MR. KEEN’S MAGIC CHICKENS©
By: Terri Keen Coffman - Copyright 1998
It was April, 1965. My 11th birthday and Easter were only two weeks away, and I was looking forward to having a big party to celebrate both, complete with an Easter egg hunt. I missed that tradition in Belize, Central America, where my family had moved two years previously.
We had all settled comfortably in our new home built of pine boards and thatched roofing, a mile deep into the jungle. It was the first full year our 100-acre farm and vegetable garden was flourishing and producing at full peak. The rich virgin soil produced tomatoes and green bell peppers too large to be held in one hand. The cabbages and lettuce were the size of basketballs, and our corn crib overflowed from a record-breaking crop. Our 100 Rhode Island Red hens, fat and healthy from sweet corn, were laying enough eggs to supply the needs of the small town of San Ignacio. By Belizean standards, we were well off.
My parents decided that I could have a party the day before Easter. But, there was one stipulation: everyone I invited had to bring their whole family - because my parents had a special treat in store for everyone!
It took a lot of planning and coordination - and a lot of work. I cut tall grasses down by the riverbank and let them dry for Easter “baskets”, which were squares of burlap sacks hand‑stitched into bag-like shapes. The week of the party, we collected eggs, and boiled and colored them. Having no electricity, we arranged with a store-owner friend to use his refrigerator to make Jell-O® and ice cubes for Kool-Aid®, and then use his truck for quick transport to our farm the day of the party. Dad, in a moment of latent mischief, even dyed all our newly hatched chicks to reflect the lovely pastel shades of Easter!
When the big day finally arrived, dozens of people ranging in age from 6 months to 60 years made their way through the bush to our home. It was the first time many of them had ever seen our place. Lunch consisted of a pit-roasted pig and as much fresh garden salad as one could eat. For dessert, Mom served Jell-O® in every fun color available - a treat most of our guests had never experienced. It was self-made entertainment watching them try to eat it, only to have it squiggle and jiggle off their spoons before they could get it to their mouths. They soon discovered that Jello couldn’t be eaten with their fingers, as it melted and drizzled into a sticky sweet liquid down their arms! Yes, Jell-O® made the biggest hit of the party - that is, until Daddy announced the egg hunt.
At first, all the children ran past the colored eggs, not realizing yet what they were. After an initial flurry of confusion, they caught on. But, instead of finding an egg and running to look for another, they would stop and call out for the others to come and look at what color they found! Even the parents and grandparents got caught up in the miraculous discovery of the pretty colored eggs. It was only when we heard them saying that my dad, Mr. Keen, had magic chickens that laid colored eggs, did we realize our Belizean friends had never seen Easter eggs before!
Just as Dad was explaining our tradition of colored Easter eggs, the hens with their multi-colored baby chicks in tow, made their appearance amidst our excited but skeptical guests. You could have heard a pin drop as children and adults alike, stopped dead in their tracks and stared disbelieving at the colored chickens. Many of the older mothers clutched their children and made the sign of the Cross. Some stood stone-still in a combination of shock and disbelief mixed with divine awe. Several of the younger children, frightened by the site of pink, blue, yellow and green chickens, ran to their mothers, stealing daring peaks from a safe distance.
It took a great deal of effort, but we eventually convinced our guests that the only “magic” came from bottles of food coloring we had brought with us from the States. Most of the older folks remained suspicious and skeptical, but everyone else liked the idea of our traditional Easter, and the kids spent the rest of the afternoon hiding and re-hiding Easter eggs.
Little did we know at that time what an impact the colored eggs from “Mr. Keen’s magic chickens” would have on the native Belizean population. But, to this day, over 30 years after that first egg hunt, the small town of San Ignacio, Belize, still holds its annual Easter egg hunt for the children.