Yesterday was Easter, which also happened to coincide with Passover — two of the highest of Holy Days in Judeo-Christian traditions. For many, these days hold extreme relevance, for others, they are another day on the calendar. For me, well, it’s complicated.
I was raised Catholic. Irish-Catholic. Parochial school education, Church every Sunday, Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, fish on Fridays, two aunts who were nuns Catholic. Hard. Core. Catholic.
Mary Tyler Dad was raised outside religion. Jewish father, Christian mother, 1970s progressive New England parenting. Outside religion, indeed.
Together, we are not religious. You’ve heard the phrase, “There are no atheists in a fox hole?” Yeah, well, Mary Tyler Dad and I sort of set up camp in the closest thing I could imagine a fox hole feels like, our Donna’s cancer diagnosis. We spent over two years in that fox hole. I came to believe that if you haven’t found Jesus Christ when your daughter is dying of cancer, well then, you’re probably not going to find Him. And that’s okay.
I capitalize Him intentionally, because while I am not religious, I respect and appreciate those that are. I never aim to antagonize others with my lack of belief. On the contrary, I completely respect those with religion and faith. Sometimes I think my life would be easier if I did believe in one thing or another.
But that’s neither here nor there. This is not intended to be a defense of atheism or agnosticism or faith. What I want to consider is this idea of raising children without religion in a religious culture, specifically, how in the H-E-double hockey sticks (respectful, see?) do you explain religious holidays to a child when his family does not subscribe to a religion?
There is no easy answer. What works for me may or may not work for you, which, oddly, is a bit like religion itself, isn’t it?
Let’s talk about the Easter Bunny. For three year old Mary Tyler Son, the Easter Bunny is where it’s at. He is a big fan. Last week I asked him what he thought Easter was about. “The Easter Bunny bringing me chocolate!” Yes, his reply was about what one would expect from a toddler boy. Chocolate and treats. Of course. And equally unsurprising is that chocolate and treats were just about my favorite thing about Easter growing up, too, despite my very religious upbringing. Kids are kids. Chocolate and treats are good and fun and yummy and special. And for a three year old, chocolate trumps most anything else.
Knowing that in the absence of faith, I would not be providing a religious explanation of Easter, I tried to broaden young Mary Tyler Son’s perspective a bit in talking about Easter being a celebration of Spring, and more specifically, the return of life and growth after a long, cold winter. Yeah, my three year old boy wasn’t too interested in that, preferring the treat bearing bunny with his basket of goodies. And you know what? That’s okay. Mary Tyler Son is three. He is allowed to fixate on sweet treats a few times a year.
As his parent, what’s important to me is that in addition to this annual sugar rush on a Sunday morning courtesy of a fictional bunny, is the intentional and structured teaching of the appreciation of life, of the return to life, of the cycle of life that Spring confirms.
One way to do this, I learned this week, was the coloring of eggs. Dyeing eggs was never on my radar. My Mom never did it and quite honestly, it seemed a bother. I mean, seriously? Willingly introducing your toddler son to sloshing glasses of dye? Are you kidding me? And then arming that kid with eggs to fling in those sloshing glasses at will? Well, I could not have been more wrong. What better symbol of life than the egg? It’s where we all started. Each and every one of us. And the wonder of taking something so basic as the egg and submerging it until it reveals itself in all its Easter glory — bright and lovely and colorful and wondrous. Lesson learned — life can be messy, but so amazing, too. (Thanks, Grandma.)
Another way to convey this is on a simple walk to the park. We took a few long walks this past week and had some opportunities to see new growth in all its glory. The Spring light is amazing — clear, fresh, intense, vibrant, bright. The color of the sky is different in April and May than it is in January or July. The light and changing green on the trees is more brilliant on that first day you look up from your winter stupor and realize that, yes, those green things on the branches are leaves that have indeed returned. The four hundredth time you see those same leaves in August, I guarantee, you won’t even notice them.
Spring is a beautiful and profound and sacred return. It is confirmation that light and warmth follow cold and dark. Always. Spring is our annual reward and promise as human beings that things do, in fact, get better, even in nature. As a family who has buried one of our children, this promised and expected annual return to life and growth and hope is so very needed. It’s why we planted tulips and daffodils and hyacinth and iris bulbs at Donna’s grave. Even though, no doubt, the deer will eat them before I see them, the reality of that brilliant growth at the physical marker of Donna’s death is necessary and provides comfort.
A facebook friend of mine, educated as a linguist (yes, I am blessed with amazing facebook friends; you can check out her super cool blog here), posted this yesterday:
Easter: from the Old English Easterdæg (meaning ‘Easter Day’), named for a Germanic goddess of fertility and spring. Her name (probably Austron, thought we have no written example) in turn indicates the celebration of the spring equinox, from the Proto-Indo-European *aus-, *austra- ‘to shine, sunrise, dawn’. Ultimately related to ‘east.’ Early Christians in England adopted the pagan goddess’s name and many of the practices surrounding her celebration, and grafted them onto the Mass of the Resurrection.
Most other West Germanic languages — and Middle English — use(d) a derivation of Latin/Greek Pascha, from Aramaic Pasha, related to Hebrew Pesah or Pesach, ‘to pass over.’
So, looks like this heathen in is good company. If the celebration of Spring was good enough for ancient cultures, it’s good enough for my family.
Long story short, if I am doing my mothering job properly, Mary Tyler Son will some day come to recognize and appreciate the glory of Spring himself. He will teach his own children to love the light, trust the warmth, and plant those bulbs. He will know that life is universal and that its cyclical nature is confirmation of something to be celebrated.
Maybe even with chocolate from a bunny.
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