The giant Easter egg hunt sponsored by the Pez Candy company of Orange, Connecticut promised on paper to be an imaginative initiative of corporate outreach as well as a jocund community event. The candy mavens had hidden — or at least distributed — as many as 10,000 eggs over several adjoining fields in such a way as to present graduated levels of challenge for mixed age groups of youngsters beginning with toddlers. According to press reports, alas, it all went terribly wrong. Too many of the parents who showed up with their little kids proved unable to contain their own hyper-competitiveness. Without waiting for the official starting whistle, several hundred large persons, who combined the worst excesses of Little League partisans and bargain-hunters in Filene’s Basement, rushed into the happy hunting grounds intent on scooping up as many pigmented eggs as they could carry. The infants who simply got left behind were the luckier ones. The less lucky were jostled or trod upon in the stampede. There is one report of a four-year-old not merely muddied but bloodied.
In the late morning of Easter Sunday in our own backyard in Princeton we had a rather less sanguinary event. Five of our six grandchildren — the sixth being a young professional woman who as it turns out was on her way to the beach in Southern California at the time — were gathered, along with their parents, at our house. The five grandchildren, young cousins of three families, were of two generations: three of them in the toddler to kindergarten set, and two somewhat older sisters just on either side of the cusp of teenagerism. The older girls had played the principal role in the coloring of the eggs, and, without having lost a certain sense of excitement in the search itself, took on the more detached public role of preceptor to the infants. The closeness and camaraderie of the cousins, who are but rarely all together, is a particular source of pleasure for their grandparents. “How good and pleasant a thing it is,” says the Psalmist of this familial harmony, which he likens to the ointment running down from Aaron’s beard onto the hem of his garment — a particularly apt image for youngsters in a nearly continuous state of drip and ooze from nostril or lip.
There is a beautiful old prayer now assigned to the infrequently experienced evening service of Compline that goes as follows: “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”
One phrase in the prayer might seem a little puzzling both in meaning and in context: shield the joyous. If you have ever seen a toddler at an Easter egg hunt, however, you certainly will know the meaning of “joyous”; the account given above suggests why the joyous might need shielding.
We had dyed about three dozen real eggs, mostly in unambitious solid colors, though there were a few daring polychrome experiments. I had supplemented the offerings of the battery hens with a couple dozen more cheap and nasty plastic simulacra from the Dollar Store. Experience had taught me that by no means all of the eggs would be found, that some would remain in the elements for many weeks, and that on the whole it is better to fertilize the garden in a more conventional and less odiferous manner than that afforded by the sulfurous exhalations of decaying ova. Also, plastic eggs at least have a chance of surviving being found by a four-year-old. I doubt that any of our infants noticed the difference. Those completely captivated by the Spirit have scant time to worry about the Letter.
John Henry and Ruby, both of whom have entered the Tromping Ages, high-kicked and goose-stepped around the yard in a state of high excitement, spotting at least one in three of the bright ovoids so preposterously resting on grass tufts, in flower pots, or at the base of trees. Frequently their older cousins offered helpful hints of considerable subtlety, such as “I wonder if there could be any on the gravel path? … I wonder …” Their baskets grew heavy, but so great was the bounty and so great the excited urgency to move on to the next, that there were still plenty for toddler Hazel as she came like a modern Ruth, a gleaner following the harvesters.
Innocence, wonder, joy. How often do we see such things truly on display? “Verily”, says Jesus, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” To my mind this is not a threat, not even an admonition, simply a statement of the way things are. Wordsworth puts it in a slightly fancier way that demonstrates the Romantic habit of rationalizing Transcendence:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy…
Shield the joyous.