Off the top of my head
“Oh, I could write a sonnet about your Easter bonnet.” — Irving Berlin “Caps! Caps for sale!” — Esphyr Slobodkina “My hat’s in the ring.” — Theodore Roosevelt “We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do.” — The Animals Hat in hand, not in the ring, I come to you. But it’s not my hat. It is a timely bonnet, the brimless Victorian variety. Referred to in Paris in the early 1800s as “the invisible,” this chapeau provided privacy and protection from wind chapping during those open-air carriage rides. The large poke bonnet peak framed the face and prevented looking either right or left without moving the head.
Most 19th century European women had two bonnets. One was heavy, for winter use. The other straw headpiece came out for the Easter parade.
Perhaps it is the Irving Berlin song that breathes the seasonal bonnet into the 20th century. Burl Ives sings the tune in the 1976 NBC Easter special “The First Easter Rabbit.” This show narrates the origin of the Easter Bunny. A little girl receives a plush bunny named Stuffy as a Christmas gift. When she becomes ill later, all her toys are burned in order to disinfect her playroom. Stuffy is rescued by a fairy who takes him to a place at the North Pole called Easter Valley. Once there, Stuffy has to metamorphose into the Easter Bunny in order to save Easter Valley from freezing by the villain Zero.
The word stuffy comes from an ancient Mesopotamian word meaning “to be engulfed by surroundings.”
A room is stuff-y when there is an excessive amount in a small space.
The Stuffy story is inspired by Margery Williams’ book, “The Velveteen Rabbit: How Toys Become Real.”
Just as it is in the animated version, a stuffed rabbit is given. Here it is a little boy who receives the gift. The many other expensive, mechanical toys given to him snub the Velveteen Rabbit. And the Rabbit also meets real rabbits in the woods who show him that he cannot hop and jump.
The Skinned Horse gives the Rabbit a new point of view: “Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you when a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you. Then you become real. It doesn’t happen all at once. It takes a long time.” The Rabbit longed to become that kind of real that lasts forever, to know what that felt like.
When the boy misplaces his favorite china dog, the maid gives him the Rabbit as a replacement. The Rabbit becomes his companion. And all goes well until the boy gets scarlet fever. Scarlet fever gets its name because of the symptoms of a “strawberry tongue” and red transverse lines in body creases caused by bleeding under the skin.
The boy’s illness and the reality of the coming disinfecting toy burning cause the Rabbit to cry a real tear. The tear brings a fairy. She proclaims that the Rabbit was real to the boy. Then she takes Velveteen Rabbit to the woods where he becomes real to everyone. He joins the wild rabbits. When the little boy comes to the woods the next springtime, he sees the Velveteen Rabbit and has a fleeting memory. Perhaps he has seen this running bunny before.
This Easter fantasy is all well and good in America. But in Australia, it is a completely different matter.
Here rabbits are invasive, the most significant factor in species loss. Rabbits ring bark trees and cause soil erosion.
The Foundation for a Rabbit Free Australia has created a new legend, the Easter Bilby. The bilby is a nocturnal omnivorous marsupial with very long ears and very long tongues. They do not need to drink anything. The name bilby is an Aboriginal word that means long-nosed rat. There is a national movement to prevent this endangered species from becoming extinct.
The bilby hat is in the ring, hoping for the love of the people to keep it real.
Off the top of my head (just saying without thinking what’s merely remembered), there is another story.
Thus have I heard: A man with 16 caps on his head to sell, plus one of his own, falls asleep under a tree.
He awakens to find the caps gone, stolen by a troop of monkeys who wear them as they sit in the tree. He screams at the monkeys in disgust, demanding that they return the caps. The monkeys scream back in imitation. At his wit’s end, the man throws his own cap to the ground. Likewise, the monkeys throw down their caps. And then the man stacks the caps back on his head, and continues his mantra: “Caps for sale!”
Slobodkina, the author of this tale, founded the American Abstract Artists group with her husband. Both Russian modernists, they brought together the ancient icon rubric and anarchistic abstraction. Hats off to them. ¦
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