The first memory I have of organized religion is an embarrassing one. I was four years-old and it was Easter Sunday. My family didn’t exactly attend church religiously (sorry), which meant I wasn’t intimately familiar with the rituals associated with formal worship. So when my mother handed me a silver dish with cash in it, I had no idea what was going on.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s the collection plate.”
You didn’t have to tell me twice. I reached into the plate and collected myself a five bingos, thank you very much.
Wow, God really does provide for folks who go to church, I thought as I folded up my windfall and placed it in my shirt pocket. If I can just talk my parents into attending church every Sunday, by Christmas I’ll be rich beyond my wildest dreams.
Mom quickly snatched my cash and returned it to the plate along with ten dollars of her own before explaining that it was our church that doing the collecting—not us. My dream of becoming a tycoon by the age of five was squashed, but even worse, I was also publicly embarrassed. I should have known better. In a sense I was trying to exploit religion for monetary gain—commercializing it, if you will. And that’s wrong.
So what’s up with all the Easter paraphernalia that’s littering my kitchen? My kids will likely receive multiple Easter gifts / baskets this year from family and friends. And it’s not like they’re the only ones. Virtually every Christian child in America gets the exact same treatment. The stats back it up. According to the National Confectioners Association, 90 million chocolate Easter bunnies are made each and every year. Perhaps even more astonishing is that each year over 700 million Marshmallow Peeps are consumed. 700 million! That’s over two times the population of the United States!
According to a March 16th, 2010 release issued by the National Retail Federation, Americans were expected to spend over $13 billion dollars last Easter. That seemed a bit high to me, until I realized that it’s no longer just candy we’re stuffing into our kids’ baskets, but also toys.
I don’t mean to come off critical–I just don’t want Easter to go too much further. Look at Christmas. We’re never getting that one back. But it’s not like I’m concerned that my kids won’t understand the significance of the holiday. If Caroline and I do our jobs right, they’ll realize that Easter is far more than a pay day for Cadbury execs.
Still, how did this all come to pass? I mean, seriously, how did a holiday designed to celebrate the resurrection of Christ morph into a commercialized quest for pastel-colored eggs filled with chocolate? And what’s with the Easter Bunny? Hmm? How’d the rabbit get thrown in the hopper? (My bad.) To answer such questions, I put the holiday under a microscope. (Translation: I googled some terms and read a coupla Wikipedia pages.) Here’s what I found out.
The first reference to rabbits as symbols of Easter appeared in German writings during the 1500s. When German immigrants settled into the Pennsylvania Dutch country during the 1700s, America got its first exposure to the “Oschter Haws,” aka the Easter Bunny. It was said that in the Christian tradition, rabbits, much like lambs, symbolized vulnerability and innocence (and all these years I thought they symbolized preposterous amounts of sex). Their only real defense was either to run or to be saved by their master, thus providing a nice parallel between them and human souls, which Christians believe can only be saved by Christ.
What? Surely there’s a better example of an innocent, vulnerable animal than a promiscuous rodent which copulates five times a day. And what about all the eggs? How did they become a part of Easter? Rabbits don’t lay eggs. Unsatisfied, I dug a little deeper and began to find my answers.
It turns out that what we now call Easter started off as something much different. Its origin predates the celebration of Christ, which we have come to associate it with. “Eastre” was an annual pagan festival celebrated by the Saxons that commemorated the goddess of fertility and offspring who went by the same name. She was worshiped through her earthly symbol, the rabbit, hence the “Eastre” Bunny. (Rabbits as symbols of fertility? Now we’re talking.) During this springtime celebration, it was customary for the Saxons to exchange eggs that were, like spring itself, a symbol of rebirth in most cultures at the time. These eggs were often wrapped in gold foil or dyed a bright color by boiling the eggs with petals of certain flowers.
Second-century missionaries who encountered the Saxons were eager to convert them into God-fearing Christians. To make potential conversions less daunting, these missionaries incorporated a lot of the pagan “Eastre” rituals into their celebration of Christ’s resurrection. After all, they both occurred during the same time of the year, so it was easy to do. Thus the bunny was declared a sign of innocence and vulnerability. Eggs symbolized the rebirth that occurred when one accepted Christ as their savior.
The practice of combining different systems of philosophical or religious beliefs in order to make potential converts less leery of a new concept is a tactic known as syncretism. And this tactic worked like a charm, as the missionaries converted many Saxons into Christians with an assist, of course, going to the “Eastre” Bunny. Eventually the spelling of the celebration was changed to its current form, and the holiday became synonymous with the resurrection of Christ.
So it looks like the commercialization of Easter is nothing more than the natural evolution of a precedent that was set way back in the second century. Easter was manipulated and marketed back then to make the holiday more appealing to the Saxons.
And isn’t that what our society is doing today? Manipulating and marketing Easter to a greater extent than ever before, all in the name of reaching kids and saving souls? Perhaps my pessimism regarding the holy holiday’s commercial appeal is ill-founded. Perhaps I should revisit my stance, if not drop it all together.
Or maybe, just maybe, we should all go to church with my Mom sometime so she can slap each of us on the wrist and remind us of the lesson she taught me thirty-six years ago.
It’s wrong to exploit religion for monetary gain. No matter who you are.