Sunday, April 12, 2009

Is Nothing Sacred?

It seems everyone else is doing an Easter post, so maybe I should to. Then again, what other time could I really do an Easter post? Halloween? Doesn't have the same...gravitas, I'd think.

Actually, I'd wanted to write about this for some time, because the subject has come up several times in discussions and debates in person and online. The subject was the nature of Easter and the conflict between secular and sacred traditions associated with this holiday. Some view the secular aspects as harmless, while others were opposed to them categorically, and see those traditions as a corruption, a vile twisting of the truth and true nature of Easter.

Where I live, Easter is emphatically not a holiday. Today was Easter Sunday, and I was up at dawn, and yawning through the front door of work just like every other weekday morning. Aside from quietly wishing a few colleagues "Happy Easter," it was a normal day like any other. No three or four day weekend as I was used to back at home. And there was no big deal about it publicly, but privately was a different story.

There is a story in the Gulf News today about churches and cathedrals in Abu Dhabi and Dubai absolutely overflowing with the faithful this weekend. I saw it myself on Saturday, having arrived early enough to snag on of the remaining pew spots, before the other thousand or so showed up, having to stand in alcoves, hallways, overflowing to the outdoor courtyard. It was, I learned, one of the smaller masses this weekend.

Here Easter seemed to be a big deal in a religious sense. Very little did I ever see reference to the secular side of the Easter holiday, the ever present Easter Bunny and all it's attendant Easter Eggs. I spotted a few of these in a local Spinney's, and picked up a pack or two for my children, but that was about it. Other than that, there was no secular/sacred juxtaposition over the weekend. The same thing, I now realize, as what generally occurs at Christmastime here. While a there is a bit more of the secular tradition present in the Christmas trees, and the odd picture of a Santa, Christmas here is experienced pretty much entirely within a sacred context. It's natural, and normal for everyone I know here, but comes off as abnormal to myself. Why is that?

This is the question that began to bother me. Like I said earlier, I waded into this topic in person and online with various people, a number of whom regard with horror the secular traditions I am so used to, the traditions dissociated with religion. It makes no sense that anyone would want to profane such profound sacred traditions with the hallmarks of kitsch and cheap consumerism. And they're right. Why would anyone want to do that? From this vantage point, it doesn't make any sense.

But in that lay the crux. From this vantage point. In this part of the world, Christianity is only ever a minority, and a small one at that. Christians here never compromise the majority, nor even constitute a plurality. Which means, in effect, they are the minority culture here, surrounded by traditions and ways that are very different from theirs. In that context it makes perfect sense that the faithful would hold so tightly to the core tradition, the sacred tradition. Still, what explains what goes in Europe and North America?

The best I can guess, the dichotomous secular/sacred nature of Christmas and Easter in Europe and North America grew out of two needs. The first was to recognize the Christian tradition prevalent in those parts of the world. While today religious practice is on the wane in Europe, and in parts of North America, there still remains a plurality of the faithful for whom Easter and Christmas have deep and profound meaning. The second need related to the parts of the culture for whom the sacred aspects of Christmas and Easter held little or no significance. What were they to do during those times of the year, those periods of holiday and celebration for the majority of those around them? Sit in their homes and sulk? Hardly fits the mood of either season. And this, I believe, was the impetus for the acceptance of an alternate, secular version of these holidays. The need to belong, if not in the letter, then in spirit. It became a way of fitting in and taking part in joyous and festive occasions.

Which brings me back to those I'd met who took such exception to the secular aspects of Easter, and by extension, Christmas. Were they right? When you get down to it, the major themes arising from both of these important events are birth and rebirth. Life and love. These holy times symbolize great hope, and redemption.

As I sat at home with my family, just the few of us this Easter evening, as we ate quietly, I couldn't keep a certain comparison from springing to mind. My family here had gone to church, and respected the sacred tradition. We celebrated Easter as is done here, and sat together for a quiet meal. On the other side of the world, my father picked up the phone and gave me a call. The whole gang was at his place, perhaps twenty people in all. They'd prepared a massive feast, and everyone was looking forward to it. None of them had gone to church or followed the sacred traditions, yet there they were, as a family, celebrating life and love, birth and rebirth together, in a room filled with laughter.

Can I honestly say that one tradition is better than the other? Or merely different? And in the end, whatever you choose, is not the end result the same?

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