Pique the Geek 20110424: Easter (with Poll!)

(9 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Easter is in Christendom the holiest day of the liturgical calender, celebration the day of the rising of Christ from the dead.  The purpose of this piece is not to discuss any particular religious viewpoint, but rather to look into the history of Easter and thus to understand some of the peculiar customs that are now associated with Easter.

This is not a “hard science” piece, but rather more of an analysis of how the modern Easter came to be.  Many of you who are regular readers know that my interests are much broader than just science and technology, and history is one of them.  However, I do believe that this piece is worthy of being called Geeky.

Before we get to the very ancient traditions that predate Judaism, not to mention Christianity, we shall look at how the date for Easter is calculated.  If it seems like Easter is very late in the year for 2011, this is because it is.

Very simply (actually an oversimplification), Easter (using the Gregorian calendar) is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.  If you use this definition, you will correctly predict the date for Easter over 95% of the time.  However, it is more complex.  Easter is the sole remaining holiday in Christendom still based on the lunar cycle, because of its direct derivation from Pesach, or Passover.  The rules are extremely arcane, and are essentially as follows.

Instead of the actual vernal equinox, by convention 21 March is used as the base date for calculation, regardless of what the actual day the equinox occurs.  The other difference is that instead of the first real full moon after 21 March, the Paschal full moon is used instead.  The Paschal full moon is 14 days later than the Paschal new moon, which is the new moon that falls on or after 08 March, except when it is not.  The Paschal new moon can be up to two days later than the actual new moon.  For 2011, the Paschal full moon fell last Monday, 18 March.  Since the next Sunday is today, 24 April, today is Easter.  The way the rules are set up, the latest possible date for the Paschal full moon is 19 March, as it was in 2000.  However, that fell later in the week than Monday, so Easter that year was 23 April.  If the latest possible Paschal full moon falls on a Monday, then Easter would be 25 April, the latest possible date for it in the Western church.  Confused?  Just use the definition in the paragraph above and you will almost always be correct.  However, Easter is very late this year.  By the way, the earliest possible date for Easter is 22 March.

Since very far back into prehistory, many cultures celebrated the beginning of spring.  Actually, most cultures had some type of celebration at both solstices and equinoxes, although the summer solstice was less important than the other three.  Since neolithic times, the vernal equinox has had extremely high significance associated with it, since it was the time of rebirth and assurance (as much as possible) for successful agriculture and also hunting and gathering.  We moderns do not understand the importance of this to the ancients.  We can just go to the store and get food any time, and have artificial lighting to make up for the lack of light during the dark months.  We can also set our thermostats to remain comfortable during cold weather.  Back then, only naked fire could provide heat and light during winter, and for survival you ate only what you put back during harvest or were able to hunt with spears during winter.

Interestingly, the very word “Easter” is of pagan derivation.  There was a goddess in British mythology named Eostre, and she is believed to be a goddess of a radiant dawn, an allusion to the vernal equinox in that the day and night were of equal length, and that the days were continuing to increase in length.  Her month was roughly the modern April, and in English it has been retained for the highest holy day in Christendom.   I find this to be extremely ironic.  Most other languages use some derivation of pascha.

An interesting association betwixt many spring festivals is the fixation on eggs.  That is not really that surprising, since eggs are pretty much the fundamental symbol of fertility and rebirth.  Just about all ancient cultures in western Asia had some sort of an association, and the eggs were often dyed, just like we dye them now.  However, the history of dying eggs may be a little more sinister in its origins than it is now.  Some years ago I read a rather long report about this topic, but I have looked hither and yon for it so can not completely vouch for the veracity of what I am about to say.

In many western Asian cultures, child sacrifice was not uncommon.  As a matter of fact, many Biblical scholars believe that the story about Abraham preparing to sacrifice Issac to God but at the last minute getting a substitute (a ram) after being told by an angel not to kill his son was the renouncement of child sacrifice for the Jews.  Those things I can say with certainty.  What is a little more uncertain is that the report that I read indicated that eggs were painted red with the blood of sacrificed children for the spring celebration.  IF this is so, then we might want to look at the custom of dyeing eggs for Easter with a different outlook.  Once again, I can not find the reference for this.  If anyone knows where it is, I would be beholden to you if you would let us know in a comment.

In any event, the custom of dyeing eggs at springtime is pretty much universal in western Asian culture, and it has carried on to modern times with Easter eggs.  There are some other connexions with eggs and spring festivals that are peculiar to the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Hard boilt eggs dipped in salt water are part of the Seder, the holy meal in Judaism at Passover.  Since the the original Good Friday corresponded with the date of Passover, eggs became associated with the Christian Easter as well.

Let us take a moment to think about the association of eggs in very ancient spring festivals to the modern practice of decorating them for Easter.  I promised in a couple of comments last week to work Doctor Who and Star Trek into this discussion, so here we go.  Human civilization is much like the Borg from Star Trek most of the time.  What I mean by this is that as one civilization becomes dominant over older ones, they tend to assimilate at least some of the customs of the older civilization (which often had populations greater than the conquerors).  The same thing holds for religions.  As Judaism began to become dominant in western Asia, some of the customs were assimilated, including eggs for the Seder, and when Christianity began to become dominant, eggs came with it for Easter.  Thus, there was a transference of custom.  the Borg say, when about to assimilate, that the victims’ diversity will be incorporated into the Borg, thus increasing the strength of the Borg collective.

The Daleks from Doctor Who take quite a different approach.  Instead of assimilation, their catchphrase is:

Seek, locate, exterminate!

Any lifeform that is not Dalek is summarily executed rather than assimilated.  This is not as common historically, but there are far too many instances of it for comfort with human nature.  One famous one was the destruction of Carthage by Rome, a destruction so complete that salt (a relatively valuable material at the time) was sewn into the soil there to prevent any useful crop from being grown.  The Romans did not kill all of the Carthaginians, but rather took lots of them as slaves, not exactly assimilation.  The Holocaust is more Dalek-like, when the Nazis tried to their utmost not to assimilate, but to exterminate an entire religious/ethnic group.  The United States is not free of guilt regarding extermination, either.  Beginning with Andrew Jackson, the major effort to “relocate” Indians in what is now the southern United States was really more of an attempt to exterminate than an actual relocation.  By the way, that policy was continued for many years.  Well I did it!  I actually talked about the Borg and the Daleks in a serious fashion.

Another association that goes back a long time is that of rabbits and Easter.  Actually, it is not really rabbits, but more specifically hares, that are associated with Easter.  Hares are related to rabbits (the North American jack rabbit is actually a hare, to make things even more confusing), but differ in a couple of ways.  Hares tend to have longer ears and hind legs than rabbits, but the part of it significant to Easter is that hares are born with their eyes open, while rabbits are born with their eyes closed.  This has significance, but it goes all the way back to ancient Egypt (and perhaps further back).  The ancient Egyptian word for hare, un, can also mean “period” or “cycle”.  The open eyes (making them “the open eyed watcher of the skies”) along with their nocturnal habits make them associated with the moon in the first place, and the alternative meaning of their name also associate them with the moon.  Since Easter is reckoned using the lunar calendar, this makes sense.  Both rabbits and hares are famously fertile, making them like eggs a symbol of fertility and new birth, so their association with spring makes sense.

There are lots more customs for Easter, some also very ancient.  Wearing new clothes on Easter Sunday comes from an older belief that it was unlucky NOT to wear at least one new thing, and this belief goes back a long time, once again ritualistic actions that symbolize the renewal that spring brings.  The same idea applies to the now obsolete custom of lighting a new fire on Easter, either by a fire drill or with flint and steel, the new fire being put into a freshly cleaned fireplace, thus replacing the old.

There are some customs that are less wholesome.  The one that stands out to me is the custom of eating ham on Easter.  This custom is from historical times, specifically during the time in England before Henry VIII assumed control of the church.  English Catholics would specifically eat pork because Jews could not, and thus rubbed in the contempt that they had for the Jews.  It is now just a harmless custom, but like dyed eggs, has its origins in something less than wholesome.

Both the Eastern and Western Church celebrated Easter in big ways (the Eastern Church still uses the Julian calendar to calculate the date, so most of the time they do not coincide, but sometimes they do).  Some of the early protestants were loathe to imitate anything Catholic, so lots of them just completely ignored it.  Much of the United States was settled by people with those views, and except for Virginia (originally settled by seekers of fortune, not religious zealots) and Louisiana (settled primarily by Catholics), Easter was not often observed at all.  The Lutherans and the Episcopalians celebrated Easter, but most of the country had been settled by Puritans, who absolutely would not do so.

It was not until the horror of the Civil War that Easter began to be widely celebrated in the United States.  Because of the ideas of rebirth and renewal, a divided Nation was desperate for healing.  Since then, most Protestant denominations make a big deal of Easter, but some still refuse to celebrate it.  In particular, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not keep Easter, and the Quakers do not emphasize it to any large degree in most cases.  The Quaker view is that all days are God’s day, and Easter is no better nor no less a day of God than any other day.  Some denominations, rather than celebrate Easter, sort of blend Jewish and Christian tradition and celebrate the Passover as a remembrance of the Last Supper and thus the sacrifice of Christ, rather than a celebration of His resurrection.

I hope that this short look into the pagan and ancient origins of Easter has been interesting.  I certainly learned quite a little doing the research for it.  Remember, if you know of the reference about infants’ blood being used to dye eggs, please let us know in a comment.  Well, you have done it again!  You have wasted many perfectly good einsteins of photons reading this infertile piece.  I usually insert a joke here, but instead have a special comment, once again about the Fox “News” Channel.  Please contribute liberally to comments, questions, or corrections to this piece.  I always learn more than I could ever hope to teach in writing this series through the comments.  Tips and recs are also always welcome as well.

Tonight’s special comment is about the Fox “News” Channel reader, the incredibly stupid Trace Gallagher.  Last week they had a piece about Easter, and Gallagher repeatedly spoke of the “crucification” of Christ.  Not once, as a slip of the tongue, but EVERY time that he said what should have been “crucifixion” he used his incorrect term instead, and it must have been at least half a dozen times.  Now, I do not claim to be a Bible scholar, but I do like to think that I have a fair command of English.  Evidently, Mr. Gallagher knows little about either.

Warmest regards,

Doc

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5 comments

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  1. roots of modern celebrations?

    Warmest regards,

    Doc

  2. joke that I hid in the poll?

    Warmest regards,

    Doc

  3. and for the one about Sarah Jane last night.  I very much appreciate them.

    Warmest regards,

    Doc

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