This year in Russia and other Orthodox Christian countries, both Easter and May Day fall on this Sunday, May 1st. This coincidence calls us to consider the similarities in mythological, religious, and psychological meanings behind these spring seasonal holidays.
Easter and May Day form links in a longer a chain of seasonal holidays reflecting the ending of winter and the return of the sun and vegetation. In our times, it begins in February with Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, and Carnival (as described in my blog posts on these holidays), continues through Easter and May Day, and ends with Midsummer Night at the summer solstice. The remaining seasonal holidays in the calendar year reflect the waning of the sun and death of vegetation, until the winter solstice holidays which introduce the new seasonal cycle (creation of a new year). As this winter-to-summer period proceeds, the meaning of the holidays shifts from anticipating and ensuring the coming of the spring season to celebrating and maintaining the full-blown forces of late spring and summer. Easter and May Day begin the latter half of this sequence.
An interesting way of understanding the similarities between Easter and May Day is to observe how they handle fire rituals. After Christianity became solidly established in the 4th century CE largely due to the Emperor Constantine, Christian Easter rituals were held during the night between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, and featured the lighting of a paschal candle inside the church. This light penetrating the darkness until the sun rose symbolized Christ and his resurrection, who in the Gospel of John is described as the “light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (8:12). John 1:5 also declares that Christ is “the light [that] shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.” In this respect, the early Christian liturgy’s use of fire did have an independent theological basis and was mostly unaffected by pagan traditions, although we also must remember that fire by nature has archetypal aspects including its association with the divine. Later, however, Christians began lighting sizeable Easter bonfires outdoors, which is where pagan traditions entered the Easter picture.
In my blog post of last year about May Day/Beltane bonfires, I mentioned how the fires symbolized the sun as an agent of transformation, and acted as a purgative and apotropaic agency to eliminate and keep away evil spirits and disease that might harm crops, livestock, and people and their households. Typically, fires in all households of the community were first extinguished, the communal village bonfire was kindled anew by rubbing sticks together or from flint, and then household fires were rekindled from the communal fire so as to receive a “new fire.” In the British Isles, these fires were long associated with Beltane, and they continued to be celebrated on or about May 1 and not formally in connection with Easter (which did not typically feature such fires). In northern continental Europe, however, including in Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden, the springtime bonfire rituals became part of the celebration of Easter.
At first, the Church, as far back as at least the 8th century CE, formally opposed Easter fires as being tainted with paganism, issuing edicts in an attempt to suppress them. But this strategy largely failed, so the fires were then Christianized. Thus, the fires, now typically kindled on the eve of Easter Sunday, came to be understood as representing the fiery column in the desert (Exodus 13:21ff) as well as the resurrection of Christ. Other details from the pagan and Christianized fire rituals also correspond:
- The tradition of kindling the fire anew with flint was now thought to refer to Christ’s resurrecting from the tomb closed by a stone (CE).
- In the pagan rituals, a straw figure representing winter was thrown into the fire, symbolizing the death of winter. In the Christianized version in many locations, a figure was still thrown into the fire, but he was viewed as Judas (CE; Frazer, pp. 713-14).
Other pagan aspects of the bonfire rituals continued, without any apparent attempt to Christianize them. For example, in pagan tradition cattle were often driven past the bonfire (or between two bonfires) to purge and protect them, while ashes from the fire were later spread on the home, over the fields, on ploughs, etc., for protection. Sometimes bones were burned in the fire, as a purgative agent. Youths, including couples, leaped over the Easter fire as it died down.
The picture that emerges from these rituals is that the underlying seasonal mythological bases of the holiday shine through the Christian veneer. Some but not all aspects of the rituals were Christianized, and those which were not nevertheless remained. On the other hand, holding such a fire ritual can indeed authentically reflect the Christian meaning of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, as suggested in the illustration above. If we are to connect and identify with the divine within us, we too must be willing, so to speak, to leave our body and the material world on the cross (see Campbell, pp. 169-70), which purgative, transformative process (crucifixion) can be symbolized by the fire, even quite literally as in the illustration.
Today the fires and their rituals have mostly fallen by the wayside, but in some areas of The Netherlands and Germany they have been revived, mainly as social occasions. (Fire continues to have a hold on the human psyche, whatever the ostensible occasion for it.) An Easter fire is also made each Easter in Fredricksburg, Texas, a tradition that began soon after the area’s settlement by German farmers in the mid-19th century, a mix of German Easter bonfire traditions and marking a treaty with local Comanches that had been celebrated with bonfires.
Sources and Bibliography
Osbon, Diane, ed. A Joseph Campbell Companion. New York: HarperCollins, 1991 (cited as “Campbell”).
Frazer, James. The Golden Bough, one-volume abridged edition. New York: Touchstone, 1922.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, entry for Easter (cited as “CE”).
Ronnberg, Ami, ed. The Book of Symbols. Cologne, Germany: Taschen.