The scent of cinnamon, windows steamed up by the burning oven, a little girl with hair as gold covered in flour and smiling at you. The yellow sun warming your neck, the smell of freshly cut grass and the twinkle in the eye of the eight year old boy in front of you holding up a painted egg. Holidays go well together with cosy family moments. Whether it’s baking a cake for Mother’s Day with your daughter or enjoying the neighborhood kids searching for Easter eggs in your backyard, these days are of special meaning to us.
The roots of Easter lay in a warm land overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. After Moses had brought back the people of Israel from their exile as slaves in Egypt, this was the place they settled. The decided they would hold an annual celebration of the fact they escaped from their Egyptian rulers. This holiday was called Pesach and is celebrated to this day by Jews all over the world. One of the Jews who celebrated this holiday and travelled to Jerusalem each year to do so, was Jesus. The last year he sat down to the festive meal of Pesach with his entourage is now history. For not long after that final supper Jesus was crucified and his body was placed in a cave with a large rock covering the entrance. On the third day after his death Jesus resurrects and the cave was empty.
This resurrection of Jesus is what we commemorate with Easter. So at the heart of this holiday is a spiritual and miraculous event. Quite in contrast with the decorated window displays and storefronts we see each year. No sign of suffering, no crosses, no resurrection. If we look at other holidays the same applies: the original meaning of the holidays has moved more and more to the background. A lot has been said about how the meaning of holidays seems inferior to the profit they produce. But for once, let’s not dramatically mourn this ‘rampant commercialism’ or mindlessly indulge ourselves rushing through some warehouse in search of that one imperial Easter egg to trump the neighbors. Let’s not immediately pick sides on whether it’s a bad thing the meaning behind our holidays is not as apparent as it used to be. Let’s refrain from judgment and simply wonder how this occurred.
You see, these complaints are not even new. The loss of rituals in daily life, the limited time people spent on their spiritual growth and the decline of influence of the church have been lamented for more than four centuries now. It is not a typically modern phenomenon. Ever since the Enlightenment people have become more and more responsible for the way the shape their lives. This process has gone hand in hand with people evading institutionalized religion. And although people in the West seem less inclined to visit church, study their bibles or even inform themselves on the underlying meaning of the holiday they are celebrating, most of them are still in search of some form of spirituality.
But as modern man evolved, so did his spiritual needs. As he became more individualized so did his path to meaning in his life. We all casually combine Tai Chi or Yoga with Ikebana, faithful to the post-modern creed that ‘there is no one truth, but all the more perspectives on it’. Emancipation of our own thinking and our own beliefs has led us to each our own story. That is precisely the way we treat our holidays. We pick, mix and match even the things that are sacred to us. We choose which holidays we wish to celebrate, and the way we would like to celebrate them. Making sure that even performing rituals and acknowledging the meaning of these holidays suits our best convenience.
And although the last paragraph seems to suggest discomfort from yours truly, I can assure you: there is none. For the worth of philosophy or comparative religion studies lies in the understanding, not in judging. It helps us get a glimpse of who we are and how we became like this. Coming to terms with what we find, is a whole other story.
Jos van de Mortel, MA is Lexicom Learning’s tutor for the online courses in Philosophy and Comparative Religion.
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