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As with Christmas, the chosen time for Easter is based on non-Christian situations. And, as with Christmas, a lot of accoutrements attached to Easter have nothing to do with its Christian religious significance.
It was often convenient to declare a new holiday as being around the same time as established celebrations, both for significance and ease of conversion. The vernal equinox, when day and night are equal in length, is considered the beginning of spring, a time of life renewal and birth. This is the perfect time to celebrate the resurrection of a holy figure. The word Easter is believed to come from the pagan festival of Eastre, when Saxons celebrated spring and fertility. Most animals, particularly sheep, cattle and equines, give birth during this period – hence fertility. Two symbols of fertility in Saxon rites are the rabbit and the egg.
Another suspected origin of the name is the Scandinavian goddess Ostra and the Teutonic goddess Ostern. Both were goddesses of fertility and their festivals were celebrated on the vernal equinox.
The Christian festival was originally named Pascha, from the Aramaic term Pesach, more commonly known as Passover.
Because Easter is the celebration of the rebirth of Jesus, it is logical that it is scheduled around the vernal equinox, allowing the Teutonic people to simply replace one celebration with another. This is also the time of Passover, so converted Jews still had something to ritualize.
The Easter bunny
The rabbit is an almost universal symbol of fertility, and as such has arisen in many rites which welcome spring. The original bunny was probably from the Saxons, who devoted the entire month of April to spring and fertility. One of Estre’s sacred animals was the hare.
In Germany, children watched for the arrival of the Oschter Haws, a rabbit that would lay colored eggs in nests. This seems to be the first time the rabbit is related to the egg.
The involvement of eggs as symbols of fertility and rebirth predates written history.
During Estre’s festival, eggs were colored brightly to represent the sunlight of spring. These eggs were used in games as well as being given as gifts, especially from lovers and romantic admirers, much like valentines. Greeks and Romans used eggs to represent resurrected gods. In the Passover dinner called the seder, roasted eggs symbolize springtime and rebirth. As a symbol of the egg’s fertility, of course, chicks are also associated with the spring festivals.
The painting and decorating of eggs is practiced throughout the western world, including Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark.
Games associated with eggs also go too far back to determine origin. In Greece, both children and adults play tsougrisma, an egg cracking game. Players try to crack their friends’ eggs. Luck will come to the last person with an uncracked egg.
Easter egg hunts are well known in America. The Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn began with President Hayes in 1878 and has been an American tradition ever since. Other egg games include egg rolling and egg tapping. Pace egg plays are traditional in England. The word pace comes from the word pasch (Easter), and the plays vary with a single theme – a hero dies and is resurrected. They are usually performed the weekend before Easter in pubs and village squares.
The bunny with eggs
It is generally believed that the rabbit was paired with eggs because of the equinox. The hare is associated with the moon goddess, and the egg is associated with the sun god. Hence, on the vernal equinox, both night and day (moon and sun) have equal importance. As noted earlier, in Germany the Easter rabbit would lay colored eggs.
Ham is a traditional Easter dinner, dating back to Northern Europe before refrigeration. Hogs were slaughtered in the fall, then cured for seven months. This made them ready to eat around the vernal equinox.
Lamb is also traditional because lambs are born early in spring, and are the right size to eat at Easter time.
Above all there is the fairly recent addition of Easter candy to the celebrations. The most prevalent candies are chocolate eggs, marshmallow bunnies, Peeps and jelly beans. Peeps, marshmallow bunnies and eggs, created by the Russian-born confectioner Sam Born, hit the markets in the 1950s. The first chocolate eggs were made in Europe in the 1800s.
In the Netherlands, France and Belgium, church bells are silent for a few days before Easter, supposedly “flying” off to Rome. When the bells return on Easter, they bring colored eggs and hollow chocolate shaped like rabbits and eggs.
There are a few more practices during the Easter period for which the origin is unknown. These include greeting cards in America, cross-country skiing in Norway and the reading of detective stories in Norway. The obsession in Norway for “whodunnits” even reaches milk cartons, which have mystery stories printed on the sides.
Finland, Sweden and Denmark mix old Orthodox traditions and vernal equinox traditions. Children dressed as witches go door to door looking for candy, and thank the homeowners with pussy willows as a house blessing. Brightly colored feathers are attached to birch branches and put in a vase with little decorations. In Finland, people plant rye grass in a pot, to symbolize spring and new life. Once the rye is grown, chick decorations are added to it, while children paint eggs and make paper bunnies.
As often happens, older traditions meld with new ones when a Christian holiday arises. This makes the conversion easier. In the case of Easter, all the rituals support the same theme – celebration of renewal, rebirth and resurrection.
A different point of view on the Mideast that is bound to be unpopular.
America has not been the caretaker of the world in decades. The Monroe doctrine gave us an excuse to intervene in the far east, and we paid with the many lives of our soldiers. Yet did we stop the spread of communism? No. We merely cut a few countries in half. As a matter of fact, once it was finally termed a “war”, Viet Nam got the dubious description of being the only war America ever lost.
When it became apparent that the United States had enough on their plates to protect their own shores, communist states were left to dissipate or solidify on their own.
But then OPEC arose and ransomed the western world with oil prices. At first, politicians sat back and let greed take over. Before each OPEC summit, gas prices across America rose precipitously in anticipation, never to drop back down. Was it an opportunity to get runaway profits while instilling fear in the American public?
Enter the politicians. If we tap the oil reserves in Alaska we will become independent of OPEC. Well, Alaskans made out like bandits. But by the time the oil reached the main states, prices did not fall a dime. President Obama encouraged reliance in American oil sources – but prices only rose with the lack of competition.
George Bush declared war on Iran to protect our Mideast oil resources. Curiously, there was a directive to the troops – don’t touch Iraq and in particular Saddam Hussein. Perhaps this was to save a war for his son, George W Bush. Still prices rose.
Then came the horrors of 11 September 2001. Because our homeland was attacked, Americans were in an uproar, and they were willing to give up many rights to exact revenge on Al Qaeda. War was proclaimed, and it quickly spread into Iraq, as the United States decided to reform that country, supposedly to keep them from allowing Al Qaeda to hide there, among other excuses equally lame. This failed attempt to reform Iraq cost more American lives than the original invasion. And Al Qaeda is snug in the hills of Pakistan.
Now the United States is involved in skirmishes of one sort or another in Africa and the near east. It would appear that the politicians are using a war on terrorism as the running excuse. We are “outraged” at the injustices being perpetrated on westerners and locals alike. The only good, if you can call it that, is that there are jobs in munitions (a recession loves a good war).
I think it’s time to form a real foreign policy rather than handing out potshots that get embroiled into Republican-versus-Obama stalemates. We need to determine if the United States is indeed Big Brother and above all whether it has the right to impose its values on other countries.
We must remember that this country is rooted in revolution by people seeking religious freedom. This resulted in different states supported by different religious conventions, such as in Pennsylvania and Utah. Separation of church and state allowed these differing states to unite on a federal level for governance.
Now take a look at the mid and near east. After World War II, the ‘world’ gave Arab land to the Jews in apology for the Holocaust. Israel has been warring with its neighbors ever since. The entire region is a collection of emirates – chieftains protecting their own tribes. They are not republics, democracies or even figurehead monarchies. They are peoples who have been warring with each other for millennia. Beyond these tribes is the separation of Islamic religious sects, each fighting its own jihad and vying for territory.
Consider the similarities. Would our founding fathers have liked it if Germany, France and Spain sided with King George, supplying him with arms, soldiers and navies? Would they have been right to censure early Americans, saying they should respect the monarchy as being a lasting form of government? And what was the attraction that made France, Spain, Mexico and England so interested in America? It wasn’t the freedom, nor the charm of the American Indians. It was gold and silver.
Terrorism is fed by a resentment in the east to the intervention, manipulation and hypocrisy of the west. Warlords feed their troops with fire burning in the ashes of western attempts to convert their long-standing ways of life. We need to stop giving them this fuel.
The western world should isolate the near and middle east. Refuse travel there for any reason, whether “humanitarian”, press or profiteering. The terrorists only use foreigners for publicity. Pull out any financial investments. Disallow any travel into the western countries. Americans tend to be idealistic, and therefore rally around the flag when they think democracy is threatened or rebels are trying to establish democracy. But a good look into these countries, from Cuba to El Salvador to Egypt demonstrates that we don’t really know what is going on. And a limited war will never survive over a warlord’s army or religiously-driven rebels.
If a government asks the western world for assistance, historians should be consulted to determine if it is a government we want to support. If it is, we should consider declaring war and doing it whole-heartedly. And once the conflict is resolved we should get the hell out of there and let the existing government clean up its own mess.
The western world has enough to handle right now with economic disasters, poverty and starvation within its own walls. We have our own corruption to deal with, from city police forces to state governments to the federal bureaucracy. We need to heal a broken education system. We need to find methods to preserve the riches of our land and restore those that have been lost. We need to find ways to manage (and possibly prevent) the damage of earthquakes, mudslides, hurricanes and tornedos. We need to clean up our own back yards before we consider judging the back yards of our neighbors.