When’s the last time you attended an Easter parade? If the answer is “never,” you’re not alone—the practice has long since been out of fashion. But between the 1880s and 1950s, writes Leigh Eric Schmidt, it was all the rage—and the lavish ritual of decorating your body for Easter Sunday has roots not in consumerism, but religion.
The tradition—and the revival of Easter as a festival-type holiday—coincided with a rise in Catholic immigration and relaxing religious standards in the 1880s. (Christmas grew right alongside Easter as festivals became more and more popular in the United States.) But the practice of public religious celebrations didn’t necessarily come from people’s desire to buy a bunch of clothing and flowers. Rather, it was the other way around: As church altars became more and more bedecked and more modern, so did people.
Schmidt describes a growing fad for floral arrangements on church altars, one that embraced garlands, flower festoons, trellises, and “pyramids of lilies.” Historic diaries show Episcopal and Catholic churches becoming more and more dramatic showpieces for flowers—a change that predates the shop windows you might think inspired the shift.
All of those bowers of flowers were “an important new medium for religious expression,” says Schmidt. The idea of flowers as a symbol of new life resonated with people whose home lives were becoming ever more sentimental, and as homes themselves became more decorative, so did God’s house. In turn, these decorative spaces influenced religion itself, as people began to picture a more homelike heaven populated with “human relationships and domestic reunions.”
Soon, lavish church displays made their way into store windows, which in turn became almost cathedral-like. In turn, church-like store windows reinforced a sense that people deserved to be fulfilled personally—and as they became more self-indulgent, so did their fashion. Milliners and seamstresses began to bring Easter flowers onto women themselves, echoing old festival traditions. And what better way to show off those new Easter fashions then to promenade them in front of all your neighbors? New York’s opulent Easter parade became a place to see and be seen, to flaunt new finery and learn about the latest fashions. In turn, the fabric and hat industries saw a golden opportunity to market their goods. The more popular Easter became, the more popular it remained.
Not everyone loved the spectacle. As Schmidt writes, journalists pointed out the discrepancy between rich women’s Easter fashions and the lives of the sweatshop workers who made them. But what really killed the Easter parade was not self-indulgence, but Americans’ declining interest in religion. Though New York still celebrates a wacky version of its Easter parade to this day, it’s dwindled in size and influence—a sign that some flowers simply fade with time.