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The Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and the Meaning of Holidays
A video set to Stephen Colbert's "Another Christmas Song"
The Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and the Meaning of Holidays
Easter Sunday is the most important date in the Christian calendar. It celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, the central event in Christian theology. What I have always found fascinating, however, is the fact that the United States, like many other societies I imagine, devotes much more attention, energy, and money to Christmas than to Easter. This is in spite of the fact that only two gospels bother to give any details about Jesus’ birth, and the New Testament epistles never mention it at all. The resurrection, however, is central to all four gospels, and the apostle Paul and other New Testament writers discuss it repeatedly. Is the story of a baby’s birth more appealing and comfortable than a story of execution and resurrection? I am not enough of a historian, psychologist, or theologian to say for sure.
The modern American celebrations of the two holidays, however, definitely have some things in common. Both holidays involve gift giving to good (and arguably bad) children, and they usually require a certain amount of candy. Candy seems to be a common staple in American holidays: Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving (if you count pie). The sugar industry is making a killing. Other major American holidays, however, are mainly an excuse to have a barbecue, blow things up, or go to a special three-day sale. Christmas, of course, has got it all (except the fireworks). It has the candy, one or two (or three) months of special sales, parties where people gorge themselves, and the opportunity to get the coolest gifts: toys, clothes, electronics, etc. On Easter, all you get are baskets, eggs, chocolates, jelly beans, and that plastic fake grass. It’s not bad when you are a kid, but it sure the heck isn’t Christmas.
For many kids, however, the dominant characters associated with these holidays are two mythical gift-givers: Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Now for Christmas, there is some historical and theological basis for the fat, bearded, saintly gift-giver in the red suit. In Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, three wise men show up bearing gifts of precious metals, oils, and perfume. (Today, they would have picked these up at “Nordstrom’s.” If they were cheap, they might choose “Sears.”) More generally, Jesus himself represents the gift of a savior for all humankind
It’s harder, however, to find a theological or historical basis for the Easter Bunny. So I decided to do some quick research. I turned to trusty “Google,” and punched in “History of Easter Bunny Eggs.” Many sites came up, with not all of them agreeing on the details. From what I can gather, however, both rabbits and eggs are ancient symbols of fertility. Rabbits, after all, “breed like rabbits,” and eggs, of course, give birth to new life. There is some degree of evidence indicating that rituals involving eggs were performed in pre-Christian times to coincide with the rebirth of life at the beginning of spring. Christian missionaries, as they often did, probably adopted – some would say co-opted – these traditions into the springtime celebration of the resurrection. (Even the term “Easter” seems to have pagan origins.) Evidence for bunnies appears a bit later. The first written reference to an Easter hare appeared in seventeenth century Germany. By the eighteenth century, German immigrants to the American colonies were telling their kids stories about an Easter rabbit distributing eggs to good little kids. Kids at this time were making little baskets in which the Easter bunny could place their gifts. Then, most importantly for children today, sweets in the shape of eggs and bunnies began to appear by the nineteenth century. Eggs, after all, are not the most exciting “treat” in the world for a child. (When was the last time that you saw a kid eating his or her hard-boiled, decorated egg?) But you can’t go wrong with sugar.
I don’t think that my kids have ever asked me why a rabbit – or as they get older, a strange adult – sticks candy and plastic eggs in a basket for them on something called Easter. They are just happy to get any candy that a small furry animal or large human is willing to hand them. Of course, I doubt that many adults look into the origins of the annual rituals that we call holidays. Some complain that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and other commercialized symbols and practices can snuff out the historical or sacred traditions that formed the basis for the holidays in the first place. We must remember, however, that holidays always take on a life of their own, and they are a reflection of the cultures in which they are celebrated. In some cases, holidays in ancient times were co-opted by the Christian church and given new meaning. This eventually caused many to lose sight of the original pagan symbolism associated with practices like decorating eggs or putting up Christmas trees.
The same type of thing may be occurring today. The American religion of commercialism is often able to snuff out the original meaning of the symbols that make up our holiday traditions and stories. Halloween is more about candy than confronting death as winter draws near. Thanksgiving is apparently about thanking God for turkey, football, and large balloons floating in New York City. Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to buy off your significant other with candy (of course) and flowers. Is this a bad thing? I would argue that it is the inevitable result of living in a society where commercialism and materialism have largely replaced the sacred and symbolic. Still, I love most of these holidays. They have become an integral part of the annual cycle that makes up my life, and I, like everyone else, can give these holidays whatever meaning I choose. Plus, I sometimes get some cool stuff (especially on Christmas).