Easter: sacred or secular?

By Anna Webster

With Easter eggs nowadays emerging in supermarkets immediately after Christmas, it is easy to conclude that the sacred message of Easter has been drowned out by the UK’s secular obsession with commerce, profit and, of course, chocolate.

In a country that is still considered officially Christian, with 60% of its population identifying themselves as Christians in 2011 UK Census, supermarkets last year were accused of being “anti-religious” in their refusal to stock Easter Eggs with an explicitly Christian message – their excuse being that the eggs did not sell well in previous years. So, again, the Easter message must submit to the primary importance of profit. Indeed, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, expressed deep regret in one of his Easter sermons that nearly a third of British children in one survey claimed that Easter marked the birth of the Easter bunny, whilst the other half were clueless that it had any religious significance at all.

Nearly a third of British children in one survey claimed that Easter marked the birth of the Easter bunny

So what is the religious significance of Easter? For Christians, Easter is a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Even more important than Christmas, it marks God’s forgiveness of mankind and the possibility of eternal life. Essentially, Easter is a celebration of God’s triumph over death. But what does this have to do with Easter eggs?

There are many theories as to why eggs have become the symbol of Easter. One story claims that Mary Magdalene brought cooked eggs to share with the other women at the tomb of Jesus; the eggs in her basket miraculously turned a brilliant red when she saw the risen Christ. Early Christians of Mesopotamia also stained eggs red in memory of the blood of Christ shed at the crucifixion; the Christian Church then adopted the custom and eggs became of symbol of the resurrection.

However, it seems now that Easter eggs and Easter Bunnies are less associated with Jesus’ Resurrection, and more to the general idea of rebirth and new life. As Carl Priestland, chief economist of the American Apparel Manufacturing Association, said, “Now there is less emphasis on Easter and more just on Spring”. With a quick Google search of ‘Happy Easter Card’ colourful images of chicks, bunnies and eggs appear, with the cross nowhere in sight.

Ultimately, the religious significance of Easter seems to be fading even faster than that of Christmas. In 2013, almost twice as many people in the UK attended Church of England Christmas services than Easter services, with 2.5 million people attending the former and only 1.3 million attending the latter. This could be partly because Christmas continues to be more of a family occasion in which the ritual of attending church is still observed, even perhaps when the family’s faith has declined.

Alexandra Rust

Moreover, whilst Christmas and Easter are both meant to celebrate the triumph of life over death, the birth of a baby – and its connotations of children and motherhood – resonates naturally with the secular public. Although Easter communicates the promise of new and eternal life, a far more profound message than Christmas, this of course rests on a deeper Christian faith. Harvey Cox, a Baptist minister and Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, confirms this when he says, “It’s easier for people to celebrate a holiday about a mother and child than it is to celebrate it about someone coming back from the dead.”

This explains why, in America, only a third as many flowers are ordered at Easter as at Christmas or on Mother’s Day, despite flowers being a key image of new life. The American Telephone & Telegraph Company reports that on Easter the number of long-distance calls increases by roughly 10 percent over the average Sunday; the increase for Christmas is almost 50 percent, and for Mother’s Day, 40 percent.

The Easter message in America seems to have faded even more than in the UK

Interestingly, Peter Steinfels, a writer for the New York Times, calls Easter the “misfit among American holidays”.  He claims that, ironically, although America seems too religious to ignore Easter, it is also “too secular to absorb it comfortably as a national holiday.” Indeed, its TV shows frequently have Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas specials, but never Easter specials. Its Thanksgiving and Christmas parades are phenomenal, yet its Easter parade used to simply consist of elegant people promenading along Fifth Avenue after the Easter church services.

Thus, the Easter message in America seems to have faded even more than in the UK. Tellingly, the Easter page on the New York City website says “Easter in New York is not very big, the shops are open as usual. Also, you should know that in the United States no Easter Monday is celebrated, unlike in the U.K. […] During Easter in New York you will not be hindered; almost all the shops are open, this also applies to Good Friday as it is not a public holiday.” In a country where millions of its population preach an intense servitude and devotion to their Lord Jesus, they will not even acknowledge his crucifixion and resurrection as a public holiday.

Easter has been almost entirely secularised. However, in the UK at least, it does go beyond religious tradition and commercial gain in various positive ways. For example, it brings the family together as well as local communities, in local Easter egg hunts, for instance. One aspect of the Easter tradition has been increasingly welcomed recently by both the religious and non-religious public: Lent. Few people follow the original tradition of fasting or giving up meat, yet many people see it as an opportunity to practise self-control, will-power and to resist temptation by giving up chocolate, alcohol, smoking and the like. For the non-religious, Lent is not an occasion to cleanse the soul but to cleanse the body from bad habits and daily gluttony.

At a time when brands such as Cadbury and Nestle have dropped the word ‘Easter’ from the front of their chocolate eggs, has Easter become a dirty word? A poll done by the Meaningful Chocolate Company suggests not, as four in five people voted to keep ‘Easter’ on the eggs. Overall, even if the religious meaning of Easter is gradually being forgotten, I believe Easter will remain meaningful as the British public continue to mark the holiday as a celebration of life, spring and rebirth.

Photographs: Tanay Mondal via Flickr; Alexandra E Rust via Flickr

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