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What It's Like to Celebrate Easter as an Atheist Surrounded by a Religious Family

What's it like to celebrate Easter when everyone thinks you're a dickhead and God isn't real?

Your boy getting ready for a big egg roll

As a child, I used to pride myself on understanding the "real meaning" of Easter. I was raised a Methodist by my parents and as such was taken to church pretty much every Sunday—and the big Easter weekend was church with bells on. In comparison to the other kids in my non-church primary school, gorging themselves on Mini Eggs without a thought as to why, I considered myself pretty woke. I was aware of Jesus, I knew all about Judas (seriously, don't even talk to me about Judas), the denial of Peter, and the doubting of Thomas. Fuck, I even knew about Palm Sunday. How many of you know about Palm Sunday? That's what I thought.


Then things changed. I grew up, and before I knew it, I had a job in East London, ate avocados all the time, smoked cigarettes, everyone thinks I'm a dickhead, and God isn't real.

It's for this reason that I find Easter to be a strange few days. Now my lifestyle is so starkly different to that of my God-fearing folks, the bank holiday weekend is something of a spiritual time warp. Suddenly, all the attitudes and ear piercings I've accrued have no currency, and I'm back in a dress shirt clinging onto a hymn book. For a former Bible-basher like me, there's a lot of confusing stuff to contend with when I leave London and go home.

The first thing I'd point out is the crucifixion itself, which is surely the most violent incident ever depicted in picture books for under-five-year-olds. Christmas is pretty much cozy all round; even the religious parts are all babies and donkeys and angels and stars. Easter, on the other hand, leaves you with two routes: bunny rabbits and ignorance, or a live man literally being nailed to massive bit of wood in front of his mom. My own mom once complained to my primary school because they had refused to tell the story of the crucifixion in assembly on the grounds of it being too gory. While I get her vibe that censoring religion is probably unwise, you've got to sympathize with the school—I'd rather show kids The Lives of Others than have to tell them that.


That uneasy vibe runs throughout all of Easter. The previously referenced violence-versus-new-life dichotomy creates this strange division where one minute you're watching Singing in the Rain and the next people are drinking blood out of a cup. You're celebrating the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead, which is obviously a massive achievement for the guy, but he did all this in order to die for your sins, so there's also a lot of personal debt involved. Overall, you're looking at a mixture of grief, guilt, and then complete fucking elation—all played out over the Antiques Roadshow pace of a bank holiday.

The Crucifixion by Matthias Grünewald. via

In my house, the Easter weekend is afforded the same, if not more, significance as Christmas. Sure, in recent years, I've fucked things up by going complete New Age wanker and becoming vegetarian, scuppering my mom's three-roast weekend tradition, but we still have the most genuinely surreal family Easter tradition, the egg roll. I'm never sure how far the egg roll has permeated British culture at large. The one time I brought it up among my friends, largely from non-religious backgrounds, they all looked at me like I'd just spoken in tongues, an experience that's left me cautious of speaking out about the practice. But it's important not to remain silent. So here it goes.

Every Easter my family boils a load of eggs, then we draw pictures on them in felt tip, and roll them down a big hill.


Residual questions from my childhood regarding the practice of egg-rolling that I still don't have answers to:

  • What are the rules? Is this even a competition? Is the object to keep my egg in tact or to roll it further than anyone else?
  • What are we supposed to draw on them? Is it OK that weirdly, at age 7, I drew Ruby Wax on mine for some reason?
  • Is there a religious meaning behind this? Are the eggs supposed to be the stone in front of the tomb that rolled away? Should I be thinking about God while I lob this hard-boiled egg down a hill?
  • What if a dog eats my egg?
  • Can we go home?

I doubt I'll ever know the answers. I look back fondly on my childhood egg rolling days. Stuffed into an anorak and plonked, stoic, abreast a great hill. A view of the city spread out in front of me, a bitter spring-wind eating my rosy cheeks and hard-boiled eggs pinging across the panorama like flailing fish.

It's only as I've gotten older that any of this began to seem different. I went to a Christian high school, so everybody there took the whole thing pretty seriously, but throughout college, and now working life, the number of people around me who believe in God has gotten smaller and smaller. Now I'm one of the few people I know who is returning home for more than a chocolate egg and a chance to get their laundry done—if they're going home at all. Strangely, while I can't honestly say I believe the sentiments behind it, I also can't help but treat the weekend as something more than a few days off.

I've never explicitly told my parents I don't believe in God anymore—I sort of think it's implied given I no longer go to church with them—but I've always imagined it would be quite a difficult conversation. It's a bit like coming out, but instead of saying, "This is who I am," you've just got to say, "This is who I'm not." But it's hard. There's something about the unspoken obligations that come with weekends like Easter that bring us all together, throwing eggs down a hill.

I will still go to church this weekend. Like much of the rigmarole, I don't resent it at all. During these occasional visits, I find churches are actually pretty nice buildings to spend time in. Given that the rest of my life is a stream of constant noise, from nightclubs to the sliding doors of trains to the garbled chatter of conference calls, spending time in a huge building with loads of old people is actually quite relaxing. Sitting in silence, phone switched off, thinking about everything and very little all at once, running my hands along wooden pews worn soft by a century of praying hands, drinking piss-weak tea, and eating custard creams. I might not be on first-name terms with Jesus anymore, but there's something about the restfulness of Middle England Christianity that I find irresistibly peaceful.