I’m sure that most of us subconsciously regard the year’s traditional festivals as wholly “ours” – well those that have morphed into “tradition” over the centuries at least. The others are fascinating side-events (to us, that is) imported by many cultures that have settled here. That’s almost every culture, of course; together comprising our westernised population: show me the ‘pure’ Brit, uncoloured by DNA from outside our borders, please.
Traditional Christian festivals certainly didn’t originate here; unsurprisingly because Christianity didn’t originate here either. Remember the English hymns we sang at school dedicated to events in far-off places with strange sounding names? The festivals that did occur here were of course ancient and Pagan. These were so indelibly ingrained in the minds of the population that early devotees of the ‘New Religion’ were met with a problem: that of God’s irresistible force colliding with the immovable Pagan object. So, a compromise was reached – the Christians conceded that the celebrations, rites and festivities could continue (a token gesture as frankly they weren’t going to go away), but suddenly they became “Christian” in nature – with a suitable make-over of acceptability, and without some of the Pagan excesses.
This brings around to the encroaching Easter period, where a resurrected Jesus sits alongside the Easter Bunny and a collection of eggs in our collective consciousness, seemingly without question or any sense of awkwardness. Familiarity has rendered this unlikely combination “normal”. It just “is”. The Bunny in question is considered by most of us to be the wild hare, who’s “mad” combative antics (in competition for mates) herald the arrival of Spring and who (along with those eggs) has become a long standing symbol of fertility; an important issue in the season-bound Pagan tradition. Alternatively, another school of thought claims an early association between the Virgin Mary and (somewhat counter-intuitively) the symbol of the rabbit, with Jacob Grimm (one of the famous brothers), speculating on the solely Pagan origins. Eggs are strong symbols of fertility throughout cultures around the world and are embraced by some Christians as symbols of the Resurrection. It seems that the Christian/Pagan mix varies according to whom you ask. Beth Allison Barr on Patheos asserts:-
“So let me say it again, Easter is a Christian holiday. Similarities with pagan practices may exist, but the most direct links come from the medieval Christian world.”
Like most Russian variations on tradition, Easter has interesting twists of it’s own – which we’ll come to later. Although Christianity reached old Kievan-Russ in the 9th Century, via the efforts of Greek-Byzantine missionaries, the few early adopters looked out nervously across a land of seemingly unassailable Pagan rituals and beliefs. Mass conversion had to come from the top; the presiding royal family.
Vladimir 1st (aka ‘The Great’) changed the course of Russian history in 988 AD by converting to the new faith – famously choosing Byzantine orthodoxy over Judaism (because of the latter’s dietary limitations), Islam (similar, plus the exclusion of alcohol!) and Catholicism (because the ceremonies weren’t as spectacular!). His Christian-convert Grandmother; Princess Olga of Kiev also played an influential role in a decision, which was no doubt greatly encouraged by his proposed marriage into the Royal Byzantine house. This – to the beautiful Anna, sister of the emperor, on condition that he convert, – of course. Ancient courtly marriages were more about politics and alliances, rather than such trivialities as “love” – attraction of course was a bonus. “Sign me up to a religion where I can eat, drink, party and have beautiful women” – he probably didn’t say, but frankly who knows?
More seasonal shenanigans next time.