Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide. – A.E. Houseman
On numerous occasions I’ve written of the way in which Christianity transformed older pagan holidays into Christian ones, but Easter is unusual in that it actually retained the name (in English, at least) and nearly all of the symbolism of its pagan antecedents. In my column of March 21st you read of Ostara, and probably recognized its resemblance to the word “Easter”. Even the Christian rationale for the holiday, the resurrection of Christ from the dead, is clearly related to the pagan celebration of the rebirth of Nature, so the symbols of the spring festival were easily adapted into the Christian one of spiritual rebirth. Flowers and eggs feature prominently in both Christian and pagan celebrations, and the Easter Bunny is of course merely a softened, stylized March hare. The association of the Osterhase (Easter hare) with Easter eggs (they were originally two separate traditions) originated in the Rhineland and spread throughout Germany by the beginning of the 16th century, and like the “Groundhog Day” custom was introduced to the United States by German settlers (the so-called “Pennsylvania Dutch”).
Right about now you may be wondering why Easter, if it’s derived from the vernal equinox celebration, occurs so long after it. Well, it doesn’t always; this year it’s almost as late as it can get (the absolute latest is April 25th), but in other years it could be as early as March 22nd. The reason for this is that Jesus was crucified on the Jewish Passover and Christians believe he rose from the dead on the following Sunday; the Christian holiday was thus calculated so as to always fall on the Sunday after Passover, and in most European languages the holidays share a name. Since the Jewish liturgical calendar is lunar (actually lunisolar since it is also calculated from some solar events), the date of Easter is also derived by lunar means. Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring; if the equinox falls on a Saturday and there is a full moon that night, Easter is the very next day (March 22nd), but if the full moon falls just barely before the equinox (as happened this year), it’s another month before it comes around again. The first full moon of spring this year was last Monday (the 18th); this was Passover so today, the first Sunday following, is Easter. To complicate matters even further the date of the full moon is derived from tables rather than observation, and so may vary from the true astronomical event by as much as two days.
Easter is the most important event in the ecclesiastical year, which means that in the days when the Church dominated Europe it was the most important date in the year, period. In New Orleans the Church remained powerful into the 20th century, so just as the police were required to clear the French Quarter of revelers at midnight on Mardi Gras in order to preserve the sanctity of Ash Wednesday, so they were ordered to crack down on all vices during Holy Week (the week stretching from Palm Sunday to Easter, which contains Holy Thursday and Good Friday). Up until the 1970s bars, strip clubs and the like could expect to be raided at some point during that week, and a great show was always made of arresting streetwalkers and setting up “sting” operations for escorts. With the advent of more rigid licensing requirements in the early 1980s the bar and club raids largely became a thing of the past (though I am told that a disproportionate number of surprise “health inspections” and the like still occur at that time of year), but the harassment of prostitutes continued up until the time I owned my service (though it was not nearly as vigorous as it had been in past times and may have vanished since Hurricane Katrina). We were always extra-wary of calls received during Holy Week, which was especially bad since that tends to be a slow week already (times around “family” holidays always are). Many older girls simply took the week off, just to be safe.
But recently I’ve found myself thinking not about that period in my life, but a much earlier one. When I was but a nubile young maid who had not yet (as the Bible puts it) known man, we only had access to four television channels and one (WWL) was owned by Loyola University (which is in turn owned by the Jesuits). So each year during Holy Week (especially Easter weekend) one could be sure there would be more Bible movies on the air than one could possible watch. The Ten Commandments, The Robe, Ben-Hur, Sodom and Gomorrah and many others (some broadcast by the networks and others in syndication) filled the schedule, and since I was a certifiable Technicolor sword-and-sandal epic junkie I always watched as many as I could. Needless to say many of them prominently featured Roman characters or (like The Silver Chalice) took place mostly in Rome, and such is the power of association that around this time of year I often find myself thinking of the Romans. And that, dear readers, is how Messalina ended up as the subject of yesterday’s column. To all my Christian readers (and non-Christians who celebrate it as a secular holiday), Happy Easter!