So much of what we think we know when we are young, is completely dashed on the rocks when we get older. My middle son, when a freshman in High School, put us in an awkward position. He was barely in high school and we had our youngest son, who was 4 or 5 at the time, and in kindergarten. It was nearing the Christmas holiday season. To give some background, our family always celebrates the Feast of St. Nicolas by putting our shoes in the hallway, and in the morning, gold-foil-covered coins would be in our shoes. (Our middle son and youngest son also share their same birth date with the feast day of St. Sabbas, December 5th, the day before St. Nicolas). The story of St. Nicolas of Myra and his generosity always brought such joy to my husband and I, and we shared that with our children. We often also shared that there were many years that Christmas should not have happened, and that we believed St. Nicolas interceded for us. St. Nicolas always made an appearance at our parish, bringing chocolate treats to the kids dressed in traditional Bishop’s clothing. When we were asked by our children if “Santa Claus” was real, we sort of side-stepped it by telling them that we definitely believe in St. Nicolas of Myra. In his memory, through the centuries, Santa Claus was developed, in keeping his sainted memory alive for each generation. We reminded them that we also believe that the Saints are with us always, in the Church Triumphant. Those are the words we used, but our children heard, “Yes, of course, Santa is real!” As I said at the beginning, our middle son was in that space between boy-man, and a very naive high school freshman. (We homeschooled him until he entered a local, Catholic High School). We asked him to help us hide some Christmas gifts for our youngest son in his closet, and he was devastated. We had no idea he still believed in the mystery of Christmas morning; he totally bought the whole “Santa” idea and he was crushed. He then questioned us about the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and Guardian Angels. What a conversation we had with him. Now in his late 20s, a college graduate (degree in Ancient History – of course!!) and a married, and imminently expectant father, he still remembers this event. It made us feel like we had perpetrated a hoax on him and ruined his wonderful childhood memories. Our youngest son, we think, has a handle on it. But we also think he likes to believe in the miraculous, and also uses it to his advantage. This past Christmas, at the ripe age of 13, he shared with us his lists – birthday and Christmas. He said what he didn’t get for his birthday (on the 5th of December) he would love to “get from Dad…oh, I mean, Santa, or St. Nicolas,” at Christmas. I let it slide, but I think he gets it. This weekend is Easter…and with that comes preparing for the Easter Bunny…goodies, foods, baskets, and all that we celebrate with it..and there has been so much on the internet and Facebook. One posting that bothers me greatly is the picture below:
I firmly believe in the Resurrection of Our Lord, for without that, our religion would not exist; without Easter, Christmas is meaningless. That being said, I think that the traditions that have sprung up around these Holy-Days (aka Holidays) bring an added dimension to them. Yes, there are those who ONLY know about the Bunny. They ONLY know about chocolate eggs and dressing up and hunting for candy eggs. Religion does not enter into the equation at all. I get that. Perhaps it is because of my education in Anthropology and History, that I love all the traditions (small t) that surround these Holy Days of ours. (Why do we hunt for eggs at Easter? Hmmm…hint: someone was missing from the Tomb and was being sought). Some pessimists posted under pictures like the one above statements like, “It is a pagan holiday anyway; the Church stole it.” and “Christ wasn’t born in wintertime; they stole that pagan celebration, as well.” Yes, the Church stole those dates. It was easier as the Church was growing, to incorporate the local traditions and cultures and expound on them, using what was in place to further explain our faith. St. Patrick is famous for using the 3-leaf clover to explain the Trinity, and it became “lucky.” The Church used holidays for new birth and coming forth in Spring as the perfect time for Christ to emerge from His Tomb, the Risen Lord. It made sense. Slowly, over the centuries, many traditions (small t) grew around these Holy-Days and only enhanced the wonder and joy of them. Re-birth, spring flowers, sunshine emerging from a dark winter (why do so many Christians gather for “sunrise services” on Easter Sunday?) and empty crosses…all symbolic of the emergence from Hades (for 3 days), from death, from His tomb – of Our Risen Lord.
One of the most profound things I love about the history of our faith is the history of the construction of our Churches. Western, Catholic churches, first and foremost, are in the shape of a Cross. Also, in European, western culture, very few people could read. So the builders of our oldest Cathedrals, at the instruction of our Church Fathers, incorporated incredible stained glass windows to tell the story of Christ, the Church, and its Saints. Statues were made, depicting episodes from the life of Christ. The Pieta is one of my very favorites. There is a saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” The early Church builders and Fathers of the Church, knowing the poor education of its people, created a special place where the tenets of the faith could be shown in picture and statue form. A person would walk into a Church and be in a different realm, a heavenly realm, a place where God would be present in his people, in His temple. And their senses were enveloped by the sights, sounds, colors, and smells of their faith.
In the East, the tradition of the Icon was developed. The beginnings of iconography are in the Catacombs themselves. One of the first images shared by Christians is of the Fish, emblazoned on the walls of the Catacombs, guiding believers to the liturgies being held in secret in pagan Rome. The first Icon by St. Luke is an incredible story. (http://www.stlukeorthodox.com/html/iconography/iconhistory.cfm) The Byzantine and Orthodox believe that Icons are the window to the soul and tell a story. Everything in an icon is symbolic; they are not meant to look realistic in the sense of a Raphael painting. We do not paint icons, rather, we write an icon. The icons fill the Eastern Churches with an other-worldly sense of the sacred. With the colors on the walls and ceilings, the candles, incense, and icons, you enter into a deeply reverent, heavenly experience while still here, on earth. Most Orthodox and Byzantine Churches do not have pews. The meaning behind it is pretty profound. We do not kneel – we stand in the Presence of God. For example, when the President or other dignitary enters a room, everyone stands. How much more should we greet Our Lord, Who is present in His Temple? The western tradition of kneeling comes from (this is what I love about learning history) the way a knight would kneel in the presence of his lord and master, often for the first time when being knighted. This is a medieval tradition, carried over into our western liturgies. In the older, western Cathedrals, there are no pews, either. The pews came in slowly, for the royals, and were boxed-off from the regular people, to keep the peasants away from royalty, as they worshiped. Slowly, pews were extended for everyone. In the Anglican Church (and many Episcopal and Lutheran churches), boxed pews are still reserved for those with higher status in the community. In the East, the kneeling and sitting aspects of common worship did not wend their way into our liturgical tradition.
These traditions, which surround our Holy Days, are ways the Church, in Her profound Wisdom, has helped us to preserve what we believe. Songs, hymns, prayers, eggs, and certain foods, drinks, and attire – they are all a part of our celebrations. I believe that if we destroy them, in a rush to be politically correct, we will loose far more. It is our job as parents and educators of our children, and evangelists in our own communities, to share where these traditions have their roots; the whys and wherefores can be profoundly moving.
One of my dearest friends and I were talking yesterday and we spoke about friendship. One of the fallacies that we allow to perpetuate in our children is that concept of “best friends;” or even the term of “friend,” itself. We truly have very few friends in life. We have fellow Christians (I am grouping all of us together), co-workers, neighbors, relatives, acquaintances; yes. I do not think, any longer, that I have to maintain relationships after their expiration date. God brings people into our lives for a time and a purpose and when that is over, it is okay to let that relationship go. This is another of those traditions that we carry on, but our Church Fathers tell us that we need not cling to people. Scripture certainly tells us about keeping others away who do not believe as we do. An earlier post of mine dealt with this (Avoid Conversation with Him), so I won’t dwell on it here. But as my friend and I spoke, we shared so many things that unite us as friends. We have history together (we’ve been friends for more than 20 years) and we have a common faith; a faith we use to hold one another up when we cannot be in the same room, or even the same state! The traditions of the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, those are much the same thing. They are acting as magnets to a greater truth. My friend stimulates me to be a better woman of faith; acting as a magnet, as it were, to my better self.
A saying keeps popping into my head – “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” And I cannot help but apply that to our commercialism surrounding Easter (and Christmas). I always buy my kids summer outfits, water pistols, kites, swim trunks, flip-flops and t-shirts, etc. They symbolize our walking into a new Season, a Season of Light and Faith…a summertime! Celebration and fun! The fast is over! Christ is Risen! Glorify Him!! I rarely buy chocolate Easter bunnies, but usually find a chocolate Cross…my insertion of a visible Christ into these Springtime traditions. So many things about Easter – baskets, eggs, green grass, hot-cross buns, etc. are rich in tradition and I choose to keep them in, being perhaps not as correct as some of my fellow Christians. For those of us who are steeped in the traditions of our faith, we have tiny reminders all year around, of this faith to which we cling so mightily. The ones we celebrate with each season only enhance our faith; they do not detract from it. I love these traditions and I love celebrating Easter and all our other Holy Days, with all the traditional hoopla involved.
We brought a new tradition to a Latin Rite, Roman Catholic parish one year and they absolutely loved it. We introduced them to red Easter eggs; they also were treated to onion-skin-dyed eggs (an Estonian tradition I learned as a child) as well as intricately designed Ukrainian-wrapped eggs. It is an amazing thing, to bring our faith to others…and I love everything about it. To share just one of the myriad of traditional Easter celebrations, I will leave you with an interesting insight into the Byzantine and Orthodox tradition of Red Easter Eggs.