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The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 22, Number 1 (Spring 2006).
As a child, I often wondered about the Easter Bunny, not so much about whether he would come or what he would bring to me, but about the whole notion of a rabbit who came around once a year, delivering candy and eggs, colored or otherwise. I knew that rabbits leave small, rounded objects behind where they travel, but those don’t come wrapped in foil, and they aren’t eggs. And where did the basket enter the picture? The very idea seemed suspect, but there were plenty of people who believed it—including, apparently, my parents—so what was I to think?
The most confusing part, for a young Protestant turned Catholic (in those days), was what it all had to do with the Easter that they talked about in churches, i.e., the resurrection of the Son of God after his crucifixion and all of that. Where did a rabbit bearing treats fit in?
The Easter Bunny, as he stands—or hops—today, apparently first appeared in European folklore in fifteenth-century Germany, at least in writing. (It’s unknown how long the figure had been in the orally transmitted repertoire.) Der Osterhase would come to children while they slept and lay colored eggs—chocolates and other candies came later—in special “nests” that the children made from their caps or bonnets. With a slight change in name and religious affiliation (unlike me, from Catholic to Protestant), Oschter Haws came to the United States with the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch, beginning in the seventeenth century, and the tradition of special treats followed along.
But why a rabbit? “Why not a chicken?” as Chico Marx once asked. One way to begin the explanation is with a reminder of when Easter takes place, on the first Sunday following the first ecclesiastical full moon following (or on the day of) the vernal equinox, that is, sometime between March 22 and April 25—that is, in the spring.
Spring is a time of renewal, even today. Back in the Dark Ages and merry medieval times, however, if you managed to survive until spring, that was a big deal, a reason to be grateful. People had always chosen symbols for the springtime and the new promise of abundance, and rabbits and hares, with their celebrated capacity for producing young, fit the mold. And spring is when the lagomorphic (lagomorphous?) reproductive cycle kicks in. So, why not a rabbit?
There is also some further writing on the subject, but it is held in question by some authorities, who brazenly doubt the veracity of even the Venerable Bede (ca. 672–735). In his De Tempore Ratione (Of the Reckoning of Time), Bede states:
Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month,” and which was once called after a goddess of [the Saxon people] named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.
Some say that Bede invented Oestre, either cutting her from whole cloth or weaving together threads of tales that he’d heard or read in his travels. But I present the myth here for your consideration, unsubstantiated by genuine historical evidence. (Isn’t that the nature of myth, even myths that are themselves mythic in nature?)
This purported god of spring and fertility, Oestre, had a consort who was a hare—a questionable practice, but gods are famous for getting away with questionable practices. (In this light, they may have been the first celebrities.) In other accounts, she first appeared in the spring as a hare, and in still others, she bore the head of a hare. (This is one of the points of disputation, as there’s no evidence of animal-headed gods in Western European mythology, unlike, say, that of ancient Egypt. Taking the form of animals is a different matter, of course, as the tales of Zeus, the rapist sky father, attest—a bull here, a swan there, bestiality everywhere.)
The tale is told that Oestre gave the hare the ability to produce eggs in the spring, but this has been said to be nothing more than folkloric reverse engineering, making the hare fit the bunny, so to speak. It is also told that, finally, Oestre threw the hare into the sky, where he became the constellation Lepus.
Unlike the delivery system, the eggs are a little easier to understand. Even more than rabbits, eggs are fertility symbols; it doesn’t require much imagination or a degree in comparative folklore to follow that path. Insect, fish, amphibian, reptile, or mammal, whatever it ends up being, an animal starts out in an egg, even among those species that use the placental system of gestation. And spring is a popular time for popping out of eggs, so the symbolism is fairly obvious.
But there’s an economic factor involved as well. Medieval food storage was primitive, as you would expect, so not a lot could be kept fresh for very long. And as if winter wasn’t deprivation enough, when Lent came, Catholic people (in predominantly Catholic Europe) weren’t permitted to eat meat, dairy products, or eggs. But chickens don’t know scratch about Lent, so they would continue to lay, despite the lack of human demand. (They don’t know much about economics either, it seems.) It wouldn’t have been very wise to just throw all of those eggs away, so they were hardboiled and held over for the end of the Lenten period, i.e., Easter.
How and why the eggs got colored could—and has—filled books, so I won’t get encyclopedic here. But one story comes from Christianity. In the Gospels, Mary Magdalene, who was kept out of the boys-club apostles only by her sex, after seeing Christ arisen, traveled to spread the word. She even went to Tiberius, then emperor of Rome, and offered an egg to him—handing out eggs and fruit in greeting was apparently an Eastern custom—with the greeting: “Christ is risen!” Tiberius, perhaps an early skeptic, said something to the effect that a person rising from death was about as likely as the egg changing color. And after he said that, the egg turned red (symbolic of the blood of Christ). Tiberius could be forgiven if he dropped that egg.
Never had the Maypole been so gayly decked as at sunset on midsummer eve. This venerated emblem was a pine-tree, which had preserved the slender grace of youth, while it equalled the loftiest height of the old wood monarchs. From its top streamed a silken banner, colored like the rainbow. Down nearly to the ground the pole was dressed with birchen boughs, and others of the liveliest green, and some with silvery leaves, fastened by ribbons that fluttered in fantastic knots of twenty different colors, but no sad ones.
–Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The May-Pole of Merry Mount”
In the old druidic system, still in common use in England, May is the first month of summer, and the first day of May is called May Day. Once upon a time, before central heating, this meant that people could be at ease for the first time in months, and a great deal of time could be spent comfortably outside—a cause for celebration. And this didn’t apply only to the upper classes, the Lancelots and Gueneveres, but to them of the agricultural heath as well. After all, their crops had been planted in the spring and wouldn’t be harvested until fall. There was still work to be done (and I suspect that L. and G. had more time on their hands in the summer than the average peasant farmer), but at last folk could wander and engage in leisurely pursuits, to go, as it were, a-Maying.
One quaint activity that people associate with the May Days of yesteryear—and even those of today—is the dance around the maypole. Most traditionally the pole is erected in a village square, and the dancers grasp red and white cloth ribbons that hang from its height, circling and weaving around one another in simple or complex patterns, depending on their level of skill and experience. Their movements weave the ribbons in a pattern around the pole.
The height of the pole varies, depending on local tradition and the material that’s available, from barely taller than the dancers to fifty feet or more. Many one-day “renaissance fairs” take place on May 1, with people saying, in staggered chorus, “methinks” and “yea and verily” a lot, harmless to all but medievalist scholars, who groan and hold back tears at the sights and sounds of a half dozen centuries of European history collapsing into one confused mass.
So, the question could be asked—and will be here—where did the maypole come from? What is its origin?
First, it must be said that the maypole has been around, and people have probably danced around it, for a long time. Its genuine origins are lost in pre-Christian European history and folklore. There are clues as to where and when it was culturally present, but clues are not origins. It seems to have its roots in Germanic paganism, as it is most common and most cherished as a tradition in the Germanic countries of Europe.
And it should also be mentioned, in case it hasn’t occurred to you yet, that the maypole is a phallic symbol. (I did say that people erected them, didn’t I?) This tradition that persists even today is a part of a system of elaborate fertility rites that either originated among the peoples of Europe or arrived here with their earliest immigrant ancestors. (The celebration of May Day has precedents in ancient India, Egypt, and Rome. The Romans, in fact, celebrated Floralia [or the Ludi Florales], the festival of Flora, the god of plants and flowers, from April 28 to May 3. And they certainly had opportunity to bring the celebration to Britain, and Europe in general, as the empire extended westward.)
In an attempt to call on the principle of magical sympathy (“like produces like”), the early fruits of the field and meadow—flowers, primarily—were brought into the villages and displayed, in the hope of bringing some of the fresh vitality of vernal nature into the lives and crops of the people, once the new season had “bathed every veyne in swich licour/ Of which vertu engendred is the flour,” as Chaucer put it. Would that the plants in their fields should do as well; this was an effort to encourage that.
And plants weren’t the only creatures on whose annual promulgation the lives and welfare of the ancient Europeans depended. Animals were also hoped to be fecund come springtime, but how to approach that was a question. Hanging baby birds and rabbits around the necks of the livestock was probably impractical, so something more symbolic was needed. And what better symbol of “vertu engendred” is there than a good, stiff pole. Cut down a tree—traditions varied regionally as to which species was appropriated in the village, and decorate it with vines and flowers, and there they had it: a maypole, the guarantee of good crops and new livestock—they hoped.
The poles were generally decorated: besides vines and flowers, they sometimes had wreaths hung around them, which were made from arboreal materials that were accented with more flowers. The precise modes of decoration vary from country to country and even regionally. In villages in Bavaria, for example, the poles tend to be skyscrapers, painted in barber-pole spirals of blue and white and festooned with wooden plaques, depicting traditional village life and activities, Leder hosen und alles. In some regions, villages compete with one another to see who has the biggest and most elaborate pole. (I’m trying to tread carefully here.) And sometimes, due to a kind of “maypole envy” perhaps, rowdies from one village may attempt to steal or knock over another village’s pole. In some population centers where maypoles stand, they stand all year; while in others, the annual task of erecting them is a part of the tradition, even in the cases of ones that stand taller than most of the buildings around them.
The hanging ribbons and the weaving dances that accompany them were apparently added to the maypole tradition in the nineteenth century by John Ruskin, a Victorian poet, artist, and critic. And there were times when maypoles and dancing around them were banned in England as vile acts of paganism. (Did someone say “Puritanism”?) Today, the terpsichorean part of the tradition is kept alive in England and many former members of the British Empire by Morris Dancing groups, with varying levels of pagan and even discreet phallic symbolism implicit in their dances. Eight is the traditional number of dancers, four male and four female, one couple for each of the major sabbats of the druidic year (which are these days called Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnassadh).
The moon has been in the sky for as long as anyone can remember, so naturally, a lot of folklore has built up around it. Earlier civilizations associated many gods with the body that is the night’s brightest light (with the help of the sun): Artemis and Selene (an Olympian and a Titan), in Greece; Diana, in Rome; Thoth, in Egypt; Cnoc Aine, in Ireland; Cerridwen, in Wales; and Heng-O, in China, to name just a few. And many things human have been attributed to the moon, including madness. How many times have you heard someone mutter something about a full moon in response to some strange behavior? And love is on that list as well. (“Allegheny Moon, I need your light/ To help me find romance tonight.”) (Need madness and romance be listed separately? Maybe the moon isn’t as versatile as I thought.)
The full moon is apparently more blameworthy than a new, sliver, crescent, or gibbous one, since the former has been known to push a person or two past the point of madness and into a state that some call lycanthropy, or werewolfism.
Some claim that there’s a man in the moon—if you look at it just right—and some even claim that it’s made out of green cheese.
There has even been a poem or two written about the moon. It was described by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in “The Moon,” as “like a dying lady, lean and pale … wandering companionless” (a thought later echoed in prose by Rick Veitch, who wrote of Earth’s barren sister in orbital lockstep”). And Christina Rossetti said of our achromatic companion, “while we gaze she rolleth on in fleetness/ To perfect loss or perfect gain.”
Full moons, it turns out, have names, and most more than one. The names differ from one culture to another; even within given cultures, the names have varied over time. The Native Americans, for example, commonly named the full moons as follows, in order of their appearance during the year: Wolf Moon, Snow Moon, Worm Moon, Pink Moon, Flower Moon, Strawberry Moon, Buck Moon, Sturgeon Moon, Harvest Moon, Hunter’s Moon, Beaver Moon, and Cold Moon. As an example of the variations, the English name for the Worm Moon is the Lenten Moon, as it occurs in March, usually during the Christian observation of Lent, but it is also known as the Crust Moon, the Sap Moon, the Sugar(ing) Moon, and the Crow Moon.
The full moon of June—why does that have to rhyme?—which will occur (or befall us) this year beginning on June 11, is called the Strawberry Moon or the Rose Moon, indicating two of the agricultural abundances that are harvested in June.
Besides different flavors, full moons also come in a variety of colors. The full moon of April is known as the Pink Moon, and it is commonly said that when a second full moon occurs in a given month, that the latter of the two is called a blue moon—a rare occurrence, as in “once in a blue moon.”
We will not have any blue moons in 2006, neither by that means of reckoning nor by another, apparently older one. It seems that it was originally said that when four full moons occurred in a given season of the year, one—the third—was considered a blue moon. In an article, titled “What’s a Blue Moon?” that appeared in the May 1999 issue of Sky and Telescope, the authors (Donald W. Olson, Richard Tresch Fienberg, and Roger W. Sinnott) call the twice-in-a-month method of determination a “trendy definition” and a mistake.
In researching the article, Olson et al. obtained more than forty editions of the Maine Farmers’ Almanac, the publication to which the “trendy definition” had been traced (by folklorist Philip Hiscock in another article, “Once in a Blue Moon,” that also appeared in Sky and Telescope [March 1999]). In the almanacs that they perused, however, published between 1819 and 1962, more than a dozen blue moons are mentioned, but not one of them is the second full moon of a single month.
However, some clues were uncovered that led the investigators to the twice-in-a-month definition. For one thing, the calendar that was used in the almanac was based on the seasons of the year, running from one winter solstice to the next. And the blue moons that were listed occurred in the months of February, May, August, or November—the very months that precede those in which the solstices and equinoxes occur. The explanation for how all of this actually occurs is fairly complicated, but the matter really comes down to this: on the Gregorian calendar, the ecclesiastical vernal equinox falls on March 21, regardless of the astronomical position of the sun. This is determined using what is called the “dynamical mean sun,” an essentially imaginary body that travels along the plane of the ecliptic at a constant rate, allowing no variation in the determination of the dates of solar astronomical events, unlike the sun’s genuine celestial longitude. This spaces out the annual solar events evenly, though artificially. But what about the monthly lunar events that don’t necessarily cooperate in this scheme?
That’s where the third full moon of a season comes in, on occasion, and why it’s the third instead of the fourth one that’s monickered “blue.” As Olson, et al. have it, “Because only then will the names of the other full moons … fall at the proper times relative to the solstices and equinoxes.” In other words, the “extra” full moon pushes the fourth one into a calendric position that keeps them properly spaced relative to the four seasons, their orientation within or around the months being merely incidental. (I keep seeing some kind of vague analogy to the shortstop in relation to the positions of the first-, second-, and third-base players, but I won’t pursue it, because I don’t want to get in trouble with any baseball enthusiasts in the readership.)
I’m certain that many people, over the years, have come up with less involved answers to the question, “What do they mean when they say, ‘once in a blue moon’?” but when it comes to folklore, straightforward answers are rare indeed.
David Park Musella (dmusella [at] center forinquiry.net) is the literary editor of Free Inquiry.