Although today is Easter for some, for many it generally isn’t. And I don’t mean just those who follow faiths outside Christianity. One of the hallmarks of religions is their tendency to fragment like a sugar egg under Thor’s hammer. Christians have long disagreed on the date of Easter depending on which time reckoning scheme they follow. That which makes it onto most work calendars is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox after the Gregorian calendar. After all those afters it’s easy to get confused, but the fact is this kind of precision makes it possible to date Easter until the Earth slows on its axis or Mitch McConnell learns to look at things from someone else’s point-of-view, although we all know which is more likely. This year, in a rare coincidence of the Gregorian and Julian calendars, however, Orthodox Easter is the same as Catholic Easter. Could it be sign of hope?
You see, calendars aren’t just markers of time. They’ve always been religious devices. In fact, our current calendar, the Gregorian, was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII. The world still marches to the beat of Rome’s drum. Nature, it seems, is indifferent to our calendrical needs. The point of all this time keeping was to help those who lived by the soil to know when to plant and when to harvest. That might seem simplistic, but if you follow how it feels outside there would’ve been some sowing going on in February around here. Global warming, for those who’ve advanced to the Gregorian calendar (that’s okay Mr. McConnell, you may leave the room) will throw that off, and maybe we’ll be needing a new calendar. Will we retain the one with it’s pagan month names or shall we adopt one with months of evangelical heroes? But wait, not all evangelical groups celebrate Easter!
I had a college roommate who believed all holidays were of the Devil. His sect of Christianity didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter. So even as Orthodox and Heterodox join together in recognizing today as Easter, not everyone’s together on that point. Some mythologize bunnies and eggs while others dismiss them as hopelessly pagan. So it is that we have to agree to disagree. Teach the controversy, right Mitch? While some celebrate resurrection today others put their Peeps in the microwave just for the fun of having that kind of power over the weak.
There were probably about half-a-dozen animated Christmas specials I recall watching as a child. The two that became fixtures, and remain part of my present holiday ritual, are It’s Christmas Charlie Brown and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I remember watching them from early days—of course you had to wait until their respective channels announced their advent in TV Guide (just writing that makes me feel older than the Grinch). Commuting wasn’t an issue then, so watching television was as common as candy canes and hopeful stockings. As an adult, though, you see things you overlooked, or simply accepted, as a child. I guess that’s what “believing in Christmas” is all about. The willful suspension of disbelief.
I’ve commented on these Christmas specials before. Charlie Brown has so many inconsistencies that an old biblical scholar can’t help but think of J, E, D, and P. What does the signage on Lucy’s Psychiatric Help booth really say? How many branches are on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree? How does Sally get to the school before her big brother? The animation is clearly a little off—Lucy appears to emerge from the center of her booth’s wooden top as she gives advice to the woeful Charlie Brown with his Trump’s-been-elected-type depression. Still, Linus’ rendition of Luke’s Christmas story brings it home every time. Compare that with the Grinch.
Those who see a war on Christmas (there’s not) seldom cite the Grinch. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is entirely secular. No mention of a special birth. No angels or shepherds. Just a mean old man and his dog. The Grinch shares with Charlie Brown its message of looking beyond the commercialization of Christmas. In the case of the much better animated Grinch (although I still can’t figure out why that one Who’s hat repeatedly flashes from white to blue and back) it would seem that religion matters less than spirit. The Who’s Christmas song with its strange, non-English words, is a celebration of difference. Diversity. Even that angry old man who would steal Christmas itself is welcome in the end. The only war on Christmas is one that has been spawned in the imagination of those who fit the Grinch’s description in Thurl Ravenscroft’s rendering of Dr. Seuss’s lyric. Those my age will understand, and unless you were born yesterday, I suspect that you’ll get my meaning.
For some today is Good Friday. Others are saying “TGIF!” There’s a basic disconnect that has grown between days of remembrance (okay, let’s just call them “holidays”) and the days required of capitalism. Easter is not generally considered a work holiday. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, coming on a Sunday, it is safely out of the reach of much commercialism. Although, vis-à-vis Christianity, it’s a stronger holiday than Christmas, it isn’t a federal holiday. In a world of religious pluralism, that’s no doubt correct. Still, for those who ponder deeply the tradition that wrought them, shouldn’t we be allowed to contemplate our loss without spending a vacation day?
It will come as no surprise to my regular readers that I often think about the ministry as a vocation. After all, I paid my good money and attended seminary. When I was teaching at a seminary and there was some pressure to move that direction, however, I felt that I was adequately served by daily masses and the opportunity to minister in the classroom. Before those days, however, I trudged into work in Ritz Camera in Brookline, Massachusetts, on Good Friday wearing black and feeling depressed. From long habit I wished to be in church. From financial necessity I stood behind the counter and smiled. Good Friday is that way. It’s hardly a holiday when loss lies all around. It’s a bleak day, one might say. Few bosses who don’t feel the depth of symbolism can quite understand. Work week interruptus.
No doubt it’s vain of me to try to encapsulate this into words. As a culture we prefer the bright, sunny colors of Easter—a holiday with considerable spending but without loss of work efficiency. We should be smiles all around. “Smiles, everyone! Welcome to Fantasy Island!” But we can’t get there without going through Good Friday. Meanwhile, those who don’t observe the day are glad that it’s Friday. Not exactly a holiday weekend, but a weekend nonetheless. Have we outgrown Good Friday? I should think not. For although we bring our cheery flowers and bonnets out for all to see, we all know that Monday is just another day at work.
Now that Black Friday and Thanksgiving are behind us, the holiday season compels us to think of what comes next. Whether it is Hanukkah or Christmas or Kwanza, people are preparing to celebrate during the longest nights of the year, hoping to encourage light to return. It is a most primitive urge. Darkness is easy to come by; light takes a little more effort. In the western world the season was largely instituted by the celebration of Christmas, although this took many, many years to catch on. Now it is a begrudging nod in the direction of workers who spend more and more of their time on the job since the internet makes it difficult to claim that we are unavailable. Smart phones, smart watches, tablets, and computers are ubiquitous, so access to work email is only a click away. In any case, the holiday season invariably brings stories of offended people to the surface.
A recent piece in The Baxter Bulletin, sent to me by my wife, rehearses the story of Baxter County, Arkansas and the challenge against a nativity scene on a courthouse lawn. Such stories always seem to me to be cases with no winners. A courthouse should remain neutral territory, but the nativity scene hardly seems an offensive weapon. I can’t claim to know a great deal about the history of creche scenes, but it doesn’t appear likely that they were ever covert attempts to convert. They were celebrations, and nobody has a problem with them as long as they’re kept on private property or church garths. I do wonder, however, if driving them out of public sight really has any purpose. We all know that this time of year is gearing up to holidays when the ordinary takes the back seat for a few days and we can stop the rat race and reflect on a wonderful myth of biblical proportions.
Tree, bush, or asherah?
Similar stories are unfolding in countless venues now that December is practically here. Even stopping into Starbucks for a cup of coffee can land you in the middle of a culture war. It would seem to me that in this troubled world we might instead try to focus on peace. Whether or not the story of the manger has any historicity at all, the fact is the first century was a period of extreme unrest. This was a moment to pause and imagine what a world without war might be like. Now the holidays have become an occasion for declaring a new kind of sniping war about who has the right to make reference to a legendary event. Or where they may do so. In some cases there may be legitimate cause for concern. Most of the time, however, only those fixated on belligerence manage to draw everyone in to a fractured fairy tale of a holiday season where money is at stake.
It’s pretty white out there. For many parts of the eastern United States it has been a season of snow on snow on snow (why does that sound familiar?). The wisdom back in old white Wisconsin was there’d be three snows on the crocuses. This year the crocuses have remained buried, even in New Jersey. Judging from the number of people not driving, it looks like most people had a snow day yesterday. The color white has often been treated as a symbol of purity in various religions, but today is also the celebration of Holi, a Hindu festival of color. I’m no expert on Hinduism, but I do find the concept of a day of color to be immensely appealing. Anthropologists trace its roots to some fertility festival, but the fact is, we could all use some color right about now.
Winter technically lasts, in this hemisphere, until the vernal equinox. Religions around the world have festivals to celebrate this slow turning of the seasons, and the lengthening of days. A long while back I wrote a little book on the holidays. In it I tried to find the basis for various holiday colors. We all know red and green clash, but when we see them together we think of Christmas. Black and orange make a standard Halloween combination, and red by it self suggests St. Valentine, while green alone gives St. Patrick his identity. A more recent addition is black and silver for New Year. Easter, coming in the spring, however, is a celebration of color. We don’t dye the eggs just one hue—it has been a long winter and we celebrate its close with a burst of color. Even the staid old Episcopal Church reverences the liturgical seasons with distinct colors. In other words, colors mean something.
Years ago a friend recommended Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey (this was before Fifty Shades of Grey took over the world). It quickly became one of my favorite novels. It’s all about color. Apart from a few years under the influence of a friend with a strong personality, I’ve always been a subdued haberdasher. I tend to wear understated colors because I don’t like people commenting on the way I look, or, even for that matter, looking at me. I enjoy public speaking, but having someone single me out on the street or the bus has always felt distinctly uncomfortable. Still, I think we may have lost something that Holi has retained. Color exists to be celebrated. And shared. It is so important that commerce and trade apparently stopped last week to figure out the color of a certain dress. I may not be a Hindu, but I think I might wear my brightest shirt today to welcome color back to the world.
It wouldn’t be Christmas, in the Christian tradition, without Mary. Still, apart from her later enhanced role in Roman Catholicism, Mary’s part beyond Christmas is minor in the church. She seldom features in biblical accounts of Jesus’ life. It is easy to forget the female role that was so much a part of winter solstice celebrations that coalesced into our modern twelve days (really only one, for work purposes). That’s why I was glad that a friend sent me a link to a site about Mödraniht, or Mother’s Night. Honestly, I had never heard of this holiday before. Given the Germanic penchant for dramatic festivities, it comes as no surprise that Yule involved a night celebrating the feminine aspects of the season. Apart from the occasional references to Mary, we tend to think of this as the time a male son of a male God came to save mankind. What of the women without whom none of this would have been possible?
As Carolyn Emerick notes on her page, we know little about this sacred day because Christianity managed to wipe out most of the pagan traditions of northern Europe. Some, of course, survived and worked their way into Christmas. Modern holidays, being primarily days off work rather than deeply felt celebration (for we live in a world with no need for religion), have gravitated toward what had once been the male preserve of earning a living. Watching movies of Dickensian times, it is clear the women continued to work—likely even more than usual—to bring off a holiday celebration. It was the male prerogative to be the recipient of largess.
Photo credit: “Urban” WikiMedia Commons
My concern is that gender equality may sometimes be confused with gender stereotyping, or even with patronization. How is it possibly to build equality into a system put into place by generations of men? Is civilization truly civilizing when half of the race and only a very small portion of the planet benefits? The Christmas season, even now rapidly slipping away, is a time for considering equality. Every year modern non-believers and humanists ask for equality—a dream always held at arm’s length, since the holiday earns record profits as it is, and the financial year revolves around it like a Pole Star. It is the time of year when we see if we’ve turned a healthy profit. The rules in the system were set long ago. Even with Mary in the manger, she blends into the background while shepherds, wise men, and other interested males plan to make a holiday of it.
Some years back I completed an unpublished book for young readers on the holidays. This project was undertaken because most holidays have a religious origin and because I could find no comparable source for kids to learn this information from a reliable source. Unfortunately publishers have showed little interest. Rather than waste the effort it took to write the book, I have been installing segments here, on the Full Essays page of my blog. Since it is Easter for many Christians today, I have added the next installment: the Passover-Easter Complex. It begins like this:
No doubt the most complicated set of holidays are those that surround the changing of the seasons – the solstices and equinoxes. Among even those holidays, the Passover (Jewish) and Easter (Christian) complexes are especially complex. Like most major holidays these celebrations have very interesting roots. Problem is, it is hard to know where to begin! We’ve already started with Mardi Gras, but that is kind of a festival on its own. To really get started, we have to turn back to the calendar (again?).
Easter, like Passover, is a “moveable feast.” That doesn’t mean playing musical chairs while you eat! It means that the dates change depending on the moon, so to figure out the date you have to (you guessed it) look at the sky. (Actually, these days you can look on the web or in many books used by churches to figure it out. But work with me here, let’s pretend it is, gasp, before these things were invented!) Two days of the year have an equal amount of day and night all around the world, when the earth stands up straight on its axis. Marking the beginning of spring and fall they are called the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. (“Equinox” means “equal-night,” “vernal” means “green” or spring, and “autumnal,” duh, “in autumn.”) Back when people had no TV, this was a big thing! Not only was it cool to have equal day and night, in the spring it meant days were finally getting longer and warmer. For ancient people it meant that light was winning the struggle with darkness.