The name “Easter” honors the Anglo Saxon goddess of dawn, whose favorite animal companion was the hare. Now hares, like rabbits, aren’t exactly known for celibacy (to whit, the high school expression, to “bang like a bunny”), hence they make the perfect symbol of the season. After the hard times of winter, spring—by any name—was worth celebrating (and here we’d do well to recall that baby chicks, little bunnies, lambs and other adorable barnyard entities are actually born in the spring). The egg motif, again symbolic of birth, predates Christianity, and was used by ancient Egyptians and Greeks in their fertility cults. It would be cynical to point out that each spring, hens just tend to lay a lot of eggs, and somebody had to invent something to do with this ovoid glut. Nature was essentially the biological metaphor for Christ’s return from the dead—and vice versa. It was a good fit, and the early Christian marketing geniuses knew it.
So did later Christian marketing geniuses, guys with names like Macy and Wanamaker. Easter – the most exploited excuse for spending since (you got it) Christmas, moved from a religious ritual to a retail rite of spring, thanks to the Victorian mania for interior decoration. On the East Coast, waves of European immigrants, especially Catholics, brought with them an operatic style of church decor that was nothing if not eye-catching. Suddenly Methodist and Episcopal churches, feeling inadequate, decided that they too could gussy up the alter. Over-the-top floral displays became liturgically de rigueur. It was a quick jump from the Easter lily as religious icon, to the lily as marketing logo. Stores as shrines of consumerism, consecrated by lilies, crucifixes and—thanks to quaint folkloric habits of German and Eastern European immigrants—rabbits, eggs and chickens imploded with profits—voila! shopping becomes a means of salvation right up there with the Eucharist and Sunday mass.
Confectioners, ever the pliant concubines of mercantile lust, helped supply the retail dealers with a glucose fix big enough to turn on every man, woman and child in the First World. Once the Cadbury folks upped the ante by “inventing” the chocolate egg, we all became born-again eggheads. The ancient Christian day of triumph-turned-sugar frenzy detoured into schlock exploitation when the 1960s movie Where the Boys Are suggested Easter as the proper occasion for seaside copulatory rituals. Easter now massages the national hormones, foreplay to the tide of testosterone that crests on Memorial Day. And the great karmic wheel spins full circle.
How big is Easter? Big enough to blur the alleged separation of church and state — there is a celebrated Easter Egg Hunt each year on the White House lawn. Big enough to initiate mass purchases of day-glo pink baby chicks who will die within four days at the hands of suburban children. Big enough to produce a sudden rash of bunnies who will end up on bistro menus once they reach adolescence. Big enough for Martha Stewart to have created a $20 copper bunny cookie cutter with which to whip us into a froth of masochistic housewifery.
Big enough to prevent us from even thinking about serving braised rabbit on April 8.