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Easter for Everyone

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Easter for Everyone

28.04.2008

“They say that it’s forbidden to visit a cemetery on Easter,” my grandmother told me recently. How should I respond? Of course, the Church teaches us to remember the deceased on Radonitsa, the ninth day after Easter, but it views Easter visits to the cemetery as something of a Soviet-era holdover. The practice does not contain anything specifically Soviet, however. More likely than not, it reflects on a rather archaic layer of human consciousness, an echo of the “people’s Christianity” that the government found so difficult to control. My grandmother has been going to the cemetery for more than 70 years. Not because the grave served as an alternative, closed church in the Soviet Union, but because...it couldn’t be any different. Interestingly, in Ancient Rome, during the period of persecution, Christians also gathered in cemeteries.  To tell people they shouldn’t do that brings about a certain discomfort, if not frustration.

Any holiday brings society together, whether the family, a community or the nation. This is even more the case if we talk about Easter, without a doubt the main Christian holiday. But therein lies the question. How does an archaic consciousness picture society? Who makes up society? The answer is that both the living and the dead make it up. While death changes a person’s “status,” it does not take away his right to take part in the Easter meal. Cakes and decorated eggs are placed at the grave. The Easter egg is not merely a symbol of the holiday (the shell covers a tomb from which a chick awaits its resurrection); rather, it is also a means of communication. There is a legend which states that placing an egg atop a grave will allow the deceased person to hear what is taking place “on this side.” The living use eggs to make toasts at the Easter table. The egg is also a traditional Easter gift, and a gift, as we know, is itself a means of communicating.

Another obstacle further reminds us of the archaism associated with Easter traditions. The second half of spring is considered by many couples to be the ideal time to get married or engaged. This tradition is tied to nature’s cycle. Huge seesaws have usually been erected on Easter, which are enjoyed not only by children but by young couples as well. This swinging – “new life” – is, of course, connected with ancient rites of eroticism and fertility rituals. In cities today it is difficult to imagine seasonal construction of seesaws, however, the Church, as the repository of traditions, reminds us of “correct” and “incorrect” times for getting married. During Lent, the sacrament of marriage is not celebrated.

Easter, like any holiday, breaks with linear time and juxtaposes “today” and “Yesterday.” The central event in the Christian story – the Resurrection of Jesus Christ – is one that takes place in the “here and now.” And it turns out that the holiday occurs during that period when it is culturally most needed. Could it be any other way? The authorities in the Soviet Union certainly felt that, which led to attempts to transform May Day into an alternative Easter. May Day rituals in a way duplicated Easter traditions: demonstrations took the place of processions of the Cross, and portraits of leaders took the place of church banners and icons. But tying Easter to the new holiday didn’t work out so well. Copying the rituals’ form and introducing a “labor aspect” had a limited effect, as May Day in large part ignored all of antiquity, which Christianity absorbed into itself, thus becoming a true “people’s holiday.”  Today, we are legally able to celebrate two holidays at once, which has it’s own irony, as it is unclear what May Day really means now.

Perhaps it is Easter for the nonbelievers? Hardly. Nonbelievers don’t refuse to join in with the Easter cake, instinctively responding, “Christ has Risen! – He has Risen indeed!” May Day, on the other hand, is occupied either by sleep or a trip to the dacha. First of all, we have a tendency toward “ritualistic” behavior. Secondly, we have a need for the stimulus of everyday routine actions (for example, contact with family). Thirdly, the “genetic” need for a spring holiday requires organization. In several Western countries, Easter is regarded as a completely secular family holiday, as an excuse for a trip into the country or a picnic. Traveling through Moscow’s courtyards on Easter, one can see improvised picnics with simple food purchased at the nearest store. The main concern is having nice weather, which generally happens as a rule. Incidentally, ancient Rus viewed the sun in a clear sky on Easter as an omen for a good harvest. Archaisms won’t ever leave us. They simply take on new forms...

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