Those early Christians were some sneaky fellows. They were eager to get new recruits and expand their membership, but they had the problem of being a religion of death, sacrifice, torture and suffering. Not an easy sell to the happy pagan barbarians who filled most of Europe. So the Christians came up with this special scheme where they would steal the holidays of the local pagans and tell them that they were secretly Christian holidays and that since they were using them anyway, they might as well drop by the church for some wine and cookies.
This required just a few, small accomodations. Take as an example Easter. Easter is the pagan festival of the Vernal Equinox, welcoming the start of Spring. It’s all about sex, birth and growth. It’s the time when animals have babies and trees and flowers come into bloom. A pretty fun time celebrated by copulating in the fields, jumping over bonfires, dressing up in scary animal masks, some naked dancing and the occasional blood sacrifice. All not very Christian. But it’s not too far from the date when Jesus was crucified, so move the crucifixion festival up by two weeks (he was actually crucified in early April), and make a few small accomodations. Let them keep the pagan trappings, the eggs, the bunnies (universal symbol of fecundity – after all, who breeds better?) and even the name (Estre was a pagan fertility goddess). Oh, and since all the pagan gods get to come back from the dead in the Spring, Jesus had better get ressurected too. You thought ressurection was unique? It was all the rage in the ancient world. The Greeks had Persephone coming back from the dead. The Romans had the recently disembowled Attis popping back to life. The Vikings had Odin and Baldr both getting ressurected in the Spring. The Celts had Creudilad, Pwyll and Belenus all getting reborn or returned from the land of the dead in the Spring. It’s a sort of universal religious archetype.
More than almost any other holiday the Christianization of Easter really didn’t stick terribly well. Even today, two millenia later, there’s a lot more interest – especially among kids – in hunting for colorful fertility symbols supposedly left behind by a mystical bunny. And what gets into the minds of kids when they’re little is what sticks with them as they get older. Not surpring, really. It’s a lot easier to discuss bunnies and eggs with a 4 year old than to talk about torturous death, burial and ghostly remanifestations. Plus a picture of little Cindy with a crown of thorns and carrying a cross just doesn’t look as good on the mantle as one where she’s in a cute dress carrying a basket full of colored eggs.
Though the Christians tried to take over Easter and make it their own, what they really did was to legitimize and assure the survival of a whopping big collection of pagan tradition and ritual, which works fine for me since the pagan elements which we’ve preserved are a lot more fun than the crucifictional alternative. So after the easter egg hunt on Sunday we’re off to a local Renaissance Festival – where better to frolic with the pagans – because apparently the church pretty much says it’s okay to be a pagan at least this one day of the year. As for the copulating in the fields, the bonfire jumping and the blood sacrifices – we’ll just have to see how the day works out.