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Jane Ahlin, Published April 07 2012

Ahlin: ‘War on Christmas’ fades away during Easter season

Americans don’t seem worried about a culture war on Easter the way some people get revved up about a war on Christmas. Causing particular distress to the war-on-Christmas contingent is a perception that use of the greeting “Merry Christmas” is in decline – as if that greeting is sacred to the followers of Jesus Christ, while “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” are blasphemous.

Easter causes no such problems. People say, “Happy Easter,” whether they’re thinking about the resurrection of Jesus Christ or about chocolate bunnies or, perhaps, about both. In Easter, the sacred and secular seem to coexist comfortably; at the very least, Christians don’t fear that this triumphant day on the church calendar will give way to an amorphous spring festival. If folks are curious why Santa comes in for so much more grief than the Easter bunny, they don’t bring it up.

Christmas and Easter are the biggies on the Christian calendar and come with distinct messages meant for seekers and the faithful. Yet, shades of those messages also play strong cultural roles. Despite the institutional worries about numbers of churchgoers and believers, Christian ideals echo throughout the culture. An example is the Christmas message to the faithful: God’s greatest gift of love, a savior. That Christian message of limitless love and generosity resonates across societal boundaries to believers and nonbelievers alike. Yes, gift-giving at Christmas too often is overdone and fraught with unreal expectations; however, charities can attest that people are more generous for the right reasons at Christmastime, too.

Consumerism and the strength of America’s retail market – markers of the nation’s business health – are not tied to Easter the way they are to Christmas. Nor is Easter a premier travel holiday. (Nobody sings, “I’ll be Home for Easter.”) Looked at in those terms, cultural expectations for Easter don’t rival those for Christmas.

Still, Easter has a secular side, decidedly nonreligious but one that doesn’t seem to offend. Perhaps the strong reverberations of Easter themes in nature explain most of that ease. Spring is Easter’s echo chamber. Even here in the northland, where springtime often lags behind Easter, we think of them as one. The dead of winter becomes the rebirth of spring (what appeared to be dead suddenly lives). Gray-brown tree branches bud out in hazy green, deep pink rhubarb bubbles out of hard ground, tulips and daffodils spring up with breathtaking speed, and the whole world smells fresh. Spiritual overtones are everywhere. Obviously, those overtones aren’t necessarily Christian, but there’s much about Easter that resonates.

I started thinking about the cultural messages tied to Christian holidays while sitting in a YMCA community room waiting for a speaker to begin a few weeks ago. One of several framed axioms on the wall – YMCA ideals – caught my eye: The most sublime act is to set another before you. My immediate thought was the Easter message of sacrifice. Yet, a parent doesn’t have to be Christian to believe in that ideal; neither does a soldier.

Christianity always has blended its tenets with the world around it. Christmas trees and strings of lights have pagan origins, but we use them in churches. (Santa’s origin is a saint, but he’s kept out.) More prominently, the word “Easter” comes from the name of the Germanic goddess Eostre (Ostara), a goddess of fertility and springtime sometimes depicted with a woman’s body and a hare’s head. In fact, the tradition of the egg-laying Easter rabbit came to America with German settlers in Pennsylvania. The very fact that the tradition spread suggests it wasn’t viewed as anti-Christian.

My Welsh relatives say “Happy Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” For them, “merry” implies too much time around the wassail bowl. (Forget war; it’s semantics.)

The secular world isn’t the enemy of Christianity. We ought to be more concerned that secular America views us as the monolithic base of a political party – a narrowly focused religion more interested in changing laws than changing lives.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.

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