When History Is Art: The “True” Meaning Of Easter

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I’ve never been a huge fan of holidays, at least not throughout my adult life. I mean, what kid doesn’t love them? You get time off from school, people often give you gifts, and sometimes you even get to dress up funny or scary and collect free candy. But as an adult, and a “religious” adult in particular, I find myself increasingly less enthused with them.

Christmas was the first to go on my “I so love holidays” list, for reasons I’d rather not digress into. In my experience, every argument given to support observance of holidays can be given in support of living holy everyday. Sure, holidays are good because we get to see friends and family, or because they prompt us to more deeply consider our convictions, or because some of us spend them giving to the poor, but people ought to have these things at heart every single day.

That said, I’m not so unenthused with holidays that I’m beyond wishing well, and after I woke up this morning, I wished my mom a Happy Easter. No sooner than I did, I felt compelled to look into the history of the word. One source wrote:

The name “Easter” originated with the names of an ancient Goddess and God. The Venerable Bede, (672-735 CE.) a Christian scholar, first asserted in his book De Ratione Temporum that Easter was named after Eostre (a.k.a. Eastre). She was the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe. Similarly, the “Teutonic dawn goddess of fertility [was] known variously as Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur, Eastra, Eastur, Austron and Ausos.” Her name was derived from the ancient word for spring: “eastre.”  […]

An alternative explanation has been suggested. The name given by the Frankish church to Jesus’ resurrection festival included the Latin word “alba” which means “white.” (This was a reference to the white robes that were worn during the festival.) “Alba” also has a second meaning: “sunrise.” When the name of the festival was translated into German, the “sunrise” meaning was selected in error. This became “ostern” in German. Ostern has been proposed as the origin of the word “Easter”. [ReligiousTolerance.org]

The more I “learn” about history, the more I realize its similarity to art. I know this might sound weird to some, but I’ll suggest that’s only because we’ve been ingrained with the idea that history is purely or even mostly a factual matter. Sure, there are facts behind history, but there are also facts behind art. The type and size of an artist’s canvas, the medium he or she works with, the culture he or she lives in, and the state of his or her personal life at the time of creation are all factual, empirical elements intrinsically embedded into the meaning of all art.

As with art, a viewer is required to interpret history, and therein lies the opportunity for error. For an added touch of irony, history testifies that the opportunity is ripe.

Much like viewers in a gallery, those who view the canvas of history inevitably process the facts through their own biases, their own deficiencies in knowledge, their own hopes, dreams, and fears. What else can explain why seemingly intelligent and educated people arrive at entirely different and often conflicting interpretations of art and history? If you haven’t recently, go to an art show.  Hipsters contemplating the “true” meaning of an artist’s work is very similar to historians contemplating the “true” history of X.

In fact, you don’t even need to go to an art show to appreciate this correlation between art and history. Did you notice any changes in your internal dialog as you read the cited paragraphs above? I did. As I read the first paragraph, I noticed building swells of distrust and suspicion along the lines of, “Huh… Easter is a paganized Christian holiday just like all the others, Christians have been duped into idol worship, what’s really going on here?” Then, as I read the second paragraph, those swells flattened into a lull of, “Oh, well maybe that’s not the whole story, maybe a simple language error is at least partly to blame, either way I suppose different people celebrate different holidays for different reasons, and that we shouldn’t think in black and white.”

If you had a similar reaction, we now have first-hand experience with our hypothesis that history is like art. I suspect this might be one reason Paul withheld from commanding the observance of holidays when addressing the church at Rome:

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. [Romans 14:5-7]

So, what is the “true” meaning of Easter? What are the “true” roots of the holiday? I don’t know. At best, I know some of the reasons that some people use to support their observance of the holiday. I say that whether religious or secular, we should be very careful of overconfidence in our interpretations. We are all biased and personally involved in human life, and we cannot easily extricate ourselves from our emotional reactions to any set of facts. We need discernment to realize when history is art, if such a realization is even possible at all.

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