The family prays together in the lead up to Easter.

Hot cross buns and virtual Mass — this is how a Karachi family will celebrate Easter amidst Covid-19

"God has brought us all closer together in prayer," says Joanna Donna Sam, the youngest of three siblings in the Sam...
Published April 11, 2020

"God has brought us all closer together in prayer," says Joanna Donna Sam, the youngest of three siblings in the Sam family. "We have the opportunity to sit together on a daily basis and pray for everyone, especially the world, at this time," she adds.

For Joanna, celebrating Easter this time around is different, as she is stuck at home. But this is not the only reason why she feels sad.

"The worst part of the pandemic is that it has confined us to our homes and we feel the urge to go to the church to attend Mass services," she adds. The family usually goes to the St. Patrick’s cathedral in Saddar, Karachi. But this time around, the church will not be hosting devotees for its regular prayer services.

Annie Peter Sam, the matriarch of the family, is trying to stay positive.

"This time, we plan to pray and spend Easter with our little family at home. Maybe, with this new way of celebrating, our Lord would also be present with us," she says.

And for Peter Sam, the head of the family, this Easter is still be a celebratory affair.

"We will be preparing everything for the holy festival, albeit slightly differently. We do not want anything to be left out and the celebration must continue," he shares when talking about the religious significance of the holiday.

No one, including the Sams, knew how our lives will transform in a matter of weeks into the New Year. While cases of the novel coronavirus in Pakistan only began to surface in the last week of February, the world was already on the verge of a pandemic. Wuhan — the Chinese city where the coronavirus epidemic first broke — was the first place to lockdown to control its spread.

After the virus' rapid diffusion into countries like Italy, Iran, South Korea, the United States, and the United Kingdom among others, the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. As of now, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases around the world is over 1.6 million with 341,209 cases of recovery and 102,135 reported deaths.

With the largest number of cases in Europe, Italy — where the head of the Catholic Church Pope Francis resides — became the hardest-hit country due to the coronavirus outbreak. Lockdown in the country has been extended till May 3, while the Bishop of Rome led Good Friday prayers in an almost-empty Saint Peter's Square. It was the opposite of how the traditional Via Crucis looks like — held at the Colosseum with a large number of devotees and church members.

The Sam family attends church services on Holy Thursday via live television.
The Sam family attends church services on Holy Thursday via live television.

It was not very different for the Sam family as well, all of whom have kept their spirits high even in the midst of an otherwise gloomy period. The family, like other Christian families around the world, is going through an extraordinary experience, where they will be celebrating Easter like never before.

The first two cases of Covid-19 in Pakistan surfaced on February 26. It was also the day when Lent — the period when the Christian community fasts — began.

While sharing the significance of this religious observance and the events that follow, Mrs Sam says, "Lent starts with Shrove Tuesday when we make traditional pancakes, which are very different from regular ones. Then comes Ash Wednesday, which reminds us that we are dust and we return to dust. After that, we see six weeks of Lent in total. Every Friday until Easter, we have to attend Stations of the Cross, which are a clear description of Jesus Christ's sufferings and death, reminding us of the sufferings he bore for us. Sunday mass is obligatory, along with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, which means giving to others as an act of compassion."

Pictures of Mother Mary and Jesus Christ hang on the wall at the Sams family's home in Karachi.
Pictures of Mother Mary and Jesus Christ hang on the wall at the Sams family's home in Karachi.

Unaware of what the future held, the family began to fast. However, spending more time at home and praying was something the family would have done anyway, though not as strictly as they were supposed to following the outbreak.

"The coronavirus has not really made a huge impact on our fasting, as we never really used to go out for gatherings or make very expensive dishes or order food. This is a holy month where we refrain from indulgences," says Adrian Sam, the family's only son.

Eden Almeida — the eldest, married daughter of Mr and Mrs Sam — misses the customary church services and prays for the virus to end.

Dough prepared for hot cross buns.
Dough prepared for hot cross buns.

"We miss the service. We really wish that this virus would end by Easter," she says and adds how the holiday this year has been altered by Covid-19 for the Christian community in Karachi with no church gatherings, no celebratory meals with extended family and friends, and no sharing of Easter treats outside home.

"Church services have gone online and on TV, and we have prepared the traditional hot cross buns at home. Our family will be sitting together at the feast table eating and thanking God for this life and keeping us safe from Covid-19. We also plan to video chat with our relatives abroad via Zoom," says Eden, whose husband — Austin Almeida — is currently working in Dubai. She shares that their daughter Elianna will be missing her father a lot, as he has not been able to come home for Easter following the global pandemic. Her own small family will connect via a video call on Sunday.

Joanna, on the other hand, shares about the family’s Easter ritual of visiting the grandparents' home. "The entire family would gather at our grandparents’ home after Mass at the church. We would have lunch or dinner together. Normally, we would also visit our friends and little kids are given tiny Easter bunnies and eggs as treats," she says.

She compares the feeling of attending the weekly Sunday morning Mass at a church to now being restricted in front of the television. The family has been attending prayer services via live transmission by Good News TV — a Catholic Christian TV channel.

"Going to the church and attending the prayers is very different from watching it live on TV, as it has only allowed us to participate with our hearts and not in flesh. At the church, we would take the body and blood of Christ. But at home, we can just receive him in our hearts," she adds.

Following the shutdown of shops and bakeries in town, both Joanna and Eden have prepared hot cross buns at home on the Holy Thursday night. It was a time for the family to sit down together and prepare Easter treats.

Freshly baked Hot Cross Buns made by Eden Almeida and Joanna Sam.
Freshly baked Hot Cross Buns made by Eden Almeida and Joanna Sam.

"As a family, we were all very busy in our lives. Some of us would not even have much time to pray together. But this moment has enabled us to sit together as a family and come closer to God. Maybe this is what our Lord wanted, for us to be united," she adds.

Mr Sam shares how the family would normally prepare for the feast and celebrate the occasion a night before Easter.

Easter bunnies made of chocolate for the young member of the family.
Easter bunnies made of chocolate for the young member of the family.

"After the vigil at night we have a feast. From fish and chicken to beef and prawns, all the best dishes are prepared to commemorate the occasion. While going to the church is always a beautiful experience on the night before Easter, we are fortunate to be a part of the virtual Mass in times of coronavirus. We are grateful for the churches which, for our ease, have gone out of their way to connect us with the priests who will deliver the prayer service," he says, his voice filled with emotions.

The Sams are set to spend their holy festival praying at home, relishing the feast and hot cross buns. But there are many who will be missing the annual ritual of feasting on delicious Easter treats, especially those baked by the New JC Misquita Bakery in Saddar, which is popular for its delicious hot cross buns.

The original JC Misquita bakery — which dates back to 1858 — was owned by a Goan Christian gentleman of the same name. After he passed away, the bakery’s operations were taken over by one of his staffers during the 1970s and whose family, till date, continues to carry the tradition of baking the traditional buns.

Just like other businesses and shops across the city, Covid-19 has had an impact on their annual Easter preparations. In compliance with the government's directive, the bakery has decided to suspend the sales of its hot cross buns in Saddar. However, the Christian community will be able to get a limited stock of the buns and other Easter treats at a supermarket near the Gora Qabristan near Kala Pul.

Many would certainly miss the freshly-baked whiff of the hot cross buns. Even though some online food services have also offered to deliver the Easter treat, with the pandemic's scare increasing day by day, one wonders who would take a chance to order online.

During these unprecedented times, one may find it challenging to be confined at home. For the Christian community, at this time of the year, the experience of not having to go to church and commemorate their annual Easter rituals is certainly a sombre reality.