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Decorating at Easter is a family tradition that's here to stay DECK THE HALLS

Easter may be late this year, but it's certainly not forgotten.

In fact, the timing -- with more weeks to prepare and an eagerness to get spring in swing -- may be contributing to the celebration this year.

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Take a look around. If there isn't an egg -- plastic, that is, -- tree blooming in your yard, there's probably one next door or across the street. They're more prolific than the proverbial bunny, it seems.

And hanging amid these neon-bright eggs, you're likely to find inflated rabbits and perhaps even a strand of lights shaped like bunnies or chickens. Or nearby, a leaf bag with an Easter motif that has been stuffed with twigs and dried leaves to look like a decorated egg or a stuffed chick.

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Decorating homes and yards is clearly on a roll. It's not beating out egg dying and basket hiding as favorite Easter traditions, but it is joining them. And most Easter traditions seem to be as strong, or stronger than ever.

"Young parents continue favorite traditions from their own childhoods as well as starting new ones," says Renee Hershey, a spokeswoman for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City.

Although those traditions usually start with Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations, they are extending to Easter, she adds. Hence, the interest in home decorating and in collecting ornaments and figurines particular to this season.

Decorating -- for almost every holiday -- has been a tradition at the Walters home in Ruxton for a long time. But Connie Walters concedes that her husband, Sandy, may have gotten just a little carried away this year.

Trees outside and in are trimmed with ornaments and inflated rabbits, strands of bunny lights rim the windows and the mantel is decked with ceramic figures collected over the years. But none of this is new. For at least 15 years the family has bought ceramic Easter figures from Pennsylvania Dutch women in York for decorations and gifts.

From plastic to pewter, there is almost no limit to seasonal decorations available at stores and crafts shops: fragile hand-decorated shells from real eggs, pewter rabbits with storybook themes, place mats, planters and tureens with Easter designs, ceramic eggs, paper garlands shaped like rabbits, fuzzy chicks that squeak and lambs that go b-a-a-a, and lots of ornaments and figurines meant for collecting and passing on.

"Everybody gets Easter stuff," says Nichole Sklarevsky of Barstons Child's Play in Roland Park, which has a selection of items to fill Easter baskets.

Although candy remains an Easter staple, it's being replaced in some baskets by small toys and books -- items that parents find more palatable. "But it's a lot of little playthings," says Ms. Sklarevsky, such as stickers, balls, yo-yos, pens, stuffed animals, baseball cards. Bunnies and glittery egg dyes are among the hottest items, she says, adding, "size is important. Most still want the item to fit in the basket."

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"All the little stuff sells for Easter -- flowers, candy, knickknacks, cards -- a little something for the Easter basket," says Steven Baum, president of Greetings & Readings at Loch Raven and Taylor avenues.

But "Easter is not a heavy, heavy gift holiday," says Mr. Baum. "It's a major holiday, but it's not commercial at all like Christmas. It's a heavy religious holiday. A family holiday."

Much of the celebration has to do with the advent of spring and, despite the fact that spring is almost a month old, many people time the season to Easter. This is, in part, what helps to sustain some of the religious significance amid secular celebrations.

"The message of Easter coincides so much with the theme of springtime. There's a natural affinity," says Father Daniel O'Connell, S.J., of Georgetown University in Washington.

"The joy of spring . . . new clothes, flowers -- they are not out of step with Easter. All of the natural beauty and all of the Easter bonnets . . . can be a natural reflection of Christian joy," he says.

"It's nice to see a congregation all dressed up," says Father O'Connell, chairman of the university's psychology department.

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Easter outfits, at least for children, may be a waning tradition, however, as parents opt for more practical clothes. "People are looking to get longer use out of the clothing they are buying," says Michael DiRobertis, vice president for retail sales and marketing for Sawyer, Ferguson, Walker, a New York City firm that represents newspapers across the country.

"I just don't see Easter being what it once was. It's an average apparel-buying season. The Easter outfit is not something for families to do," he explains.

What families do, however, besides filling baskets, is dye eggs, prepare a special dinner, visit family and send cards, says Hallmark's Ms. Hershey.

People see Easter as a time of renewal and a chance to nurture relationships. More than 170 million greeting cards will be exchanged -- 70 percent of them among family members, she adds. "People see Easter as a creative time of year."

And as a time for fun. From chocolate Easter bunnies to egg trees to jelly beans, "it's a season that appeals to the kid in each of us," Ms. Hershey says.

Easter hop-penings

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* The Johns Hopkins International Club will hold its annual Easter egg hunt at the Decker Garden on the university's Homewood campus from 10 a.m. to noon today. Meet the Easter bunny, play games, search for eggs and have refreshments. Call (410) 955-3370.

* The Cloisters Children's Museum will have a Spring Fling from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at the museum, 10440 Falls Road. There will be juggling, balloon sculpting, ribbon dancing and magic. Tickets are $4, free to members. Call (410) 823-2551.

* An Easter egg hunt for children 10 and under will be held today in Druid Hill Park's Safety City (follow the signs after entering the park at Druid Hill Lake Drive near Eutaw Place. The free event is presented by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, produced by the Baltimore Office of Promotion and sponsored by Mary Sue Candies, Mondawmin Mall Merchants Association and V-103 Radio. Rain date is Monday. Call (410) 837-4636.

* The Baltimore Zoo's Easter with the Beasts party is from noon to 3 p.m. tomorrow. Among the offerings are face painting, education stations and an Easter bunny hop through the hippo plaza. Admission is $6.50 for adults, $3.50 for children ages 2-15 and seniors.

* The Pennsylvania Avenue Jump-Up Parade will be held at 3 p.m. tomorrow and will travel from Pennsylvania and Pitcher Street to Pennsylvania and Dolphin Street. Stroll along in your Easter finery and enjoy the music and performers including the reggae bands Uprising and Determination and Young Impressions Go-Go Band. Also, there will be appearances by the Dunbar High School Poets basketball team. Call (410) 235-5270.

* Ladew Topiary Gardens will open its 22 acres for the season at noon tomorrow, with spring flowers in bloom and an Easter egg hunt for small children. The gardens are at 3535 Jarrettsville Pike. Admission to the garden is $4 for adults, $3 for students and seniors over 62, and 50 cents for ages 12 and under; for a combined house and garden tour, the cost is $6 for adults, $4 for students and seniors and $1 for ages 12 and under. Call (410) 557-9466.

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* An exhibit, "Pysanky: Ukrainian Easter Eggs," will feature the personal collection of artist-photographer Wasyl Palijczuk through May 11 at the Top of the World Observation Level of the World Trade Center at 401 E. Pratt St. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for senior citizens and children 5 through 15, children under 5 are admitted free. Call (410) 836-4515.


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