2019-04-22 00:59:23 UTC
Hint: the Puritans were involved.
By Tara Isabella ***@NotoriousTIBtara.firstname.lastname@example.org Mar 29, 2018,
Christians from a variety of traditions will celebrate Easter this
Sunday. Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his
crucifixion. For many Christians, including those from Eastern
Orthodox traditions (who generally celebrate Easter later than Western
Christians, as they use a different calendar), Easter is the most
important Christian holiday of all.
But in North America and Europe, Easter has a diminished cultural
force as a time for secular celebration — its wider cultural cachet
hardly approaches that of Christmas. As Jesuit priest and writer James
Martin wryly wrote for Slate, “Sending out hundreds of Easter cards
this year? Attending way too many Easter parties? ... Getting tired of
those endless Easter-themed specials on television? I didn’t think
So why don’t we celebrate Easter the way we do Christmas? The answer
tells us as much about the religious and social history of America as
it does about either holiday. It reveals the way America’s holiday
“traditions” as we conceive of them now are a much more recent and
politically loaded invention than one might expect.
The Puritans weren’t fans of either holiday
Christmas and Easter were roughly equal in cultural importance for
much of Christian history. But the Puritans who made up the
preponderance of America’s early settlers objected to holidays
altogether. Echoing an attitude shared by the English Puritans, who
had come to short-lived political power in the 17th century under
Oliver Cromwell, they decried Christmas and Easter alike as times of
foolishness, drunkenness, and revelry.
Cotton Mather, among the most notable New England preachers, lamented
how “the feast of Christ’s nativity is spent in reveling, dicing,
carding, masking, and in all licentious liberty ... by mad mirth, by
long eating, by hard drinking, by lewd gaming, by rude reveling!” As
historian Stephen Nissenbaum wrote in The Battle for Christmas,
“Christmas was a season of ‘misrule’ a time when ordinary behavioral
restraints could be violated with impunity.”
Like other feasting days (such as the pre-Lent holiday we now call
Mardi Gras), Christmas was a dangerous time in which social codes
could be violated and social hierarchies upended. (Among the practices
Puritans objected to was the popularity of the “Lord of Misrule,” a
commoner allowed to preside as “king” over the festivities in noble
houses for the day.)
The very nature of having a holiday, furthermore, was seen as
problematic. Rather, the Puritans argued, singling out any day for a
“holiday” implied that celebrants thought of other days as less holy.
Easter, too, was singled out as a dangerous time. A Scottish
Presbyterian minister, Alexander Hislop, wrote a whole book about it:
the 1853 pamphlet The Two Babylons: The Papal Worship Proved to Be the
Worship of Nimrod and His Wife. Using questionable and vague sources,
Hislop argued that the name of Easter derived from the pagan worship
of the Germanic goddess Eostre, and through her the Babylonian goddess
Ishtar. (This claim has persisted into the present day, and is often
cited by those who want us to make Easter more fun and secular. Still,
the evidence for the existence of Eostre in any mythological system —
a single paragraph in the work of an English monk writing centuries
later — let alone actual religious links between Eostre and Easter is
scant at best.)
Hislop decried Easter as a pagan invention, writing: “That Christians
should ever think of introducing the Pagan abstinence of Lent was a
sign of evil; it showed how low they had sunk, and it was also a cause
of evil; it inevitably led to deeper degradation.” Even seemingly
harmless rituals — food, eggs — were signs of demonic evil: “The hot
cross buns of Good Friday, and the dyed eggs of Pasch or Easter
Sunday, figured in the Chaldean rites just as they do now,” he wrote.
Bad history it may have been, but it made good propaganda.
What did the English Puritans, their American counterparts, and this
Scottish Presbyterian have in common? As the title of Hislop’s
pamphlet makes clear, they were all influenced by anti-Catholicism: a
suspicion of rituals, rites, and liturgy they decried as worryingly
pagan. The celebration of religious holidays was associated, for many
of these preachers, with two suspicious groups of people: the poor
(i.e., anyone whose holiday celebrations might be deemed dangerously
licentious or uncontrolled) and “papists.” (Of course, in England and
America alike, those two groups of people often overlapped.)
Christmas got reinvented, but Easter didn’t
So what changed? In the 19th century, Christmas, the secularized,
domestic “family” holiday as we know it today, was reinvented. In his
book, Nissenbaum goes into detail about the cultural creation of
Christmas as a bourgeois, “civilized,” “traditional” holiday in the
English-speaking world. Christmas, Nissenbaum argues, came to be
identified with the preservation (and celebration) of childhood.
Childhood itself was, of course, a relatively new concept, one linked
to the rise of a growing, prosperous middle class in an increasingly
industrialized society, in which child labor was (at least for the
bourgeois) no longer a necessity.
Popular writers helped create a new, tamer, model of Christmas:
Washington Irving’s 1822 Bracebridge Hall stories, which referenced
“ancient” Christmas traditions that were, in fact, Irving’s own
invention; Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem “The Night Before
Christmas”; and, of course, Charles Dickens’s 1843 A Christmas Carol.
Nearly everything we think we know about Christmas, from the modern
image of Santa Claus to the Christmas tree, derives from the 19th
century, specifically, Protestant sources, who redeemed Christmas by
rendering it an appropriate, bourgeois family holiday.
But no such redemption happened for Easter. While it, too, received a
minor family-friendly makeover — Easter eggs, traditionally an act of
charity for the poor, became a treat for children — it didn’t have the
literary PR machine behind it that Christmas did.
Instead, its theological significance intact, Easter has maintained
its status as a religious holiday and — the Easter Bunny and eggs
aside — largely avoided any wider cultural proliferation. A study by
historian Mark Connelly found that at the dawn of the 19th century,
English books referred to the two more or less equally. By the 1860s,
references to Easter were half that of Christmas, a trend that only
continued. By 2000, Christmas was referenced almost four times as
often as Easter. Today, Christmas is a federal holiday in the US, as
is the nearest weekday after, should Christmas fall on a weekend. But
“Easter Monday” gets no such treatment.
Christmas is a more natural fit for a secular holiday than Easter
The reason that Christmas, rather than Easter, became the “cultural
Christian” holiday may well be prosaic. Religion News Service’s Tobin
Grant suggests that the need for something frivolous to break up the
monotony and cold weather rendered the Christmas season, rather than
early spring, the ideal time for a period of celebration.
Or it may be theological. Christmas, with its celebration of the birth
of a child, is a natural fit for a secularized celebration. Dogmatic
Christians and casual semibelievers alike can agree that Jesus Christ,
whether divine or not, was probably a person whose birth was worth
celebrating. Plus, the subject matter makes it ideal for a
child-centered holiday. The centrality of family in Christmas imagery
— the Nativity scene, portraits of the madonna and child — allows it
to “translate” easily into a holiday centered around children and
But the message of Easter, that of an adult man who was horribly
killed, only to rise from the dead, is much harder to secularize.
Celebrating Easter demands celebrating something so miraculous that it
cannot be reduced, as Christmas can, to a heartwarming story about
motherhood; its supernatural elements are on display front and center.
It’s a story about death and resurrection.
But the same qualities that make Easter so difficult to secularize are
also what make it so profound. As Matthew Gambino writes at
CatholicPhilly.com,“That [paradox] is why I love Easter far more than
Christmas. That moveable springtime feast celebrates not the beginning
of the God-man’s life but the conquering of his suffering and ours.
Easter marks the transcendence of death, the road leading beyond this
life into eternity with the Father.”
Christmas as we know it today in the English-speaking world is, for
better or worse, tied up in wider cultural ideas about family and a
specifically Victorian, Protestant iteration of “middle-class values.”
But the mystery of Easter remains strange, profound, and — for some —
off-putting. But as the debate over the “meaning of Christmas” rages
on, it’s nice to have one holiday, at least, where the meaning is