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In J. D. Salinger's short story "Just Before the War with the Eskimos," a character reveals that:

A few years before it had taken her three days to dispose of the Easter chick she had found dead on the sawdust in the bottom of her wastebasket.

This is just one of many references to Christianity and crucifixion in the story, but my question is about the literal meaning here. What is a "dead Easter chick?" Did people give out live baby chicks at Easter in the 40s? Or if it was something inanimate like a candy Peep shaped like a chick, why does Salinger refer to it as being dead? Relatedly, why was there sawdust in her wastebasket?

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Yes, people used to give out chicks for Easter to the point where there are notices to not do it. Here's an image from 1946 showing a girl with her Easter basket containing live chicks.

Image of a girl with live chicks in her Easter basket from 1946 Click to enlarge

One likely explanation for why there would be sawdust is to absorb fluids.

Food juices leaking from trash bags into the bottom of your garbage bin make a nasty and smelly mess. Put newspapers — or even some sawdust — in the bottom of the bin, under the bag, to soak up liquids and make cleanup easier.

This would especially be relevant in the 1940s as plastic grocery bags, a common way to line personal trash cans in the home, didn't become common until the 1980s. I can vouch for that, growing up, we typically just had bare metal cans in our room, and they did get corroded and rusted from fluids that leaked into them.

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  • Wow, baby chicks for Easter... what a horrid idea. Here kid, let's celebrate resurrection by killing a chicken
    – nuggethead
    Dec 13, 2022 at 20:56
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    @nuggethead: I wouldn't be surprised if the tradition started back in the day when many houses had their own little chicken coop, so the chicks would likely be shuffled off to there. That said, there are all sorts of unsavory pet trends out there. I still can't believe how often it seen as a romantic gesture to give a significant other a new puppy or kitten. That's a significant outlay of time and effort, not some sort of casual gift. Dec 13, 2022 at 21:56

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