So, How Do We Celebrate?

As spring approaches, there are lots of ways we secular folks can celebrate. After all, most of the celebration started well before Christianity and is still relevant today.

The changing season, renewed greenery, new baby animals, and passage of time are wonderful touch points.

Some activities to consider:

  • Enjoy a good, Marie-Kondo-style spring cleaning. Donate what you don’t need to an organization that can find them a new, loving home.
  • Dress up a bit if you like. Spring is a wonderful time to wear a fancy dress or make (and rock) an amazing hat!
  • Nourish yourself and your family with fresh foods. Prepare, enjoy, and share a special meal. Include some fresh grains if you like.
  • Celebrate spring all around you. Plant some seeds, celebrate Earth Day (May 22) and the wonders of nature’s renewal.
  • Host a gathering of family and friends. Invite everyone to make or wear an outlandish hat. Make or acquire seed bomb eggs and let them dry in the sun while you dine together on a succulent feast.
  • Create an egg-stravaganza of decorated eggs if you partake. Decorate eggs with plant-based dyes, markers, symbols of nature, or create your own special meanings.
  • Enjoy the sweets of the season. Celebrate benevolent giving with an egg hunt or a basket of goodies from a rabbit, a fox, a stork, or a loving person.

Rather than trying to find separations or ownership of beliefs and practices, I prefer the braided stream view that we also use for human evolution. That is, syncretism over time and space. There many similar beliefs and traditions that arose in geographically separate areas just as animal shells arose more than once in evolution. Each had its place and purpose in time. Stories about ancient gods explained things humans did not yet understand. They came out of the human need to find patterns, even when patterns are not actually there.

We can take these practices today and choose those that have meaning for us or consider the life they once supported. We can create our own rituals to celebrate the cycle of the year. Make this spring special any way you like!

Easter, Eostre, and Gifts from Benevolent Strangers

Easter, Eostre, and Gifts from Benevolent Strangers

Receiving a basket filled with candy and colored eggs on Easter morning is a tradition many families follow.  There are no ties to anything in the bible about a benevolent rabbit. You may also have heard about a goddess called Oestre for whom Easter is named but there isn’t a clear line on that one either. The connection between a goddess called Oestre and the holiday named Easter is tentative at best. The most recent research I could find regarding this goddess was presented in 2007 by Dr. Philip A. Shaw.

Over time, the tentative connections that researchers were able to glean from literature written by Bede somehow started being presented as irrefutable facts. They are not. According to Dr. Shaw, there was probably a goddess in a small part of Europe that was worshipped as nature’s resurrection after the death of winter. She did not bring anyone chocolate. She was probably part of a polytheistic culture that varied throughout the region. What we don’t know is how widely this goddess was celebrated. Keep in mind, early people were not jetsetters. Most people lived and died in a small community and while the tribes were often in conquest mode, not everyone participated. Even the notion of paganism is a broad brush to paint with since it covered so many groups in so many places over time and wasn’t a concrete set of beliefs.

So, who brings presents and treats in the springtime?

 In Iran is Amu Nowruz and his companion, Haji Firuz (sound familiar?) Amu is depicted as an elderly silver-haired man who brings gifts to children and his companion wears red and has his hands and face covered in soot.

In the United States, the Easter Bunny (originally called the Easter Hare) almost certainly came to us from the Pennsylvania Dutch (German speaking immigrants in the 1600s)

In some parts of the world, including western Germany, there is an Easter fox. The origins were hard to track down and sketchy at best but it seems at some point, folks brought a fox from house to house seeking donations for some sort of celebration or sacrifice.

In a small region in central Germany, since the 17th century, a stork brings Easter eggs on the Thursday before Easter (Maundy Thursday) Bakeries make a yeast-based sweet bread in the shape of a stork decorated with colored sugar. Some variations include a colored egg emerging from the stork as if it is being laid.

In parts of France, the bells in the church towers fly away in the days before Easter (Maundy Thursday or Holy Friday, I find resources citing both) and return on Saturday night or early Sunday morning to distribute chocolates all over town before settling back into their towers.

In Australia, conservationists are trying to replace the Easter Bunny with the Easter Bilby, an endangered species. Rabbits are an invasive species in Australia and while bilbies also have tall ears, they are a marsupial. Several candy manufacturers produce chocolate bilbies and donate proceeds to conservation efforts.

No matter who brings the goods, Easter is the second biggest candy consuming holiday in the United States. Halloween is #1.

What is Passover? So, How Do We Celebrate?

What is Passover?

Let’s unpack and review Passover.

Many of the words used to describe Easter traditions in Christianity are based off of the word Passover. In Hebrew, pesah means, “the passing over.” In Christianity, one may hear Paschal Feast (Easter feast), Paschal Lamb (death of Jesus), and Paschal Blood (sacrificial blood). The connection between the two is ritual sacrifice of life with the intention of protecting or benefiting others. In the Jewish religion, it is animal blood and in the Christian religion, it is human blood.

In the Jewish religion, this is the concept of God passing over people in certain marked homes and slaughtering those in other unmarked homes.

Passover is a Jewish celebration of freedom from slavery and the creation of a new nation under Moses around 1300 BCE. This freedom came from their god as he inflicted several (the numbers found in the Bible are not consistent) plagues on the Egyptians who were holding them enslaved. The final plague was the killing of the first-born children of all Egyptian families. The Israelites were to mark their doorposts with blood from a sacrificed lamb. This mark would ensure that their own children would not be killed. I will take just a brief moment to note the absurdity and horror that sacrificial blood must be used to mark a doorpost for an omnipotent being to kill innocent children who were of the wrong race. OK, moving on…

Another part of the celebration is not using leavening, such as yeast. Wheat-flour based foods that use baking soda or baking powder are permissible. To prepare, the home is cleaned thoroughly and laws prevent possessing even small quantities of yeast. A formal search ritual is completed in each home. Matzoh is a commonly sold unleavened bread that you might see in stores around this time. This tradition comes from the haste in which the people left Egypt.

Historical note: baking soda as a leavening agent did not come into use until 1846. Other ingredients with less reliability came into use in the late 1700s but prior to that, wild harvested yeast was the most common method used to get breads to rise.

However, the celebration rituals now called Passover probably started well before that as a spring celebration of the first grains of the season eaten freshly harvested grains, or, unleavened. Along with that, the tradition of sacrificial blood on the door frame would ensure that demonic forces could not enter the home. There was an offering either per family or in a temple also.

Historians have found evidence for the ten plagues of Egypt. Among other things, a drought and later, a volcanic eruption could have led to the reports of abundance of disease carrying insects and the subsequent death of livestock, strong storms and unusual weather, tsunami, red water, illness, etc. Specifically, historians have theorized that a particular mycotoxin could have killed the oldest child in each home while they harvested and ate grain. Mycotoxin is toxic fungus that may grow on grain in wet periods. It can be toxic if inhaled or eaten. Modern practices of mechanical harvesting, cleaning and sorting of grains prevent illness or death from mycotoxins today.

Passover is connected to Easter in several ways and has an interesting (and violent) history all its own.

Easter Dresses, Hats and Special Clothing Easter, Eostre, and Gifts from Benevolent Strangers

Easter Dresses, Hats, and Special Clothing

Since at least 420 CE, people bought and wore new clothes to celebrate renewal in Spring. In this instance, we are referring to the Northern and Southern Dynasties of China! These new clothes were a symbol of a fresh start as part of the new year.

Both NowRuz and Sham Ennessim include new clothing with their celebration.

In 300 CE, Pope Constantine declared that new clothing must be worn on Easter.

There are a few superstitions around wearing new clothing in the spring including one from Poor Robin’s Almanack in 1899, “At Easter let your clothes be new, or else be sure you will it rue.”

In many regions that celebrate Easter, a new “Easter dress” and “Easter hat” are very common in clothing ads although now, ads tend to refer to “spring dresses.”

Hats have a different evolution. In the Bible, Corinthians 1: 2-16, dictates that men should not cover their heads during worship, but women should cover their heads and their hair. It also dictates that women should wear their hair long and men should wear their hair short. There is a whole movement in Christianity aiming to revive these practices more broadly.

Head covering is practiced in many segments of the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Muslim)

Until 1983, the Catholic Church requested that women cover their heads while in church with a chapel veil. I recall my mother telling stories about girls putting doilies on their heads before entering the church if they had forgotten their own. In other forms of Christianity, such as Amish or Mennonite, women cover their heads almost always.

Orthodox (ultra-conservative) Jewish communities require women to cover all of their hair once they are married. They believe the hair should be covered because it is too sensual for another man to see. This is thought to originate in other Bible passages about a woman being tested after being accused of infidelity.

In recent years, the head coverings of the Muslim religion have made headlines. The word hijab has made headlines but what is it, exactly? Hijab is an Arabic word meaning cover.  The hijab seen most often is a square scarf wrapped to cover the head and neck. However, there are other forms. This piece of clothing came out of the Muslim religious requirements for modesty. While many articles state that hijab is a woman’s choice, there is an underpinning that hijab allows one to succeed in fulfilling the obligation and command of Allah. In some countries, hijab is mandated by law. However, in some of those same countries, women were forced to unveil several decades ago. What is striking to me is that women were not given a voice in the matter. I wonder if this is why there is such a strong feeling of choice over mandate in conversations about hijab?

However, wearing a veil has a much longer history than that. Neolithic cave paintings depict head coverings circa Thousands of years before Jesus was but a sparkle in his father’s eye, veils were worn by women as a status symbol. In polytheistic Assyria, established by around 2500 BCE, women of status wore veils. Lower class women as well as prostitutes, were subject to corporal punishment for wearing a veil. It is interesting to consider a length of fabric as a status symbol.  In ancient Rome, women wore veils as a symbol of their husband’s authority and their own seclusion, among other things. From a practical standpoint, veils and head coverings are also useful in preventing sun, dust and dirt from getting in one’s hair and eyes.

In medieval Europe, women did not leave home without a veil or other head covering. Even medical texts with dissections included a head covering for modesty. This practice flexed and contracted from all outings to only during a religious ceremony, but stayed present in some form, at the very least in some churches, through the 1980s. By the 60’s, hats were no longer a fashion necessity.

Early settlers in North America, like the Ingalls family, got new hats every spring. Some were rougher for everyday wear and some were for Sunday best church attendance.

The religious insistence of head covering became more fashionable and also covered one’s skin from sun exposure. Hats varied in style dramatically over time. Some styles used wire frames woven with ribbons.  One particularly enormous hat, called the Merry Widow, after the play it was designed for, was 3 feet wide and 18 inches tall (almost 1 meter wide and 46 cm tall). Nevertheless, hats were considered proper attire for women and young ladies when out of doors. And, due to the complications of removing them, often remained on throughout the day if one was out-and about.

Today, women wear hats for many reasons. Hats are popular at music festivals like Coachella for UV protection as well as fashion. In the UK, hats are often worn to special occasions. A popular time for hats is at horse races like the Royal Ascot in the UK.  Attended by royalty, a strict dress code is enforced. Hats worn for this event are typically a single color, wide-brimmed hat decorated with feather, ribbons and the like. Another style is called a fascinator. They are smaller and worn more toward the front of the head. Many elementary schools in the United Kingdom have an annual Easter Bonnet Parade on the last day of their semester. Children wear DIY hats and a contest is held.

Across the pond we have the Kentucky Derby hat. The Kentucky Derby is a horse race held on the first Saturday in May in Churchill Downs, Kentucky, in the southwestern United States. The Kentucky Derby started when Meriwether Lewis Clark attended horse races like the Royal Ascot in the UK. Eager to recreate these extravagant and festive events, he started the Kentucky Derby.  An event to see and be seen, hats worn for this event are typically wide-brimmed with lots of ornate decorations. There is no such thing as too much with a Kentucky Derby hat! Another Easter hat tradition is the Easter Parade on 5th Avenue in New York City. This event started in the 1870s and grew in popularity, even spawning a movie called, Easter Parade. The original idea was to showcase one’s wealth, taste and good fortune. This tradition has changed over the years and now is a delightful spectacle of wonderous creations posing as hats. While I have not attended, photographs make the scene feel more like a Mardi Gras-like celebration of spring than a walk to church.

All in all, special new clothing did not originate with the Christian celebration of Easter. It is a common practice that predates Christianity in many cultures around the world. Head covering predates Christianity as both a functional piece and a gender and status specific social mandate. Piety joined the mix later and picked up steam quickly. Today, some religions mandate gender-specific head coverings in certain situations and others merely encourage them. Some ignore them altogether.

Decorating Eggs What is Passover?

Decorating Eggs

Decorated egg shells have been found at archeological digs as far back as the Neanderthals some 60,000 years ago. The practice has been found in ancient Egypt as well as in many other places around the world. Since the Neanderthals didn’t leave any written materials, we cannot know for certain what their eggs were for. Archeologists believe they were used to store things and note that not only did different eggs have different decorations, but also that the intricacies of the design changed over time. Neat!

Ornately decorated ostrich eggs, using materials like lapis lazuli, are found in Iraq dating about 5,000 years ago.

4,000 years ago, in ancient Egypt, decorated eggs were adorned with gold and silver and placed in tombs. They were also used as household storage items.

Decorated eggs as part of early Christian practices may have started in Mesopotamia.

In Slavic cultures such as Croatia, Ukraine and Poland, egg decorating traditions, including pysanka, started in pre-Christian times and were rolled into Christian celebrations. The method is similar to batik. Wax is used to block some portions of the egg from receiving dye and later removed. Some of the colors and symbols used are:

triangles symbolizing water, earth, air and later the holy trinity  

the Grand Goddess, a matriarchal symbol representing birth and renewal             

circles symbolize the cycles or the earth, seasons, and universe 

swastika symbolizes happiness and good luck     

dots represent stars or things without a beginning and end          

leaves and branches symbolize strength and growth       

butterflies symbolize the fun of childhood            

birds symbolize spring   

white represents new life, purity and light

yellow represents celestial moon and stars

red represents life-giving blood, love and joy, and the hope of marriage.

green represents new vegetation in the spring and renewal

blue symbolizes the sky, and good health

brown represents the richness of the soil

black symbolizes the world of the afterlife in a positive light

In Poland, similar traditions of decorating include treated wax pisanki (like batik), gluing shiny paper or fabric onto eggs (like Mod Podge) or etching an already dyed egg to reveal the white shell below.

In Iran, Western and Central Asia and other parts of the world, a New Year holiday called NowRuz is celebrated on the Vernal Equinox. Originating in Zoroastrian, it is now more or less a secular holiday. (Quick note, Zoroastrian shares the myth of the virgin birth of a savior(s) who is the son of god bringing judgment, resurrection of the dead and eternal life). Among other traditions, many families include decorated eggs as a symbol of fertility and new life.

In Egypt, Sham Ennessim celebrates the beginning of spring with, among other things, colored eggs. This holiday is the evolution of Shemu, the 1st-century celebration of spring.

In some regions, red is a common color for eggs in Christianity. Some say it symbolizes the blood of Jesus. There are several stories around the resurrection of Jesus where eggs turn red although none are referenced in the Bible.

Some of the most famous, slightly more contemporary decorated eggs, are Fabergé eggs. In 1885, Tsar Alexander III commissioned an egg as a gift for his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna. Intended as an Easter gift, this may also have doubled as a gift to celebrate 20 years since their engagement. This was the first is a series of 54 jeweled eggs made for the Russian Imperial family. Each one had a hidden surprise mechanism such as something hidden inside or a pop-up surprise. (To put this into historical perspective, the children of this marriage would result in Nicholas II, the Russian Revolution resulting in his abdication and later murder. Alexander and Maria’s grand-daughter is the famous Anastasia.)

Decorated eggs were also part of Spring celebrations in Germany and it is likely that these are the traditions that made their way to North America.

What Does Easter Celebrate? Easter Dresses, Hats, and Special Clothing

What Does Easter Celebrate?

What is Easter? blog series exploring the history and origins odfspring traditions What Does Easter Celebrate?

In the Christian religions, Easter is the celebration of Jesus coming back to life (called the resurrection) three days after being crucified by the Romans and buried in a tomb. Easter is not celebrated by all Christians. Some Christian groups that separated during the protestant reformation do not celebrate Easter and consider it, among other things, pagan. Other Abrahamic religions, such as Muslim, Bahá’í, and Judaism believe Jesus was a prophet.

For Christians who do celebrate, there is a lead up period called Lent when it is common to give up something, chocolate or alcohol are common today, as well as not eating meat on Fridays. In parts of the world, a weekly communal meal of fish is served, commonly called Friday Fish Fry. Sometimes, it is hosted by a church as a fundraiser and it is often a featured dinner special at restaurants.

In the past, a vegan diet (no meat or animal products such as eggs or honey) was the norm for some groups during Lent. Lent has subsections of time and days such as Palm Sunday (Jesus returns to Jerusalem and people lay down palm leaves for his donkey to walk on.) Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday (the Last Supper), Good Friday (crucifixion day), Holy Saturday (the day between the crucifixion and the resurrection)

Much like Christmas, the date of the Easter celebration took some time to be established. Even today, eastern Orthodox Easter is not celebrated on the same day as the Catholic celebration. The date is currently determined based on an ecclesiastical moon called the pascal moon. Pascal comes from the word Passover.  To be clear, this is not a lunar-based event, rather a roundabout date in the Christian calendar that is intended to be the Sunday following the Spring Equinox.

Like Christmas, Easter has also seen some religious syncretism (synk-re-tizm), that is, different beliefs blending and reshaping over time and influence.

Looking back through history, the Vernal Equinox and beginning of Spring was widely celebrated in many cultures. A time of renewal, celebrating the return of fresh foods, and new life. Return of birds (baking bread in the shape of a bird and throwing it into the air.)

In Slavic countries, Dazhboh was a deity of the sun. Birds were seen as the god’s special creations and getting the eggs laid by the birds was intended to bring the egg holder closer to their god.

In Egypt, Sham Ennessim, a contemporary holiday, celebrates the beginning of spring with, among other things, colored eggs. This holiday is the evolution of Shemu, the 1st-century celebration of spring.

In Iran, Western and Central Asia and other parts of the world, a New Year holiday called NowRuz is celebrated on the Vernal Equinox. Originating in Zoroastrian, it is now more or less a secular holiday. (Quick note, Zoroastrian shares the myth of the virgin birth of a savior(s) who is the son of god bringing judgment, resurrection of the dead and eternal life). Among other traditions, many families include decorated eggs as a symbol of fertility and new life.

In China, Start of Spring, also known as Chinese New Year, has been celebrated for almost 4000 years. Also based on a lunar calendar, Chinese New Year also incorporates the zodiac. You may be familiar with “Year of the Pig” and red decorations. This celebration also includes new clothing, special foods and gifts of money. The history of the holiday revolves around a mythical creature who would ravage a village and eat the villagers until a hero stepped up and scared the creature away with the color red and fireworks.

While we don’t have any evidence that the spring holidays coalesced into the Easter we see today, the celebration of Spring has a long history throughout the world.

Next, let’s talk about egg decorating…