I was recently approached by the editor of a local expat magazine to write a feature article for their April/May edition. The brief was to write something about Easter, so I quickly informed her that I am not Christian, but I am an ancient historian and I could do something on the pagan origins of many Easter traditions, if she’d like. The editor thought that it would be an interesting perspective and so I set to work, just hoping that I could find some kind of expat/Thailand angle as I went. As you’ll see, I soon found my ‘angle’, and the article became much more than just a report on the origins of Easter traditions (at least, I hope it did!) The magazine, “In Touch”, is available only to advertisers and members of the Australia New Zealand Women’s Group, here in Thailand, so I thought I’d post the article here, since it went into print today. “Celebrating Spring!” is my first attempt at feature writing, and I must say that, compared to fiction, it felt rather like schoolwork, but I was happy with what I came up with in the end. I hope you enjoy it.
One of the most identifiably different things about living in another country and culture is the change in the festival calendar. When living in a Buddhist country, like Thailand, there are so many colourful festivals to enjoy and religious traditions to try to appreciate, and that is exciting, but the other side of that coin is a lack of public celebration of your own cultural traditions. Easter particularly, it seems, is a Christian holiday which has not taken off in Asia (unlike Christmas, if superficially) and I imagine that, while it would not be difficult to keep up the solemn, particularly religious elements of the Paschal Season, it must be difficult to buoy the same sense of community celebration, come Easter Sunday morning, as at home. Of course, you can make sure that you celebrate in your own home, get together with expat friends who also share your festival, but it’s not the same when, outside your home (including at work because there is no public holiday), there is little or no recognition that it is a special time – or is there?
Living in the Antipodes, where the religious calendar is not in sync with the seasons of its originating hemisphere, it is easy to forget that there is more to Easter than the Christian narrative. It is, of course, the most important religious festival for many Christians and I wish to take nothing from that, but Easter also falls upon one of the most important times in the agricultural calendar: the start of the growing season. All but the most orthodox of Christians celebrate Easter with many traditions that have their origins in Springtime celebrations going back to pre-Christian times. In fact, the English word “Easter” comes directly from “Oestre”, the Anglo-Saxon name of the pre-Christian European Goddess of Spring and fertility (whose symbol was the equilateral cross and for whom hot cross buns were originally made!) In Thailand, few locals are not directly connected to a farming family and community, even when living and working in Bangkok, so their religious festivals, though Buddhist, are still very much about praying for a good and safe growing season, just like some of our Easter traditions. If we look at the origins of many of the European Easter traditions, it is possible to see that the two festivals have much in common, and, in doing so, Christians could feel more connected to the culture in which they currently live, rather than isolated. Let’s take a look at the main, non-religious parts of the Easter festival.
All over Europe, people have long come together at Easter to decorate eggs, whether in solid colours, as in Greece, or with astonishing, intricate, batik-like patterns, as in Poland and the Ukraine. The foil-wrapped chocolate eggs that flood shops back home, seemingly earlier each year, are the descendants of these traditions. Those of us raised in Christian households, or who sat through the various Religious Instruction classes at school, were taught some variation on the following theme: eggs represent new life and, at Easter, the new life that Easter Eggs symbolize the new life brought to us all by the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus. That is, of course, true for Christians, but why are eggs considered a symbol of new life in the first place? The answer to that question goes back to pre-history and is far from exclusive to Christianity.
Before artificial heating, eggs were not laid over winter, it was just too cold, and the sight of egg-filled nests was a symbol that the Earth was warm enough to begin nurturing new life again. If it was warm enough for eggs, especially for ground-laid eggs, the ground was soft enough to till and would soon be warm enough for seeds to germinate. The laying of eggs was a direct indication that the dangerous Winter was over, and the fields would soon be filled with food for the coming year - certainly something to celebrate and celebrate they did, with a feast of eggs!
The Easter Bunny & the Egg Hunt
Now that we know what the eggs are about, what about the Easter Bunny? What on Earth does a rabbit have to do with eggs? To be honest, rabbits have nothing to do with it – the Easter Bunny is actually a hare.
Unlike rabbits, hares do not burrow. Hares build ‘forms’, a shallow depression in the ground or flattened grass which looks much like a bird’s nest. People walking the moors would often see the weather-hardy hares sleeping in their forms, but then, come Spring, the forms would be filled with eggs. Perhaps because people were not quite so sure of biology, or perhaps it was a story which delighted children, but the legend grew that hares laid eggs. Of course the truth, of which I tend to think the adults were fully aware, was that ground-laying birds, particularly the Lapwing (also known as the Plover), make their ground nests out of similar shallow depressions and grass, in the same moor-country that hares inhabit. Often, a Lapwing will simply move into a ‘vacant’ hare’s nest to lay their eggs and the very nest that may have been occupied by a hare one day, could be filled with eggs the next. You can see where it is likely the Easter Egg hunt originated. The only way to harvest these eggs was to, carefully, wander the fields, looking under clumps of blown over grasses for eggs in the nests.
Since Plovers only lay in Spring, their eggs were a traditional Spring celebration food for millennia. Unfortunately for the Plover/Lapwing, their eggs are particularly rich and delicious so they were also Easter delicacies for anyone who could afford to send for them. After Queen Victoria took a public liking to the delicacy, and Mrs. Beaton provided plover’s eggs recipes for inclusion in the traditional Easter menu, the harvesting of the eggs became commercial on a scale such that Lapwings became in danger of extinction. In 1926, the Lapwing Act was passed prohibiting such commercial harvests and helped to increase numbers again, briefly. Today, Lapwing numbers are still low, and declining each year, but mostly due to modern farming practices which deny them their traditional habitat.
Spring cleaning is a tradition most of us will know, which comes from our cold-weather roots. After the snowy months, during which opening the house to the cold air for long was dangerous, Spring brought a chance to clean and air out the house. Even though Australian Winters are milder than European ones, we still feel the bubble of excitement that the warmer weather brings, and respond to the urge to open the house that has been heater-warmed for the Winter months, clean it up and air it out.
People ‘of the Book’, undertake spiritual Spring Cleanings, too. Many Christians participate in Lent in the weeks leading up to Easter, in which they forego one or more activities or foods which are considered unhealthy, unclean or sinful. During the remembrance of Passover, observant Jews refrain from ingesting leavened foods (chametz) and must also clean their house of them, so the house is cleaned and there is often a “chametz hunt” (parents hide crumbs and children hunt for them), the night before Passover begins.
Here in Thailand, the ground does not freeze under snow, but the Flood Season is often dangerous and it is certainly a fallow time. At Songkran, Thais celebrate the end of the Flood Season and the beginning of the farming New Year. The soil is dry enough to be planted again, and water becomes a friend, not a foe. They can take control of the water and revel in it by having water fights, in a joyous, community prayer that Summer will not be too harsh or too dry, so that the crops will grow and their families and community will thrive. Thailand also has a Spring Cleaning to mark their traditional New Year. The day, or days before Songkran begins, Thais clean out their houses, which have been through the often devastating Flood Season, and burn the refuse in a rite of renewal and spiritual purification before the water fight fun begins!
Of course, Easter and Songkran have very different religious narratives but, beyond those, the festivals are both joyous celebrations of the re-birth of the growing year as the earth warms up in Europe, dries up in South East Asia and is once again capable of nurturing new life. Perhaps, rather than feeling more isolated during our own traditional festive times, those of us from European traditions (whether religious or secularly inclined) can look to the local festivals and join in whole-heartedly, knowing that reliance on the Earth and its bounty is something which unites us all. Happy Springtime!
** Image Credit: 'Hare' by Bill Worthington, from 'The Druid Animal Oracle' by Phillip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm