Which festival is more important — Christmas or Easter?” my Nana (grandmother) once asked me when I was all of 12.
“Christmas,” I said, as my eyes immediately lit up thinking of Santa, the Sunday lunch of pulao and chicken coconut curry at home and all those ribbon-wrapped gifts around the Christmas tree! “No, little one, Easter is the more important festival. It is when we celebrate the resurrection of Christ”.
Most of us give Easter less time, thought and preparation than Christmas. But for many Christians around the world, it is the more meaningful festival, starting with Ash Wednesday and continuing for the 40 days of Lent.
The period of Lent is when we sacrifice or give up something we love. Many abstain from meat. Others fast in different ways — I remember giving up watching my favourite cartoons (today it would probably be Netflix)! The idea is that an experience of want, though temporary, can help us appreciate the abundance in life.
In the run-up to Easter, it would be time to go egg shopping in New Market. There would be no space to stand inside Kathleen’s where chocolate-filled eggs were sold by the dozen. They would come in baskets, often with little toys thrown in. Inside Nahoum & Sons, it was equally crowded with their chocolate eggs hatching on the cash register.
The Kookie Jar confectionery brought in the fancy and frills, and anything from KJ would always feel a little more special (after all, it was more expensive!). At that time there was no Pinterest and ideas were inspired from what you would see during your travels. “I have this clear picture in my head from a window I once passed by in Venice. It was of an egg crate filled with chocolate eggs in their decorated eggshells and that image just stayed with me. They had lovely teacakes as well,” remembers Lovey, who opened Kookie Jar in 1987 and started selling Easter eggs two years later.
On the evening of Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter Sunday), if you passed by any of these confectionery stores when the hot cross buns were arriving, you’d follow your nose like Jughead Jones into Pop Tate’s. These spiced buns are marked with a cross made from dough and traditionally eaten on Good Friday. After the Seven Church Walk on Thursday, we’d stop by where Kalimpong once was on Middleton Row, next to Birkmyre Hostel, and pick them up.
On Easter Day, we’d head for morning mass dressed in our fineries (15 minutes early to get a seat because even those who don’t show up for mass the whole year make an appearance on this one day). After mass, we’d visit the cousins where the elders would bring out the homemade chocolate eggs.
These eggs had been emptied of their original contents, washed and left to dry. The most challenging part was making a tiny hole on the top to empty it… without cracking the whole thing open! They were then filled with liquid chocolate (almonds and cashew nuts too, if the budget permitted) and kept to freeze. Then came the fun part — decorating the eggshells. Out came the sketch pens and we’d put our creative best to test.
“Mum would tell me that the Easter bunny dropped off the eggs and I’d say in defiance, ‘How does the bunny lay eggs, mumma?’” laughs Johanne Mantosh, who now looks after Scoop in New Market where she continues the tradition with innovation. Today, at home, she even does the Easter Egg Hunt. “I hide the eggs in the lawn and give all the children baskets to go hunt them down,” she says.
Today, the tradition of gifting Easter eggs is slowly dying. Ask Raymond Blaquiere, whose Anglo-Indian family has been making and selling Easter eggs from home for 51 years (their Facebook page is Blaquiere’s). Traditionally, his mother and grandmother made Marzipan Shells filled with 16 homemade assorted chocolates. “Over the years, the demand has reduced and to keep the quality as good as the generations before me, we’ve had to raise the prices,” says Raymond, 30, who operates out of his home near Swabhumi.
The Blaquieres have stopped putting all their eggs in one basket. “We have diversified into solid chocolate eggs in dark milk and white, in 21 favours from After Eight to Coastal Coconut,” adds Raymond.
Lovey, too, rues how “one year, we did a Simnel Cake with a layer of marzipan, another year we did Easter Stolen with almonds and raisins... we had to slowly stop because of less demand.”
And at Kathleen’s on Lindsay Street, the showroom manager Swarup Rakshit says that Easter sales have dropped by “more than 40 per cent” compared to five years ago.
It is sad that Calcutta, known for upholding all sorts of tradition, is letting this one break. The least we can do is yoke it in while it’s still there!
Text: Karo Christine Kumar
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