The Easter Bunny must die! – fear and loathing at the Guardian

When I was young, I used to believe that the British press was independent, and derided claims of establishment control as being conspiracy theories.

Since those happy days, I have watched several examples of “three line whips”, where suddenly the press starts to talk in set phrases.

The first that I recall was when the establishment decided to create a national lottery.  No expressions of dissent were tolerated, and the phrase “national lottery to raise money for good causes” appeared everywhere, and was recited, dalek-like, on all TV stations.  In actual fact the lottery created lots of nice well-paid jobs for the establishment, and “good causes” were pretty much an afterthought.

Another was when the establishment appointed Rowan Williams, an obscure Welsh bishop, as Archbishop of Canterbury.  Suddenly there was a media blitz.  Everywhere, in every newspaper, every TV channel, his name, when mentioned, was qualified as “holy”.  You couldn’t get away from it.  Even the dirtiest tabloids praised his “holiness”.  And why was he so deserving?  Well, although they did not say so, he was appointed because he had “ordained” homosexuals, at a time when all the bishops – including himself – had agreed not to, and so was distinctly dodgy as a candidate in the first place.

A further establishment tradition is to mark major Christmas festivals by running knocking campaigns.  Every Christmas, every Easter, one or the other organs is put up to attack the Christians.  I gather that BBC Radio 4 is currently doing a series which I have seen described as ridiculously false; but I haven’t heard it.  Usually one or the other of the major newspapers will run an article slagging off the Christians and debunking their religion.

This year, the baton has been picked up by the Guardian newspaper in London.  On Easter Saturday they published an article by a certain Heather McDougall, it rejoices in the title The Pagan Roots of Easter.  [CORRECTION: my mistake: this is an old article from 2010, which was passed to me as new]

Easter is, of course, the festival of Christ’s death and resurrection.  Malicious or dishonest – but unscholarly – writers all over the internet peddle falsehoods about how it is *really* just a pagan festival in drag.

The object, of course, is to undermine the truth claims of the Christian religion.  The suggestion is an insinuation of borrowing, and therefore of falsity.  Yet, fairly obviously, the question of when Christ died is a historical question, amenable to standard scholarly methods.  If something happened on a particular date, is it relevant to ask whether something else happened, or was supposed to happen, at some other time on the same date?  But to ask the question is to answer it, and answer it in the negative.

But logic has little to do with this, so the argument is kept as an insinuation.  Few of these nasty individuals know much history, even about their own argument, as otherwise they would know that claims that catholic festivals were merely pagan festivals renamed was a stock argument of 19th century anti-papist invective.

So what does the Guardian – the house magazine of the British Establishment – have to say?

Let’s have a look at a few quotes:

Today, we see a secular culture celebrating the spring equinox, whilst religious culture celebrates the resurrection.

Do we?  I have never met any normal person “celebrating the spring equinox”.

As for “religious culture” – why can’t the author say “Christians”?  Because it sure as heck isn’t the Muslims doing so!  But the reason, of course, is animosity.

However, early Christianity made a pragmatic acceptance of ancient pagan practises, most of which we enjoy today at Easter.

Unfortunately this vague claim is entirely without evidence, to the best of my knowledge.  And what follows will make anyone with any knowledge of antiquity blush!

The general symbolic story of the death of the son (sun) on a cross (the constellation of the Southern Cross) and his rebirth, overcoming the powers of darkness, was a well worn story in the ancient world.

Yes.  She really suggested that a narrative relying on son/sun is ancient; something about the ancient world.  That the ancients did not speak English she does not, seemingly, know.   Likewise I thought everybody knew that the Southern Cross is only visible south of the equator.

But the core claim – that crucified gods were everywhere in the ancient world – is bunk.

There were plenty of parallel, rival resurrected saviours too. …

I’m sure every educated reader groaned at this.   Did this woman do NO research at all?

Mithras was born on what we now call Christmas day, and his followers celebrated the spring equinox. Even as late as the 4th century AD, the sol invictus, associated with Mithras, was the last great pagan cult the church had to overcome.

It’s hard not to feel contempt here.  No ancient source associates Mithras with 25 December.  No ancient source says that they “celebrated” the spring equinox.  The late Roman state sun god, Sol Invictus, was not “associated” with Mithras.  And the idea that it was the “last great pagan cult” is ridiculous.

In an ironic twist, the Cybele cult flourished on today’s Vatican Hill. Cybele’s lover Attis, was born of a virgin, died and was reborn annually. This spring festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday, rising to a crescendo after three days, in rejoicing over the resurrection.

But, strangely, no ancient text refers to any such resurrection, except Firmicus Maternus in 350 AD, who also tells us that this was part of a ploy by the cultists to evade the attentions of the police by pretending that Attis was just the corn which dies and rises.  For the cult of Attis was a seedy one indeed.  Attis was not “born of a virgin”, in the sense that the reader is intended to understand; his generation myth is considerably more dodgy than that.

And why, pray, is it “ironic” that a pagan cult should exist on the Vatican hill, the location of a mundus?  The answer, I fear, is that Miss McDougall knows nothing about Roman paganism at all.

There was violent conflict on Vatican Hill in the early days of Christianity between the Jesus worshippers and pagans who quarrelled over whose God was the true, and whose the imitation.

This, of course, is codswallop.  The early Christians were an illegal cult, and hardly in a position to object violently to anything.

What is interesting to note here is that in the ancient world, wherever you had popular resurrected god myths, Christianity found lots of converts. So, eventually Christianity came to an accommodation with the pagan Spring festival.

It is certainly true that Christians in the late 4th century came to an “accomodation” with paganism; if we use the word to mean that they made it illegal and destroyed all its temples and banned all its rituals.  Otherwise the claim is nonsense.

Although we see no celebration of Easter in the New Testament, early church fathers celebrated it, and today many churches are offering “sunrise services” at Easter – an obvious pagan solar celebration.

Easter was indeed celebrated by the “early church fathers” – by people like Polycarp, who knew the apostle John personally, for instance.  But not because it was pagan.  Polycarp was executed precisely for refusing to endorse paganism.

I was amused by the claim that people like myself, who get up for an Easter celebration at dawn, do so because of some “pagan solar” element.  Let me reassure the writer.  We get up because we choose to, to worship Christ at the start of a new day.  We do not do so because of some imaginary “pagan solar” celebration!

The date of Easter is not fixed, but instead is governed by the phases of the moon – how pagan is that?

Is the author utterly ignorant of ancient history?  Christ was crucified on the passover.  The passover date was determined by a lunar calendar.  So the date of Easter is likewise determined by the date of 14 Nisan.

How simple is that?  How easy to verify this with a quick Google search?

All the fun things about Easter are pagan. Bunnies are a leftover from the pagan festival of Eostre, a great northern goddess whose symbol was a rabbit or hare. Exchange of eggs is an ancient custom, celebrated by many cultures.

Yet the only reference to “Eostre” is in the Venerable Bede, De ratione temporum.  He makes no mention of bunnies.  The custom is a modern invention.  Again, a few seconds on google would have shown this.

There is a madwoman out there named Acharya S who has industriously circulated falsehoods of this kind.  I’m sure she is hugging herself with glee at being given full play in the house newspaper of the British Establishment.

The sad truth is that the editor of the Guardian doesn’t care.  The point is the narrative.  The narrative is “the Christians to the lion”, as it was in Tertullian’s day.

Let us praise God that, in Britain at least, the Christians have not lost their saltiness, and that the wicked still hate them.

13 thoughts on “The Easter Bunny must die! – fear and loathing at the Guardian

  1. The Oesterhase (Easter Hare) is apparently a German Lutheran thing from the Early Modern era. Because yeah, 17th century Lutherans were big into worshipping pagan fertility bunnies.

    Actually, German folklore includes a lot of German seasonal holiday fairies, animals, old women, witches, angels, etc. who were/are tasked with watching out whether or not people were doing what they were supposed to do. So the Lent fairy punished people who weren’t fasting, the holiday fairies punished people who worked instead of resting on Sundays and important holy days, or who didn’t go to church, etc. Some also were associated with rewards and blessings for people who did the right thing. These seem to have showed up in both Protestant and Catholic areas, although the occasions were somewhat different.

    So likewise, Saint Nicholas and the Easter Hare brought gifts and colored eggs, respectively, to good little children who hadn’t misbehaved before the holiday. This makes a lot of sense to me, because it explains some hidden undercurrents behind the Easter Bunny folklore in the US; but since we’re not German, apparently Santa Claus is all the holiday judge character we need.

  2. The only major holiday that really does deal with the Spring Equinox is the old Persian holiday of Nourooz (found in Iran, Afghanistan, and a few other places). It really is adapted to be Zoroastrian or Christian or Muslim or Jewish, instead of pagan Persian.

    But yeah, that’s not interesting enough.

  3. Interesting – thank you. I always remember, when people talk so certainly of pagan German customs, that the pagan Germans were illiterate so could not have transmitted their beliefs to us in that way. So how do we know any of this?

  4. Easter / Oestre celebration, and whether anyone does or ever did celebrate the solar calendar with pre-dawn pagan frolicking or worship seems, to be contentious in Merry Olde England, but vague reference to origination of hot-cross buns did strike a chord in New England. According to a Lenten meditation book by a recently-deceased Bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, Hot Cross buns are attributed to a English priest! According to THE LITTLE BLACK BOOK – Meditations on the Passion According to Luke:
    “Tradition says that when poor people dropped by the
    Benedictine Abbey of St. Albans in England during the
    Lenten season, they expected to receive some free hot
    soup. But on Good Friday in 1361, they were in for a
    sweet surprise. Fr. Thomas Rockliffe distributed small
    cakes, marked by a sugary cross. Those were soon known
    as ‘hot cross buns.’ The monks had made the buns from
    dough left over after they baked the sacramental bread.
    [History of the Abbey from Henry VIII’s suppression of
    the Abbey and affiliation with the Church of England,
    ended the filler piece.]”
    Seems if that’s really so, Brits would know it! Hmmm?

  5. Thank you. But of course what we need to see is not hearsay, but primary texts. It’s the only way to reign in the stories that circulate. It’s a bit late for me, being medieval, but someone ought to do it. If the above story is true, how do we know?

  6. Apparently the first print mention of the Easter Hare is in this von Frankenau guy’s Satyrae Medicae XX. “De ovis paschalibus” is number 19 and starts on page 396. Latin with extensive German quotes. Here is a reprint from the late 1700s.

    I’m not sure if the guy is writing seriously or tongue in cheek, although it doesn’t really matter for linguistics or folklore purposes, since either way a custom is being mentioned.

  7. Hmm. A satire on Easter eggs? (De ovis paschalibus).

    I’m not sure I’m up to reading a load of Latin and German in Fraktur on this bright morning, but very interesting, and thank you for the link!

  8. So far as I’ve glanced and Googled through it, all the Easter egg source guys seem to be real scholars, who really did say what he quotes them as saying. It makes sense that Easter eggs were a medieval thing throughout Europe, and I know there were plenty of colored egg subtleties at banquets. But somehow I never thought of diverse Easter egg colors in medieval or early modern times, and these writers describe it as a universal custom.

    Brand’s Popular Antiquities (archive.org) has an interesting section on Easter eggs/Pace eggs, too.

  9. Overall, Brand is an interesting book but also depressing. A lot of its sources for English customs are Protestant sources mocking them, and the author joins in, to prove his non-Papist cred. But the book itself is very completist. It’s arranged by the Church year, but also includes other kinds of beliefs and customs along the way.

    And then there are other editions with other editors adding and deleting stuff. The two-volume 1905 edition basically rips the original one up and institutes an alphabetical summary version. The true name of this edition is Faiths and Folklore: A Dictionary.

  10. Thank you so much for investigating this. The 1905 edition of Brand is here. Any idea which edition is the original, and where it is?

    You also referred to other books on Easter eggs – any details of which ones?

  11. I forgot to say the original title! It’s:

    Brand put out in 1810: Observations on popular antiquities, including the whole of Mr. Bourne’s Antiquitates vulgares, with addenda to every chapter of that work.

    This is pretty much arranged as stuff done around the village church.

    Then there is a three-volume enlarged version from the 1870’s, which is Brand and Ellis (a British Museum guy). First volume is the church year, 2nd volume is weddings and funerals, and the third volume is a miscellany.

    Observations on the popular antiquities of Great Britain: chiefly illustrating the origin of our vulgar and provincial customs, ceremonies, and superstitions.

    The beauty of these old books now is that you can often find the quoted books and editions online.

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