Sunrise service

A rainbow appears over the outdoor altar at Cathedral of the Pines in Rindge during the 2019

Easter sunrise service. After the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancelation of last year’s sunrise service, the celebration will return this Sunday, with local religious leaders saying these sorts of gatherings gain new meaning in light of the public health crisis.

The United Church of Christ in Keene hasn’t held an in-person service since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic upended daily life in New Hampshire.

That will change early Sunday morning, when congregants will gather just outside the church, on Central Square, to celebrate an Easter sunrise service.

“So, to reconvene on this holiest day, and to see one another in person ... it just will really embody the joy of the day,” Rev. Cynthia Bagley, the church’s senior minister, said.

Christians worldwide have held sunrise services for hundreds of years, commemorating the Biblical account of Easter Sunday in which several women who were followers of Jesus went to his tomb, only to find he had risen from the dead.

“As the sun rises, the Son rises. That’s, I think, one of the significances of sunrise services,” said Rev. Jamie Hamilton, the rector of All Saints’ Church in Peterborough. She, along with two other ministers, will lead a sunrise service Sunday at Cathedral of the Pines in Rindge.

But this year, after months of virtual church celebrations and coronavirus restrictions, these outdoor services gain even greater importance, Bagley said.

“It has powerful meaning today, I think, as we’re entering into spring and the days are getting longer,” she said. “And there’s certainly signs and seeds of hopefulness all around us. I think this becomes … a very powerful event this year, just symbolizing that this will end, and new life is coming ahead.”

And that these opportunities to gather safely for in-person worship fall on Easter, the holiest day in the Christian calendar, only lends more magnitude to the occasion, Hamilton added.

“I think the fact that the vaccines are rolling out, that people feel safer, a sense of hope is in the air,” she said. “And then to have that all on Easter, that celebrates the joy and the hope. I think it’s a wonderful coming together of the two.”

The Central Square sunrise service begins at 6:30 a.m., and will move forward rain or shine, Bagley said, though the forecast looks promising. The United Church of Christ has celebrated a sunrise service for the past decade or so, aside from last year, and typically gets a crowd of about 25. This year, Bagley said she has no idea how many people to expect, but added that the church is requiring attendees to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

The annual Easter sunrise service at Cathedral of the Pines dates back at least 70 years, according to Patricia Vargas, executive director of the nonprofit open-air venue. The service, which starts at 6 a.m. and is open to people of all faiths, normally draws 200-300 people, Vargas said, making it one of the cathedral’s largest annual events.

This year, though, Vargas said Cathedral of the Pines can safely accommodate about 150 people outdoors. If the weather’s bad, the service will move inside, where only 75 people would be allowed, so Vargas encourages people to arrive early.

And as local churches prepare to host these sorts of sunrise services, many area communities are turning to the great outdoors to safely bring back another holiday tradition: Easter egg hunts. Local recreation departments, including Keene Parks and Recreation, required pre-registration for this year’s hunts to limit the number of people gathering for them, and are moving them to larger spaces to allow more room for physical distancing.

Keene’s Easter egg hunt, which has already filled all 20 slots for each of its three age groups, had been at the Recreation Center in recent years, but is moving to Wheelock Park this year to ensure the three groups can be separated, Recreation Programmer Brianne Rafford-Varley said.

“We are so excited to be able to do this, and really wanted to try and figure out a way to do it outside, safely,” she said, adding that masks will be required. “Because this for us at the Rec Center was the first big event that got canceled last year.”

The Swanzey Recreation Department is also moving its Easter egg hunt to a larger space this year, from its typical home at the Mount Caesar soccer fields to the Lane Field Complex on South Road, Recreation Director Ashlee Crosby said. Registration for the event’s 85 spots closed last week, she added, to give organizers time to finalize the details to make it safe and fun for those who attend.

“I just feel like these kids have to have some form of normalcy back in their lives, that they’ll still be able to see the Easter Bunny and get their eggs, while still being safe,” Crosby said.

Other communities, like Hinsdale, are passing on a traditional Easter egg hunt this year, instead opting for a drive-thru celebration. The Hinsdale Beautification Committee is hosting an hourlong event, open only to town residents, at 11 a.m. in the Hinsdale Middle/High School parking lot. Children who come will get a gift bag with small toys and candy, and a chance to see the Easter Bunny, Committee Chairwoman Karen Atkins said.

“I think [it’s important] just to get things to as close to normal as we can be, to … just to let the kids celebrate Easter,” she said. “They get excited when they see the Easter Bunny. ... Hopefully next year, we’ll get back to having a more hands-on event.”

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.