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Most of us savor our Easter weekends for the opportunity to celebrate faith, enjoy the spring weather, and visit or video chat with family members and friends. Come Monday morning, it’s back to old routines.

That’s not the way it worked for many decades in Lewes, Del. Between who-knows-when and the 1960s, the day after Easter was a civic holiday of the first order in that town, ranking right up there with Christmas and the Fourth of July. Stores closed. Banks closed. Government offices shut down.

Lewes was a ghost town on Easter Monday because pretty much everyone hopped onto decorated carriages and carts or tromped two miles by foot to the “Great Dune” at Cape Henlopen. There, a rollicking party unfolded from dawn until dusk. Back in town, the celebrations continued in a run of nighttime afterparties. The Wilmington Evening Journal of April 14, 1925:

“The boys and girls needed no clock to awaken [from] their slumbers [on Easter Monday] morning, for long before the sun peeped over the mighty Atlantic and kissed the silver sands of Cape Henlopen, Lewes was astir with preparations for the big event.”

No road had been built out to Cape Henlopen at that point, so newfangled automobiles were of no use. Folks gathered at the end of South Street. From there, some would make the two-mile trek on foot in raucous groups. Others went for an “old straw ride” atop a wagon pulled by “prancing mule teams, made musical with necklaces of sleigh bells.” Still others opted for traditional horse-and-carriage journeys.

The day that followed was all fun and games. From the top of the famous “Great Dune,” children would roll Easter eggs down in a big race for prizes. Once that ended, children would start hurling themselves down the dune. Then adults would join in the sand-rolling. From that same article:

“A large hill with a gentle slope of more than sixty feet of loose sand offers the temptation of taking a slide to the bottom which no one can resist, regardless of age. To go to the Sand Hill on Easter Monday and not slide down the banister of sand is an omen of bad luck as well as a betrayer that age is indeed present.”

The article added that many who are not willing to roll under their own power “are assisted by the fellows.”

Some of the articles I reviewed about this tradition said that it dated back “as long as anyone can remember.” Others pegged the background at 100 years. A couple articles claimed 200 years. One went further, saying that it dated back to old England, and beyond–as it speculated that the Brits had picked up the idea during the Crusades. (No actual evidence was given for any of these claims.)

Cape Henlopen Lighthouse on the EdgeWhen the Delaware Coast News wrote about the tradition on April 7, 1939, they were doing a version of what I’m doing here–recalling Easter Mondays of days gone by.

“Oldsters of this town recall their first pilgrimage to the historic site at the mouth of the Delaware Bay where once stood the ancient Cape Henlopen lighthouse that fell into the sea in 1926. Early starts were made before sunrise. They must ford the marsh areas over three miles in oxcarts and hay-filled wagons.”

Two more snippets from the same article:

“The girls’ white complexions shielded from the sun with scuttle sun bonnets tied securely under their chins. Today (meaning 1939), those frolickers hop into motor cars and speed along the new Cape Henlopen Drive to the foot of the dune. After rolling their eggs they [commence] rolling themselves down the slope.”

“Many elders are seen indulging in the same rollicking fun. It is part of the Easter Monday rite on the sand dunes and once you are too old to roll down the slope—you are too old to attend the frolic.”

In addition to egg rolling and human rolling, the fun in various years included a “fox chase,” “a trip to [the nearby town of] Milton,” searches for Indian artifacts and petrified wood, “an evening supper,” and an evening jazz concert back in Lewes.

Cape Henlopen Lighthouse Wide Aerial View The tradition seemed in jeopardy a couple of times during the 20th century. For many years, the party was centered around the base of the old Cape Henlopen Lighthouse. That spot was ruled off limits in 1926, and for good reason. The lighthouse was unstable In a matter of weeks after that Easter, it would topple over into the sea. See my story about the collapse of that iconic lighthouse here.)

The federal government took over Cape Henlopen in 1941 for use as a World War II military base. Amid many worries that the tradition would end there, the military let local people come out, albeit under careful supervision.

The Easter Monday tradition continued into the 1960s. The Cape Gazette newspaper ran an article in 1994 in which Lewes resident Judy Roberts recalled how much fun she and her high school friends used to have while frolicking atop the sandhill.

“‘Some couples,'” she [said], ‘went beyond the sandhill [and deeper] into the dunes and engaged in other activities. Sometimes they were rewarded with wonderful cases of poison ivy just in time’ for the prom.

The way Roberts remembered things, the tradition finally came to an end when some hijinks got out of hand during one of those same 1960s years and nearly caused a catastrophe.

“‘One of the children was nearly buried in the sand by rambunctious playmates,’ she said, ‘and that ended the sandhill trips.'”

Only a few years passed without a unique Easter party tradition in Lewes, however. Before the 1960s were out, townsfolk got moving again, launching what has since grown into the gigantic Great Delaware Kite Festival held at Cape Henlopen every Good Friday. Here’s hoping Lewes and Sussex County are able to keep up with their Easter-partying ways for many decades to come.

–posted in March 2024 by Jim Duffy for Whimbrel Creations LLC/Secrets of the Eastern Shore. All rights reserved.

NOTE #1: I could not find any photos of the old Easter Monday festivities, so the photos here are just scene-setting shots of what things looked like before the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse toppled into the sea.

NOTE #2: I took a deep dive a while back into the collapse of that iconic lighthouse. You can read that story here.

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