ITASCA, Illinois (RNS) — For Laurie Walker and Altha Milnes, it was a nice way to get outside and get moving.
On Thursday evening (April 6) — when many Christian traditions observed Maundy Thursday, commemorating Jesus’ last supper with his disciples — the sisters-in-law were attending their town’s Adult Eggstravaganza Egg Hunt.
Racing their neighbors to collect prize-filled eggs strewn across the playground at this Chicago suburb’s recreation and fitness center, participants swung shopping bags and buckets decorated with festive bunnies and chicks. Some wore headlamps or carried flashlights as they combed hedges for a glimpse of colorful plastic.
Usually, Walker and Milnes are the ones hiding the eggs for their children and grandchildren to find on Easter. They’ve hidden baskets and golden eggs containing special prizes. One year, Milnes even dressed as the Easter Bunny.
They’ve tried to get their families to go to church, as they did when they were younger. But Easter, when Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection after three days in the tomb, feels like more of a family get-together these days, Walker said.
Easter traditionally is the most popular day of the year to attend church, with 62% of Americans reporting they took part in holiday services before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. But, at a time when fewer people are identifying as Christian and church attendance has been slow to recover from the pandemic, celebrations of the most sacred day on the Christian calendar are becoming bigger and more detached from their religious roots.
In their place, events like the Adult Eggstravaganza Egg Hunt, hosted by the Itasca Park District and Village of Itasca, appear to be taking off.
“It’s something that definitely I would say in the last three to five years is becoming more and more popular, whether it involves alcohol or not,” said Erika Rubo, recreation supervisor for the Itasca Park District.
Itasca has hosted its adult egg hunt, in addition to events for children and seniors, for more than five years — longer than Rubo said she has worked for the park district. During the pandemic, the park district also organized events like the Boozy Bunny Egg Hunt, hiding plastic eggs containing candy and little bottles of alcoholic beverages for residents over the age of 21.
Rubo said she’s seen more and more park districts in Illinois hosting similar events.
They’re events that are centered on community, rather than Christianity. Some include visits not by the Easter Bunny, but the Spring Bunny or just the Bunny. In Itasca, a close-knit community of about 9,400 people outside of Chicago, Rubo is fond of referring to the gift-giving hare as the Itasca Bunny.
For residents of all religious and cultural backgrounds, she said, “it’s something that becomes tradition and something to look forward to and, you know, pictures that they create from year to year that they’re putting in their family album,” she said.
Or on their social media feeds: TikTok videos encourage kiddie pools full of summery gifts in place of modest baskets of candy, pastel décor decks the halls of YouTubers’ homes and matching pajamas make early morning egg hunts more Instagram-able.
To some people, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in April.
Parents and professional observers of religion have been noticing the trend for some time. “When The Heck Did Easter Become The New Christmas?” asked a 2016 headline on the popular parenting blog Scary Mommy.
The answer may be when Easter began to boom as a retail opportunity. Spending on Easter goods this year is expected to reach an all-time high of $24 billion, according to the annual Easter spending survey by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics. (It was $17.3 billion in 2016 and jumped from $18.1 billion to $21.7 billion in 2020.)
According to the survey, 81% of Americans will celebrate Easter on Sunday and spend an average of $192.01.
Everything just feels bigger, said Jessica Mesman, associate editor of progressive ecumenical magazine The Christian Century.
Mesman, the mother of teenagers, has been orchestrating holiday celebrations for a while, and she grew up celebrating Easter and Lent — the 40-day preparatory season leading up to the holiday — in a Catholic family in New Orleans.
“I just don’t remember it being this big. I feel like people are treating it like Christmas. Easter gift giving — that wasn’t a thing. It was just a basket with candy in it and maybe a little treat,” she said.
Mesman suggests the secular celebrations of Easter may be a case of people finding ways to observe ritual outside of faith that are big enough to fill the space that religious Easter once occupied.
“I think people are marking time in their own way, which, to me, is a religious activity, and there’s really no way of separating the two in my head. I think it’s beautiful to have your family traditions and your rituals for marking time, whatever they are,” she said.
Beautiful, but also puzzling.
Celebrations of spring at this time of year tend to fall flat in the Midwest — Mesman lives in South Bend, Indiana, where spring flowers barely have begun to peek through the dirt most Easters, she said. Decorated eggs and baskets of candy made more sense as an end to the fasting of Lent and, not least, sitting through the hourslong Easter Vigil service the night before.
“I think the whole thing together is really magical,” she said.
That’s why the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of America Magazine, thinks Easter won’t ultimately be secularized or commercialized to the extent Christmas has.
In 2018, Martin wrote an article for Slate with the headline declaring, “Happy Crossmas! How Easter stubbornly resists commercialism,” and he’s sticking to his story.
“It’s easier to Hallmark-ize the birth of a child than someone rising from the grave,” he told Religion News Service in an email, adding, “the Resurrection is still a tough thing to sugarcoat.”
There’s value in the cultural traditions surrounding the holidays, like gathering with family and sharing meals, according to Martin. But something is lost when simple family time overtakes the spiritual — or, rather, he said, “almost everything is lost.”
“Taking Christ out of Christmas and the Empty Tomb out of Easter means you’re no longer remembering the Incarnation or the Resurrection, but just spending time with your friends and family, getting a few nice gifts and eating some Marshmallow Peeps. And that, I would say, is a loss,” he said.
Of course, some attend events like Itasca’s Adult Eggstravaganza Egg Hunt and church services, too.
Cheryl Behland spent years searching for Easter egg hunts for her children in the area. Now that those children are in their 20s, she said, it was fun to find an event they could participate in together alongside her brother, Joe Janek.
“We kind of just wanted to find something that we could do as a family and still enjoy the good old days like we used to do when they were little,” Behland said.
On Thursday evening, she gathered under a security light illuminating the sidewalk with her adult children, Timmy and Stephanie, cracking open plastic eggs and discovering what was inside — Laffy Taffy and tickets for prizes like free breakfast at a local resort and a day pass to the park district pool.
On Easter Sunday, family time will be at Our Mother of Good Counsel in nearby Homer Glen.