Who Is This Easter Bunny?

By Thursday, April 2, 2015 6 3

It’s that time of year again! The time when I get completely confused by societal traditions we somehow think are totally normal!  The tradition this time of year? The muthah-friggin Easter Bunny.  I mean, what? We are a weird people, people.  What does a secretive and kind of creepy bunny who defies the laws of nature by laying eggs have to do with the resurrection of Jesus? There is no mention of Easter celebration, Easter eggs, or the Easter bunny anywhere in the Bible, so where did it come from? Just like my Santa Claus confusion, I had to do the research to get to the bottom of this trippy bunny trail (epic pun! virtual high five!).

Things They Forgot to Mention, blog, photo, Easter, easter bunny

Research on this topic was somewhat unfulfilling because it’s not entirely clear where most of our Easter traditions come from.  That’s right, there is no definitive consensus.  What is clear is that most of the traditions we associate with Easter have nothing to do with Jesus or Christianity at all, and most seem to be truly pagan (the heathens strike again!).  Allow me to explain.

Spring Fling

The return of spring has long been a season for celebration, probably since we were weird little amoebas.  Pretty much every ancestral culture has a history of celebrating the end of winter, usually kicked off by the Vernal Equinox on March 21.  The Vernal Equinox is the day when the amount of day and the amount of night are equal.  It’s exciting because from that day on there will be more light and less dark.  Sayonara Snowmaggedon.

Spring is a time for life, birth, and fertility.  To celebrate, many ancient traditions honored common symbols of spring: rabbits, due to their stellar reputations as prolific makers of babies (a female rabbit can get pregnant while she’s already pregnant. A little, uh, loose of you, rabbit girls); and eggs, a globally-shared, long-held symbol of fertility and birth.

The most widely accepted theory on the origin of the word “Easter” is that it was derived from Eostre, the Germanic goddess of dawn, spring, and fertility.  The Anglo-Saxons would celebrate Eostre’s return every spring, honoring her symbols, the rabbit and the egg, and coloring eggs to express appreciation for Eostre’s gift of abundance.

There is suspiciously little written about this goddess, however.  In fact, she is only officially mentioned once by one English monk and historian, St. Bede, in an 8th century book.  He wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (‘Month of Ēostre’ in Old English), was a time to celebrate a goddess of spring and fertility he called Eostre.  And that’s pretty much it.  No one else talks about her in any other book, before or contemporary to Bede.  Because of this, some theorize that Bede simply made Eostre up as a joke, which would make part of me really happy because that would mean this entire megaholiday came from a few flippant lines written by one man.

Over time, the basic legend of Eostre evolved wildly.  There are many different versions of the legend, but it essentially says that one year Eostre arrived late for spring and to make up for it she saved a bird who was partially frozen by snow.  The bird could no longer fly so Eostre turned it into a rabbit (her earthly symbol), but retained its ability to lay colored eggs (her other earthly symbol), which it did in her honor and gave to children.  And here we have one theory on the origin of the Easter Bunny.  To be continued later…

What is amazing to me is that this whole thing — the origins of the word Easter, the existence of the goddess Eostre, her turning a bird into a bunny, and possibly the Easter Bunny himself — may have been completely fabricated by single individuals with some sweet imaginations.

I love this stuff!

What Came First: the Rabbit or the Egg?

The tradition of dyeing Easter eggs and giving candy eggs has a few origin theories:

  1. To honor the mysterious Eostre’s bird-turned rabbit that laid brightly colored eggs that were given to children.
  2. As mentioned before, eggs, along with rabbits, were widespread symbols of new life and fertility found in many pre-Christian cultures around the globe.  There are many, many old customs that involve decorating eggs and giving them as gifts around the Vernal Equinox.  Eggs were boiled with flowers and other materials to change their color to bring spring into the home.
  3. Decorating eggs are seen by many Christians as a symbol of Jesus’ empty tomb and thus His resurrection, and some dyed eggs red to symbolize Jesus’ spilt blood.

So what came first, the rabbit or the egg? My opinion is that since so many cultures, including as old as the Egyptians, Persians, and Romans, all used eggs as symbols of spring, this pagan rabbit came before the Christian egg.  Research shows that the association between Easter, eggs, and Jesus’ empty tomb came in the 15th century when Roman Catholicism became the dominant religion in Germany.  It seems very likely, and very natural, that the tradition merged with already ingrained pagan traditions.

Pulling a Rabbit Out of a Hat

As mentioned earlier, the rabbit was a symbol of fertility and celebrated at the start of spring by many ancient cultures.  Regardless of whether Eostre was a fabricated goddess or not, these animals were always associated with spring festivals and what came to be Easter.

At some point, the Germans took the pagan fertility rabbit, probably smashed with the legend of Eostre, and turned it into Oschter Haws (“Easter Hare”), a hare that lay a nest of colored eggs for good children.  The first mention of Oschter Haws was in the 1600s and when the Pennsylvania Dutch settled in America in the 1700s, they brought the hare with them.  Over time, Oschter Haws evolved into the Easter Bunny and now he’s in a photo booth in a mall near you!

Just like they did with Santa Claus, the Germans took a pagan character to the next level (what were the Germans smoking back then? Impressive imaginations).  Same as the history of Santa in the United States, the Puritans rejected this pagan character for a long time and it wasn’t until the mid 1800s that it was widely adopted, celebrated, and incorporated into Christian traditions.  And just like Santa Claus, the original purpose of the bunny was to bribe children into good behavior with the threat of no candy since apparently candy is somewhat important to children.

The Resurrection of Easter

After all this research, it is clear that the Easter Bunny and Jesus’ resurrection are totally unrelated.  They are two separate celebrations.  And so maybe we can’t thank Jesus for Cadbury Eggs, but we can still thank God or Eostre or the Vernal Equinox or weird fertility bunnies or whatever you honor for the start of spring.

For me, the fact that Easter is the amalgamation of pagan traditions, Christian traditions, and maybe even certain individuals complete fabrications doesn’t do it any disservice.  I think it gives it even more depth.  Celebrating the beginning of spring is reason enough for feasting, pastel party dresses, and jelly beans.

And that makes me so very — don’t do it, Sunna — egg-cited. *groan*  For Peeps sake!

Things They Forgot to Mention, blog, photo, The Pecking Orders, pecking orders, Easter, peeps

Things They Forgot to Mention:

Our traditions are much stranger and mishmashed than they appear. They began rooted in nature, hobnobbed with religion, and ended covered in chocolate. It seems that the Germans have not only provided us with delicious beers and brats, but also two of our most celebrated holiday characters. And let’s just forget about that one guy with the mustache…

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The True Meaning of Christmas, Part II

By Thursday, December 18, 2014 0 4

If you haven’t read Part I, please do so now before continuing.  I’ll wait…

I left us last week when Christmas was a drunken Mardi Gras, opposed by many Christians, and barely resembled the holiday we celebrate today.  Before Christmas became something we would recognize, we must add the third element: Mr. Claus.

 

Here Comes Santa Claus, Here Comes Santa Claus

Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop who lived in the 4th century in what is now Turkey.  He gave away a substantial inheritance to help the poor and sick, and he was widely revered for his generosity and piety.

Most famous was when he saved three sisters from being forced into prostitution.  He secretly paid their dowry by throwing bags of gold coins into their home — one went down the chimney and another landed in a pair of stockings hanging to dry.  This is where our chimney and stockings tradition comes from.  While gifts arriving via chimney was common for many pagan figures like trolls, fairies, and Norse gods; it was also part of St. Nicholas’ legacy.

During the Middle Ages, the anniversary of St. Nicholas’ death on December 6th was celebrated and children were given gifts in his honor.  In the 16th century, Martin Luther, whose Protestant reform work led to the Lutherans, wanted to increase children’s interest in Jesus, so he sought to change the custom of gifts coming from St. Nicholas to gifts coming from Jesus.  Then the transformation of St. Nick really started…

Over time, St. Nicholas morphed with England’s Father Christmas, a character symbolizing the spirit of Christmas joy, and he became known as Santa Claus (the name evolved from his Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas).  Santa Claus also took on shades of Odin, the Norse god celebrated during the yule with a long white beard and an eight-legged horse he rode through the night sky delivering gifts.

The Santa Claus celebration moved to December 25th, and the gift tradition remnant from St. Nicholas and Odin was continued to remind people of the gifts the three magi brought baby Jesus.

All the pieces were now there: Yuletide/Winter Solstice + Jesus’ birth + Santa Claus.  We just had to revise.

 

It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas

In the 1800s, the upper class had had enough of Christmas.  Many Christmas traditions were pretty crappy for wealthy people as they involved mobs of drunk men prowling the streets, breaking things, and going door to door demanding food and alcohol.  Definitely doesn’t sound like a holiday families could get on board with.  “Children, gather ’round and look at the drunken throngs of dudes damaging property! A Merry Christmas to us all!” said no one ever.

A movement started to domesticate Christmas, to take it inside the home, to give it meaning, and to give it to children.  In 1843, Charles Dickens played a large role in revising Christmas when he wrote A Christmas Carol and the Christmas he described was an intimate family celebration of generosity and reflection.  Santa Claus fit right in with this Christmas revision and the New York elite latched onto him.

Santa further matured with the help of two New Yorkers:

  1. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, a professor, wrote The Night Before Christmas for his daughters and almost single-handily created a modern Santa and a secular Christmas (click here for the poem).  He added even more Odin to Santa when he took Odin’s eight-legged horse and changed it to eight reindeer (Rudolph was envisioned 100 years later by a Montgomery Ward employee as a marketing ploy).
  2. In 1863, Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, was commissioned to illustrate Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly.  Over the next decade, his Santa series changed Santa into a tall, plump man with a white beard.  He also gave us the North Pole, the workshop, the elves, Mrs. Claus, the letters from children, and the naughty and nice list.

Now we had our jolly Santa, and after a Coca-Cola ad in the 1930s where Santa wore a red suit with white trim, we had his outfit.

Christmas, Things They Forgot to Mention, blog, photo, Santa, Santa Claus, Coca-Cola

Although many churches were historically opposed to Christmas and the new Santa Claus, they found Santa, gift giving, the pagan traditions of the Christmas tree and caroling improved church attendance.  So, they adopted them full force.  According to the St. Nicholas Center, “in a strange twist of fate, the new ‘secular’ Santa Claus…helped return Christmas observance to churches.”

 

Silent Night, Holy Night

What I found so interesting in the history of Christmas was how single individuals had such large impacts, how many minds it took to craft this holiday, and how it reflects our culture throughout history.

But, in writing this story, I started to feel like Scrooge Mc(Lame)Duck.  I felt like I was taking something beautiful and trying to prove it wasn’t beautiful simply because it was made of stuff found on earth and not given to us from above.  This would not stand so I went back to the essence of Christmas and I found it unchanged.

Yes, we created Christmas from unrelated traditions, but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful.  The things we create reflect the things we value, and with Christmas we value family, generosity, reflection, antiquity, and the high fashion in Wham’s Last Christmas.  After my research, Christmas reminded me even more of the people that came before me, of the light that is bigger than me.  The imaginations of our ancestors can be seen all over our traditions.  They are still there celebrating with us, reminding us to look up.

Do we lie to our children about Christmas? Yes.  Why? Because Christmas gives magic to them and that magic, while fleeting, stays with us for the rest of our lives.  We’ll always remember kneeling on our beds, whispering with our siblings, scanning the dark sky for Santa.  Christmas tells us there is beauty in our imaginations.  It tells us it’s ok to think beyond what is logical, to go beyond ourselves, to look into the dark for the light that is waiting.  That is what the yuletide and winter solstice revered.  That is what St. Nicholas sought.  That is Jesus’ birth.  And that, to me, is Christmas.

Christmas, Things They Forgot to Mention, blog, photo, yule, yuletide, tree

(Sources: I spent way too much time on Wikipedia, the History Channel website, and multitudes of religious websites for this information.  If you want backing, ask and ye shall receive.)

Things They Forgot to Mention:

Christmas was built from the minds of our ancestors and is a beautiful reflection of our cultures changing and melding throughout history.  It reminds us to keep imagining, searching for the unknowns out your window, and never forgetting to look up.

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The True Meaning of Christmas, Part I

By Thursday, December 11, 2014 0 6

Similar to Easter, Christmas causes me much confusion.  It seems to be a mishmash of several unrelated traditions all jammed into one that mostly revolves around buying things, eating chocolate, and lying to children.  I’ve always been confused about how Jesus, Santa Claus, and yule logs have anything to do with each other, so I did a little research.  I found out so much interesting information that this will be a two part series, to be finished next week.  And you can guarantee I’ll be doing the same research when Easter comes around.

I started by writing a list of questions I have about Christmas, which was a hilarious  process since it became quite clear that I don’t understand this holiday at all.  Who is this Santa Claus and why does he have so many aliases (St. Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Sinterklaas)? What does he have to do with Jesus? Is it wrong that there is a globally sanctified lie we tell our children? When did the flying reindeer and elfin sweatshops come into play? Why is Santa the only person besides certain pimps that can say “ho ho ho”? Is Santa immortal? What is a “yule”?????

I feel I should disclose that I am no Scrooge.  My husband laughs at the magnitude of my Christmas joy.  I am literally listening to Christmas carols as I write this.  My ringtone is “Carol of Bells” this month.  Oh yes, I love Christmas.  Christmas to me is magical, intimate, and feels sacred and heavy with emotion.  It reminds me of the quiet found only in winter that seems ancient and aware.  There is something about this time of year that makes my cells ache for the line of humanity that made me, for the light that is bigger than me.  I love Christmas.  A lot.  Yet our traditions make no sense to me.

From my research, I learned that my Christmas confusion was warranted.  Christmas is essentially the merging of (at least) three separate celebrations with very different meanings:

  1. Yuletide/Winter Solstice
  2. Jesus’ birth
  3. Santa Claus

If you step back and delve deep into the traditions, they don’t seem to make sense combined together.  At first.  But when you look deeper, they have the same basic root: a celebration of life and light.

 

The Yule. The What? The Yule.

Let’s begin with the yuletide.  This is a pagan festival originating in Germany and Scandinavia that celebrated midwinter and winter solstice.  Heathens celebrated this, you guys, heathens!  The yuletide honored the sun and the lengthening of days that starts on winter solstice; it was a celebration of birth and the end of darkness.

The yuletide was celebrated for varying amounts of time between November and January, centered around the winter solstice, December 21.  There was a lot of ale drinking, sacrificing of animals, smearing of blood on walls/people, and supernatural activity.  There was also a focus on, uh how do I say this, female fertility, so…

During the yuletide, people brought evergreen trees indoors and hung evergreen boughs to remind them of the life that would grow when winter ended — the origin of our Christmas trees and wreaths.

Candles, fires, and yule logs were lit to push back the winter darkness — the origin of our Christmas lights and, obviously, yule logs.

The Norse god Odin was honored, who author Margaret Baker, described as: “the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts.”  — remind you of anyone else?

This is also where we get mistletoe, caroling, and eating ham.  These are all pagan traditions that have been assimilated into Christmas and I was surprised to learn how many yule traditions we celebrate without realizing their origin.  The yuletide/winter solstice was a hugely important celebration across many cultures long before little baby Jesus.  Grocery stores and radiant floor heating didn’t exist.  Fireplaces weren’t just fun, crackle ‘n pop, winter accessories; winters were hard.  Celebrating the return of the sun was a significant moment and something that was revered globally by our non-equatorial ancestors.

 

And Then Little Baby Jesus Was Added

Right off I was surprised to learn that (1) Christians didn’t always celebrate Christmas, and (2) there is no mention of December 25th anywhere in the Bible.  No one actually knows the date of Jesus’ birth, although some religious historians believe there is evidence for him being born at other times of the year.

In the 3rd century, Pope Julius I chose December 25th as Jesus’ birthday, most likely since pagan and winter solstice festivals were already celebrated at that time.  By choosing the same time, church officials made it easier for people to embrace Christmas and they also assimilated many pagan traditions into Christmas to ease the transition.  For instance, they adopted the pagan tradition of evergreen trees but added a new Christian twist: they put apples in the trees to symbolize the Garden of Eden, and these apples became the ornaments we use today.

Christmas was not always as solemn, biblical, and family-oriented as it is today.  For a long time it was wildly pagan; it was still the yuletide and it was more like a drunken Mardi Gras celebrated in public, not celebrated privately as families.

There were so many pagan roots in Christmas traditions that it was opposed by many Christians (and still opposed by some today).  The Puritans in colonial New England banned Christmas and in 1644 the Massachusetts legislature fined anyone who celebrated Christmas 5 shillings (I tried to convert this into today’s dollars using my iPhone app but oddly it didn’t know the valuation).  The “war against Christmas” has been going on since like 1644, you guys.

Christmas, Things They Forgot to Mention, blog, photo, yule, yuletide, tree, ornament

To Be Continued in Part II…

I will end the post here and save the rest for Part II where we’ll discuss when Santa came into the picture, how Coca-Cola contributed to who he is, when the pagans finally lost, and how Christmas turned into a massive assembly line of gifts and harmless, little lies for our children.

(Sources: I spent way too much time on Wikipedia, the History Channel website, and multitudes of religious websites for this information.  If you want backing, ask and ye shall receive.)

 

Things They Forgot to Mention:

Christmas is our creation.  A wonderful creation of ancient traditions all mashed into one weird but beautiful celebration of life and light and the stuff bigger than us.  Also heathen stuff, lots of heathen stuff.

Click here for Part II

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Javalina Girl

By Thursday, September 4, 2014 3 5

When I was 23, I spent a year at the Biosphere 2 Center outside Tucson, Arizona getting my masters.  The Biosphere is a huge greenhouse meant to simulate the Earth, think Pauly Shore in 1996‘s Biodome.  For cliff notes of our year there, just watch the first 25 seconds of this excerpt from the film.  I advise you to not watch more than that though, as it may cause brain damage:

Yup, it was pretty much exactly like that.  Life at the Biosphere deserves a story all its own, but that’s for another day.  Today I would like to discuss one particular person from that year.  Her name, as it came to be, was Javalina Girl.

Throughout the summer, groups of high school students stayed at the Biosphere for a month to do science things.  In one of these groups was a pretty, petite, loner girl with pigtails and a stuffed animal backpack.  She carried a notebook in which she scribbled aggressively.  By this time, us grad school students had already morphed into weird desert people, so we were intrigued by this girl.  We heard rumors about her and we sought them out.  We heard she had uncivilized breakdowns.  We heard she threw herself out of a moving van.  We heard she stole her housemate’s ice cream.  We were very intrigued indeed.

This girl would wander off alone into the remote desert surrounding the Biosphere.  She would carry her notebook and be gone for hours, oblivious to the panic her wandering caused the program counselors.  It was on one of these walks that she came across the javalina.

For those that don’t know, javalinas are boar-like animals found in Arizona.  They can be vicious with inch-long canines, and roam in territorial packs at night.  Here are some photos I stole from the internet:

Things They Forgot to Mention, blog, personal, javalina, Arizona, Biosphere 2

We had all come across javalinas at some point and quickly learned to show them respect.

Lucky for her, the girl came across a recently dead one and this is how she became Javalina Girl.  No one knows what thoughts went through her wild mind, but something convinced her to drag that sizable javalina over a mile back to her group house.  Once at the house, she proceeded to construct an outdoor cage for the carcass.  (This is where it gets a little graphic, so ladies, cover your eyes.)  Javalina Girl then took a small knife from her communal kitchen, carefully removed all of the javalina’s skin, and returned the knife to the utensil drawer.

Naturally, one of her housemates was a little freaked out by this, so the counselors were called to intervene.  They found Javalina Girl with the javalina, which was now fully skinned and enclosed in the chicken-wire chamber.  She was wearing her usual pigtails and stuffed animal backpack.  They asked her what she was doing and she explained she was conducting an experiment to see how long it took for a corpse to decompose, and the chicken-wire was to protect it from large scavengers.  She was going to record the observations in her notebook.

The counselors were stumped by this one.  Technically, Javalina Girl had done nothing wrong.  All she had done was take the initiative to create something her fellow students could learn from and “enjoy.”  As scientists themselves, the counselors felt maybe they should encourage independent scientific experiments.  But then again, there was bloody carcass in the front yard and they just could not let her get away with this behavior.  Just like that, Javalina Girl was sent home.

One thing the counselors were particularly confused by was where the javalina’s skin went.  Javalina Girl reported she threw it out, but they never found a trace.  A week or so later, us grad students began to notice the sweet smell of death in our classroom — you can see where this is going.  The odor started as faint, almost pleasant whiffs, but it matured into the overwhelming perfume of rot.  Maintenance came to find the source, and they found — drum roll, please — the javalina’s skin.  The skin, along with a few bones, was sealed in a cardboard box hidden in our classroom closet.  Javalina Girl’s name was handwritten on the box.

Needless to say, we were obsessed and dissected all we knew of Javalina Girl.  We constructed a cage around her made of assumptions and talked about her like she belonged in an institution.  We all agreed she had many screws loose.  The skin and bones, however, we could not come to consensus on.  It could be explained by multiple theories: (1) a mean gift because she hated our guts, (2) a nice gift because we were kindred explorers, or (3) left temporarily to get later for further analysis.

We never found out and we never heard of Javalina Girl again.  We talked about her all the time though, and I even dressed up as her for Halloween.  To this day, she remains one of my favorite stories to tell.  Something about Javalina Girl shook me up.

I’ll let you in on a secret: I don’t think Javalina Girl belonged in an institution at all.  I think she belonged in the desert.  I like to believe she was a brilliant, artistic mind.  I believe she was just curious about what happens in life…and in death.  She was a thinker, a pioneer, a lone wolf who wandered the desert.  She was also possibly batshit crazy but that isn’t always a bad thing.  Many of the biggest minds in history could have been called batshit crazy too and I think Javalina Girl walked among giants.

I hope I find her one day, to see who she turned into.  I hope her spark hasn’t been snuffed out by how she’s supposed to go about life.  I hope she still wanders and carries a notebook.  I will tell her that she changed my perception of batshit crazy and she taught me that being divergent can be preferred.  I know now that we all have some Javalina Girl in us and we should let it glow through.  Maybe not through a bloody carcass, but you know what I mean.

Things They Forgot to Mention:

Not all who are crazy belong in an institution, because many times crazy is an asset and possibly a compliment.

Things They Forgot to Mention, blog, personal, desert, Arizona, Biosphere 2

(To the Biospherians, if you know of corrections/missing facts from this story, let me know in the comments below)

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