One of the annoying things about living in the modern western world is that everybody complains so much. There isn’t a day goes by without somebody having a nasty word to say about something. And when it comes to high holidays like Christmas and Easter, the bellyaching reaches fever pitch. Yesterday, sitting around the after dinner chocolate and ham, some incompetent wag (who shall remain nameless) came up with the oh-so-original: “Easter is crap! How did we get from Christ on the Cross to bunnies and chocolate eggs?” I suffered in silence for at least two seconds before I explained that it was a conspiracy by the Medieval Christian church to decrease the chicken population. By convincing the peasants to collect, boil and colour eggs every spring, the priests kept the food supply at subsistence levels and thus kept the ignorant peasants in perpetual servitude. Okay, I’m a dick, but I’m not sure she didn’t believe me.
In fact, the road from the crucifixion to the Easter Bunny was a simple case of marketing. The early Christians were not as stupid as some people seem to think. They knew they were the new kid on the block and it was going to be difficult to convince the heathen hordes of Europe to abandon their gods for this new guy. After all, the pagan religions of the time were all about Mother Earth and fertility — which meant plenty of sex, wine and playing the lute (the 5th century equivalent of sex, drugs and rock and roll.) Persuading people to give that up for abstinence, prayer and penury was a tough sell. However, the Christians realized that the pagans had some pretty healthy spring festivals already available that celebrated the end of winter. What they did was attach Christ’s resurrection and the renewal of the spirit to the established idea of the renewal of the earth. From there, it was mere baby steps to preaching the gospel in terms that the local peasantry could understand. In fact, the name “Easter” probably comes from the ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess Eastre. She was the goddess of the dawn and fertility, and her symbols were the egg and the rabbit or hare. The Christians just cashed in on her popularity and slowly squeezed her out of the picture. Actually, by the time The Venerable Bede was writing about her in the 8th century, she was already ancient history. Not bad for a bunch of religious fanatics without a marketing degree among them!
The early Christians’ sizing up local festivals and parachuting their man into them gives us a glimpse into why we have holidays in the first place.
Way back in the day — before weekends, paid vacations, stress leave and personal time — life, for the vast majority of people, consisted of toil. People worked; that’s what they did. Their lives depended on it. In general, as soon as you could walk, you worked, and when you couldn’t walk anymore, you died. It was a dismal existence. Since most people grew their own food in those days, the only change to this trudge to the grave was the seasons. The necessity of pleasing and pleading with the gods for fair weather and a good harvest gave rise to elaborate ceremonies. These occasional attempts to invoke the gods were opportunities for celebration. People took their noses away from the grindstone and their shoulders away from the wheel to party. In the autumn, when the harvest was done, it was time to sample that year’s grape crop and eat everything that couldn’t be preserved. In the spring, after planting the crop, fertility was everybody’s responsibility, so getting naked in the sunshine was what the gods intended. These pagan rites were the perfect place for the early Christians to deposit their saints, their rituals and their religious holidays.
Non-religious holidays came much later. Kings might grant a special feast day to celebrate a military victory or the birth of an heir, but it wasn’t until the Age of Reason that secular holidays became institutionalized. Yet, even up until the early 20th century, there weren’t that many holidays. Days like Labour Day and Thanksgiving are fairly recent additions. However, since the 1950s we’ve gone nuts and now there are very few days left on the calendar which don’t have some significance. We have Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Secretary’s Day, Boss’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Groundhog Day and on and on and on.
Yet, in the land of plenty, where we can celebrate minor saints and jumped-up rodents, there is always somebody with a sour word about it. Holidays are a modern invention, and given we have so much to celebrate, it would be nice if we could just shut up and enjoy them.