In his hilarious collection of essays Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris describes trying to explain both the secular and religious aspects of the Easter holiday to a class learning French. The students come from many different countries, and most do not speak French very well at all. A student from Morocco is completely unfamiliar with any aspect of the holiday. The class attempts, in their broken way, to explain it to her:
“Excuse me, but what’s an Easter?”
It would seem that despite having grown up in a Muslim country, she would have heard it mentioned once or twice, but no. “I mean it,” she said. “I have no idea what you people are talking about.”
The teacher called on the rest of us to explain.
The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. “It is,” said one, “a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus…”. She faltered and her fellow country-man came to her aid.
“He call his self Jesus and then he be die one day on two…morsels of…lumber.”
The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.
“He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.”
“He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.”
“He nice, the Jesus.”
“He make the good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today.”
Part of the problem had to do with vocabulary. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone such a complicated reflexive phrases as “to give of yourself your only begotten son.” Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead.
“Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb,” the Italian nanny explained. “One too may eat of the chocolate.”
“And who brings the chocolate?” the teacher asked.
I knew the word, so I raised my hand, saying, “The rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate.”
“A rabbit?” The teacher, assuming I’d used the wrong word, positioned her index fingers on top of her head, wriggling them as though they were ears. “You mean one of these? A rabbit rabbit?”
“Well, sure,” I said. “He come in the night when one sleep on bed. Which a hand he have a basket and foods.”
The teacher sighed and shook her head. As far as she was concerned, I had just explained everything wrong with my country. “No, no,” she said. “Here in France the chocolate is brought by a a big bell that flies in from Rome.”
I called for a time-out. “But how do the bell know where you live?”
“Well,” she said, “how does a rabbit?”
It was a decent point, but at least a rabbit has eyes. That’s a start. Rabbits move from place to place, while most bells can only go back and forth — and they can’t even do that on their own power. On top of that, the Easter Bunny has character. He’s someone you’d like to meet and shake hands with. A bell has all the personality of a cast-iron skillet. It’s like saying that come Christmas, a magic dustpan flies in from the North Pole, led by eight flying cinder blocks. Who wants to stay up all night so they can see a bell? And why fly one in from Rome when they’ve got more bells than they know what do to with here in Paris? That’s the most implausible aspect of the whole story, as there’s no way the bells of France would allow a foreign worker to fly in and take their jobs. That Roman bell would be lucky to get work cleaning up after a French bell’s dog — and even then he’d need papers. It just didn’t add up.
Nothing we said was of any help to the Moroccan student. A dead man with long hair supposedly living with her father, a leg of lamb served with palm fronds and chocolate; equally confused and disgusted, she shrugged her massive shoulders and turned her attention to the comic book she kept hidden beneath her binder.
I wondered then if, without the language barrier, my classmates and I could have done a better job making sense of Christianity, an idea that sounds pretty far-fetched to begin with.
In communicating any religious belief, the operative word is faith, a concept illustrated by our very presence in that classroom. Why bother struggling with the grammar lessons of a six-year-old if each of us didn’t believe that, against all reason, we might eventually improve? If I could hope to one day carry on a fluent conversation, it was a relatively short leap to believing that a rabbit might visit my home in the middle of the night, leaving behind a handful of chocolate kisses and a carton of menthol cigarettes. So why stop there? If I could believe in myself, why not give other improbabilties the benefit of the doubt? I told myself that despite her past behavior, my teacher was a kind and loving person who had only my best interests at heart. I accepted the idea that an omniscient God had cast me in his own image and that he watched over me and guided me from one place to the next. The Virgin Birth, the Ressurrection, and countless miracles — my heart expanded to encompass all the wonders and possibilities of the universe.
A bell, though — that’s *&^%$# up.
So, how did we come to believe that a rabbit brings children chocolate on Easter?
Well, apparently it all started with those wacky Germans as early as the 1500s. When Germans immigrated to Pennsylvania Dutch Country, they brought the tradition with them, some time in the 18th century.
Why? Both rabbits and birds are excellent breeders whose litters arrive in the early Spring. They became symbols of fertility.
Okay. That makes sense. But how did rabbits come to be carrying eggs, hmmm?
Eggs are also a symbol of fertility. Early Catholics dyed eggs red to symbolize the blood of Christ and the hope for a new beginning. The German Protestants thought the dyed eggs were pretty nifty, but they were not down with the Catholic dictate to not eat eggs during Lent. Since Catholics were not scarfing them down for several weeks, there was an abundance of eggs. Protestants also began using other colors to make the eggs more festive.
Okay… So. Bunnies, eggs, fertility, German Catholics, German Protestants, Pennsylvania… Getting to the rabbit/egg combo.
Kids, of course, thought the eggs were fabulous and since there’s nothing more fun than scaring kids, the Pennsylvania Dutch Germans told them that only good children would receive specially decorated eggs and they came up with the myth of the egg- laying bunny. The children were directed to make little nests out of their hats before Easter. If they were indeed good, the bunny would bring them eggs.
Chocolate soon made its way into Easter baskets and as Americans, we all thought that was a swell idea. Easter is the third largest candy-consuming holiday. Ninety MILLION chocolate bunnies are produced every year.
And the only question is: do you eat the ears, feet, or tail first?
I’d tell you about the French and their Flying Bell, but I’m with Sedaris: that’s &#%$’d up.