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Dogwoods signal return of spring

They begin to leaf early in March, maybe later if our Deep South winter lingers on. Their tightly furled buds are then already visible, waiting in readiness for the first warm days to unfurl their blossoms. By the end of March the Dogwood is in full bloom, in white drifts against the forest green of pine thickets, among cascades of wisteria and along city streets.

In historic old Live Oak Cemetery the blossom of the dogwoods glows through the glossy-leafed branches of the giant magnolia trees that stand sentinel above its sea of ancient marble monuments.

And it is then that spring steps in from the wings of winter.

However, the Dogwood tree is noted for more than its beauty, and each Eastertide its legend is renewed:

In the time of Christ, or so the legend goes, the Dogwood tree had attained the size of the oak and other forest trees, with its wood the strongest and firmest of all the hardwood trees. Thus it was chosen as the timber for the cross upon which Christ was crucified.

And the legend continues:

The trees were greatly distressed at having been chosen for such a cruel purpose and Jesus, sensing their regret and pity for his suffering, made this promise:

“Never again shall the Dogwood tree grow large enough to be used for a cross. Henceforth it shall be slender and bent and twisted, and its blossoms shall be in the form of a cross — two long and two short petals.

And in the center of the outer edge of each petal there shall be nail prints brown with rust and stained with blood, and in the center of the flower will be a crown of thorns.

All those who see it will remember it was on a Dogwood tree that I was crucified, and this tree shall not be mutilated nor destroyed, but cherished and protected as a reminder of my agony and death upon the Cross.”

So today, upon the hillsides, the Dogwood tree grows as the legend promised, with its branches slender, bent and twisted, bearing each Spring its snowy blossoms and each autumn its flaming berries.

THE RISING SUN

An ancient belief connected with the rising sun is that it was possible to see the sun dance in the sky if you beheld it just at dawn. Groups of people would trek up the hills to see the spectacle. A humorous explanation of this wonder was offered in The British Apollo.

In 1708 in the form of a question and answer:

Old wives, Phoebus, say

That on Easter Day

To the music of the spheres you do caper;

If the fact, sir, be true,

Pray let’s the cause know,

The old wives get merry

With spiced ale and sherry

On Easter, which makes them romance;

And whilst in a rout

Their brains whirl about

They fancy we caper and dance.

A similar belief was that the image of the Lamb of God appeared in the sun at dawn. In France, the brilliant shafts of light thrusting through the clouds were said to be dancing angels celebrating the Resurrection.

The outdoor Easter sunrise service came to America by Protestant emigrants from Moravia. The first such service was held in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1741. The Moravians also settled in Winston-Salem, N.C. and in Nazareth, Pa. The sunrise ceremonies in those places have survived through the years and are of extraordinary beauty, including the haunting music of a trombone choir, which awakens the town early Easter morning accompanied by the pealing of church bells.

The traditional Moravian sugar cake and coffee were eaten for breakfast and three-quarters of an hour before sunrise, the worshipers assembled at the church to hear the minister’s first words:

“The Lord is risen!”

And they replied,

“He is risen indeed!”

EASTER IN EARLY AMERICA

Many of the early settlers of America were Puritans or members of Protestant denominations with little use for ceremony in religious festivals. The celebration of Easter was severely limited.

Not until the period of the Civil War did the meaning of Easter begin to be expressed as it had been in Europe. This was primarily instigated by the Presbyterians, perhaps because of the deep scars of death and destruction caused by the Civil War. The story of the Resurrection brought renewed hope to those bereaved by the war.

Since then, the Easter feast has become a major religious and secular celebration. Its joyous customs delight children and adults alike. It is a family day when relatives and friends gather after church services for festive dinners. And for children, Easter means fun, surprises and enough candy and sweets to last until Halloween.