The Exaptation of Easter
8 April 2012
Easter is, at bottom, a holiday that is about ideas. That is one reason that I am fascinated by Easter, and why over the past few years I’ve written many posts about Easter and the Lenten season, including:
And, most recently…
I have been at pains to point out in earlier posts that spring celebrations of the renewal of life seem to be as old has our species, and with this in mind it sounds more than a little odd that I should say that Easter is about ideas, except that Easter has become about ideas because it has been so repeatedly exapted throughout human history. As ideas are the currency of human interaction within civilization, the exaptation of Easter since the advent of civilization has meant the construction of an ideological exaptation mechanism of sufficient power to displace earlier celebrations with their established institutions.
It was necessary to overlay a Christian idea on a Pagan idea, and the Pagan idea was overlain on an even more ancient idea — if we take the stages of savagery, barbarism, and civilization (which I recently discussed in Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization) as our model for the development of the forms by which we conceptualize life, we can see the Christian idea as an idea of medieval European civilization, the Greco-Roman idea that was exapted by Christianity as an idea of the civilization of classical antiquity, the earlier idea exapted by greco-Roman civilization as an idea of barbarism, and the earlier idea exapted by the barbaric idea as the savage idea — and now we have made it all the way back to “the savage mind” of Levi-Strauss.
In Christian civilization (i.e., Western civilization), Christmas and Thanksgiving have become more-or-less easily assimilated to the family gatherings that have become identified with these holidays, but Easter does not involve the kind of travel season that we find at Christmas and Thanksgiving. Perhaps this is because everyone has just had their Spring Break and is not in a position to travel again immediately for a holiday family gathering.
At Thanksgiving there is the preparation and consumption of a large meal, while at Christmas there is the trimming of the tree and gift exchange. In a large family these can be undertakings of significant proportions. While from a devotional standpoint these family-based rituals are not central to the holiday, from a sociological standpoint these features are in fact very central to the holidays, and if we could quantify that amount of time people spent thinking about, planning, and preparing for the practical consequences of Thanksgiving and Christmas and compare this to the time spent thinking about, planning, and preparing for the devotional significance of these holidays, it would probably be pretty obvious what concerns dominated the holidays.
In such cases as Thanksgiving and Christmas, we could say that holidays become exapted by the infrastructure of celebration. The infrastructure of familial celebration can, in turn, become exapted by the practical demands seemingly imposed by major holidays. In one of my least-read posts, Personal Dystopias, I tried to show how these socio-familial concerns can get out of hand and reduce or entirely eliminate any joy felt in the holiday or celebrated event. I believe that this is more common than is generally recognized.
This is, of course, the Protestant in me speaking: for those of a Protestant temperament, the “real” celebration is rigorously defined in devotional terms, and anything that detracts from the intensity of devotional observations is an impiety and indeed an impurity of the will. But knowing that Easter (like most holidays) has layer upon layer of sedimented meaning, and that the ideational content of devotional observance may well be the most superficial “meaning” of the holiday, compels us to respect the oldest and most continuous meaning of the celebration, which is the celebration itself. This recognition, however, of a continuity to the celebration that transcends the changing meanings that have been associated with the holiday is itself an idea — another perspective that one might bring to the celebration.
The history of Easter is the history of the exaptations of a holiday continuously celebrated since human beings have been celebrating holidays, and as civilization has added to the complexity of the forms by which we conceptualize life, the history of the exaptations of Easter has become a history of the exaptation of ideas.
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Happy Easter… whatever it happens to mean to you!
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