Easter and Whitsun

At Easter each year Nana came to stay. Nana was a devout catholic who did her best to stop me from going to hell by taking me to church whenever she visited. At seven, the year I have in mind, I should have been making my first Communion as my cousins had. My parents had both been raised as Catholics but neither attended church. My mother told me that, in her early teens, she had been quite devout; during Lent, she would attend early mass every day. But by the time she left school she had become very disheartened by the discrimination she had experienced there. Her headteacher, Sister Mary, did all she could to make scholarship girls from poor families feel inferior and unwelcome as did certain members of the congregation in her church. My father said that his scientific studies had challenged his childhood beliefs and that he no longer found faith rational. Whatever their personal beliefs, my parents were both happy for me to make my own decisions on matters of religion. I think Nana hoped that taking me with her to mass would somehow help me to make the right choice.

That year (1957) my mother had made me a lovely new dress for Easter Sunday. It was a mixture of plain blue and blue and white striped cotton. I had a straw hat too. Every year my dad would buy my mother and me easter bonnets. If we were visiting my Cousin Kate and her family we would wear them and Aunty Ciss would play an old recording of ‘In your easter bonnet’ from the film ‘Easter Parade’. I loved wearing my new clothes, but the church visit was an uncomfortable experience. I was allowed to stay up later than usual on a Saturday evening and sleep in the following morning. An early awakening on Sunday morning for 7.30 mass felt shivery and unreasonable. We had no time for breakfast and Nana couldn’t eat anyway if she wanted to take communion. We tiptoed out of the flat and caught the bus to St. Anne’s church in Bramhall. Spring mornings in England can be sunny but sharply chilly and I had judged the warmth of the day by the temperature inside our flat. My new dress was thin cotton and I hadn’t brought a cardigan. Mass began very early and the church had no heating.

The priest's voice rolled and echoed around the walls, its volume rising and falling as he intoned his way through the mass. I couldn't hear exactly what he was saying but it didn't matter because the whole service was in Latin. We stood and sat and knelt and stood and sat and knelt for what seemed like a long time. I concentrated on trying to stand, sit or kneel at the right time, trying hard not to sniff although my nose was cold and drippy and trying really hard to avoid dropping the collection plate when it was passed to me. (I had done this once when visiting my cousin’s church, to the mortification of my aunt and uncle.) It was an unfamiliar building and the pictures on the wall of the poor man covered in blood made me uneasy. I shivered, shuffled closer to Nana and wished I were wearing a warm coat like hers. I looked at the small prayer book she had handed me. I loved the picture of the beautiful lady with the blue shawl on its shiny, padded cover, although I did worry about her standing on a snake in her bare feet.

By the time we arrived home I was famished and ready to start on my chocolate eggs – breakfast could wait. Like counting birthday cards, the important thing to consider about Easter was how many eggs did I get? Most of mine were chocolate, but that year there was one truly beautiful white sugar egg decorated with coloured sugar flowers. A section of the egg’s ‘shell’ had been removed to reveal a cut-paper diorama of a garden. I would love to say that I still have this tiny masterpiece but unfortunately, something so fragile was never going to last for very long in my hands.

Mine was a state school and, although we did have regular assemblies and there was celebration of the main Christian festivals, there was certainly no faith education. There was quite a large church of England church on Cheadle Road just past the pub and almost opposite the greengrocers. Sometimes I did go to afternoon Sunday School at St. Andrews, usually for a few weeks in the summer to qualify for their annual picnic.

St Andrews was a very new building in a contemporary style, but Sunday school met in the original church, now a large, old echoing wooden hall at the back of the site. We sat in circles on wooden chairs and one of the teenaged members of the congregation was in charge of trying to teach their circle stories from the Bible. The best part of Sunday school was all of us joining in singing ‘choruses’ just before we went home. These were like hymns but with catchy, bouncy tunes and accompanying actions. We bellowed along as the tinny piano thumped out choruses like ‘The wise man built his house upon the rock’ and happily stamped loudly at the end when the foolish man’s house went ‘Crash!’ Before we went home we were given small sticky-backed pictures of technicolour bible scenes in which all the leading characters seemed to have pink faces, even Pharaoh and Moses. Underneath each picture was a short Bible reference.

For a while, I did join Junos at St. Andrew’s. We wore green uniforms and worked on skills to achieve badges, a little like brownies. I was a very bad Juno as I never paid any attention to my uniform until minutes before the meeting which meant I always arrived with my fingers smelling of Brasso Wadding from polishing my badge; I seldom remembered to shine my shoes which did not go unnoticed. We met in the old church hall which, like most older buildings, had no central heating. I can remember one meeting with us sitting around a very small heater in our coats as Ms Wainwright taught us how to make paper carnations for Mother’s Day using florist’s wire and layered Kleenex tissues. At another meeting close to Bonfire Night she brought special fireworks for us.

At Whitsun, the church would parade up to Oak Meadow, the little park in Cheadle Hulme village just opposite The Elysian cinema. The Junos and Campaigners marched along proudly carrying their banners. Rev. Sergeant, the vicar, led the singing in the open air and, luckily, he had a really good loud speaking voice for the prayers because there was no sound system. There wasn’t anything at all as elaborate as the catholic Whitsun Walks where Nana and Kate lived. There they had street-wide banners, special costumes, cloaks and girls with flowery headdresses. Once, when I was very small, I accidentally became part of a big Whitsun parade when we were visiting Nana. A float (decorated open lorry) slowed and stopped by where we were standing so my Dad lifted me up to join the other children. For a moment I felt a sense of panic because I wasn’t sure that my parents would be able to find me again and I had no idea where we were going. I needn’t have worried. The float moved so slowly that I could see my parents all the way to the big field where the festivities were beginning.