the eggs into the dye - all kept in an appropriately labelled cardboard box secured with a string. Each wide-mouth jar would get two color tablets from the Paas egg-dying kit (hopefully two tablets of the same color), vinegar and water. Then the coloring would begin.

There were (and still are) a few important rules. First, everybody in the family gets an egg with his or her name on it. So, using the waxy crayon, and saying something to the effect of "I've got [name's] egg," we would write a name on the egg and dip it into the dye. Some people, like my mom and dad, often ended up with two eggs - one with "Mom" or "Dad" on it and one with their actual name. And somebody, usually my dad, would make an egg for Frank - and there is no Frank in the family. When Paul joined the family and when the boys each had their first Easter, everybody made a big deal to ensure that each got their own personalized egg.

The second rule was that everybody have a turn at coloring eggs, even if it was just one or two eggs. This was something for everybody to do - a tradition for the whole family.

Laura was always the most creative - she would use layers of crayon and colors to get beautiful designs. And she always ended up with beautifully colored paper towels as well (we would dab off the excess color on paper towels). I am pretty sure that she saved several of those paper towels and used them in later projects. My aunt Barb, who has Down's Syndrome, tends to write lyrics from country music songs or narratives from past experiences on to her eggs. My dad's eggs were usually a bit silly or witty. And the rest of us just tried to make pretty eggs.

Easter dinner was usually Saturday night. I have vivid, mouth-watering memories of baked ham, scalloped potatoes, green beans, crusty bread and real butter in a glass butter dish. Grandpa at the head of the table, Grandma on the side of the table closet to the kitchen so she could pop up if something was needed, the rest of us spread around the table. I always took for granted the fact that my grandmother could get all of the food on the table at the same time and all of it be nice and hot. Today, I am amazed by this feat.

When we went to bed on Saturday night at my grandparents' house, we always put our shoes out at the foot of our bed. Then, when we were woken up early the next morning (we always went to early Mass on Easter Sunday), the egg with our name on it miraculously appeared in one of the shoes. The Easter Bunny had visited during the night!

After getting dressed in our Easter clothes, we would race downstairs. First on the agenda: find our Easter baskets. My sister and I each had these lovely wicker baskets that we used year after year. Usually, the Easter Bunny hid the baskets behind one of the easy chairs in my grandparents' living room. Inside the baskets were small wrapped presents and some chocolate eggs. Then, the Easter egg hunt would begin in earnest. During the night, the Easter Bunny had hid all of the eggs throughout the downstairs of the house. And we had to find all of the eggs before leaving for church. There were some standard hiding spots - in the eagle wall hanging in the TV room, in the pot plants, inside Grandpa's desk, in the china cabinet. And to fuel us on our egg finding mission was a large plate of jelly beans, small chocolate eggs, and the most amazing egg-shaped truffle-like candies (inside were cream fillings flavored with maple, vanilla, chocolate, etc.) I always managed to sneak a few jelly beans - my personal favorite - each time I walked through the dinning room where Grandma had set the plate on the sideboard.

As we found each egg, we would put them in our baskets. As our baskets got full, Mom emptied them out into the empty egg cartons, slowly counting down how many eggs we had left to find before church. Most years, we found all of the eggs before piling in to two cars for the short ride to Blessed Sacrament. Some years, we had to find the last couple after we got home.

After church, we returned to my grandparents' house and commenced with the "Egg Cracking Championship" over a breakfast of toast, eggs, bacon, and candy. It wasn't until I was in high school that I realized that this tradition was unique to my family (and my extended family in Milwaukee). It goes like this: each person selects an egg that s/he believes will be a "champion." You then choose somebody to compete against. One person holds the egg pointy side up while the other person take the pointy side of her/his egg and taps it against the opponent's egg. One egg cracks. Then, the sides are swapped and the tapper becomes the "tappee" as the rounded sides are tapped against each other. Usually, one person's egg survives this experiences without cracking. That person's egg is declared the "winner" of that round and goes on to compete against the winner of another tapping competition. The "loser" gets to eat her/his egg. And so it continues. Often, an egg might survive 3 or 4 (or more!) rounds before cracking. That egg is declared a "champion."

More recently, since we discovered Vincent's egg allergy, we have changed this tradition a bit. During the last couple Easters (when we were still living in the States), we still colored eggs on Easter Saturday in at my grandpa's house in LaCrosse. But our Easter egg hunt on Sunday morning took place at my parents' house in Decorah. We put jelly beans and small toys in a dozen or so bright colored plastic Easter eggs, and the Easter Bunny (aka: my dad) hid them in the backyard of their house for Vincent to find.

So that, in a nutshell (or eggshell??) is a summary of my Easters growing up. I know it is a rather long and involved description, but I feel that in order for you to better understand my observations of Easter in Australia, you need to understand my experiences with Easter.


The differences between my experiences of Easter in the States and Easter in Australia stem, in general, from a couple of sources. First, much of Australian tradition is strongly rooted in English traditions, both secular and religious. Second, even though Easter is a holiday that celebrates rebirth, renewal, and - by extension - Spring, Easter is an autumn holiday in Australia. So, here is a list - in no particular order -  of differences in how Easter is celebrated in Australia (specifically Sydney) and in the US (specifically the Midwest):

1. Hot cross buns.
2. I don't know anybody here who colors/dyes hard-boiled eggs.
3. Chocolate eggs and chocolate bunnies are the main Easter candy - Paul searched high and low to find me a small bag of jelly beans (and they weren't Brachs...)
4. There are no plastic Easter eggs to be found anywhere.
5. So, when kids do Easter egg hunts here, they are looking for chocolate eggs of all sizes that have been hidden (usually outside) by the Easter bunny.
6. Easter hats/bonnets are very popular for school kids - at daycare this week, the boys both decorated Easter hats and on Thursday they had an Easter Hat Parade, followed by a special afternoon tea.
7. Chocolate eggs and chocolate bunnies are everywhere!
8. Good Friday and Easter Monday are public holidays - no work, no school. And on Good Friday, almost everything was closed - the grocery store, the shopping centre, etc. (I was at the shopping centre on Thursday night pick up a few things and the place was packed - it reminded me of people getting ready for a big snow storm by making one final trip to the store to stock up on everything they might need in case they can't get back for days and days.) In many ways, the Easter long weekend is comparable to the Thanksgiving weekend in the States - the only guaranteed four-day weekend during the year.
9. In the States, ham tends to be the traditional Easter dinner. But I'm not really sure what a "traditional" Easter dinner is. I know a lot of people here eat lamb on Easter and some people eat ham. We are going to a park and having a BBQ (i.e., sausages) with our family.
10. Did I mention the chocolate?? :)


  1. I miss Woolworth's hot crossed buns! We can't eat any of the Easter buns or breads right now, because it is both Easter and Passover, and so we have no grain products in the house. We are having lamb with eggplant, though (and gefilte fish wish horseradish for a starter), and I am currently dying a couple of eggs with onion skins. Fortunately, though, Astoria is a predominantly Greek neighbourhood, and the Greek Orthodox Easter is later, so I'm looking forward to Greek Easter breads. I'm also planning to bake some hot crossed buns.
    By the way, Clare, onion skins boiled with water and vinegar make a pretty good wool dye. Perhaps as an allergy-free alternative to dying Easter eggs you and your family could play around with eggs knitted or crocheted from natural wool. Or perhaps cool-aid dying or unknitted yarns that you could knit up into something colourful later.

  2. I loved reading this and will share in with Grandpa at breakfast tomorrow (he's in bed and I just got around to doing "fun stuff" on the computer, like reading your blog--sorry I didn't get to it sooner.