Why Easter stubbornly resists the commercialism that swallowed Christmas.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
March 20 2008 6:54 AM

Happy Crossmas!

Why Easter stubbornly resists the commercialism that swallowed Christmas.

Also in Slate: Andrew Santella asked if it's OK to "modernize" the Stations of the Cross. Larry Hurtado investigated how early Christians wrestled with the idea of resurrection.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Sending out hundreds of Easter cards this year? Attending way too many Easter parties? Doing some last-minute shopping for gifts to place under your Easter tree? Getting tired of those endless Easter-themed specials on television?

I didn't think so.

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Unlike Christmas, whose deeper spiritual meaning has been all but buried under an annual avalanche of commercialism, Easter has retained a stubborn hold on its identity as a religious holiday. This is all the more surprising when you consider what an opportune time it would be for marketers to convince us to buy more stuff. Typically arriving around the beginning of spring, Easter would be the perfect time for department stores to euchre customers into buying carloads of kids' outdoor toys, warm-weather clothes, and summertime sporting equipment. And while Christmas is forced to contend with Thanksgiving, New Year's Day, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, there is little holiday competition around Easter time. (Passover and Easter, despite their proximity in the calendar, don't seem to interfere with each other much.) All in all, the church's most important feast day comes at a terrific time of year for Madison Avenue.

So what enables Easter to maintain its religious purity and not devolve into the consumerist nightmare that is Christmas? Well, for one thing, it's hard to make a palatable consumerist holiday out of Easter when its back story is, at least in part, so gruesome. Christmas is cuddly. Easter, despite the bunnies, is not.

Jesus on the cross
A crucified Jesus symbolizes Easter

To the secular mind, the story of Christmas goes like this: A young couple named Mary (pretty, pregnant, wearing a flattering blue gown) and Joseph (a little older, quite handsome, sporting a well-trimmed beard) journeyed on a trusty donkey all the way to O Little Town of Bethlehem. Since there was no room at the inn, the young couple bunked in a cozy stable filled with cuddly farm animals. There, Away in the Manger, Mary gave birth to Jesus, her adorable baby boy. Soon after, Angels We Have Heard on High came to the rustic shepherds to tell them What Child Is This. And then We Three Kings of Orient Are—or, rather, showed up.

Despite the awesome theological implications (Christians believe that the infant lying in the manger is the son of God), the Christmas story is easily reduced to pablum. How pleasant it is in mid-December to open a Christmas card with a pretty picture of Mary and Joseph gazing beatifically at their son, with the shepherds and the angels beaming in delight. The Christmas story, with its friendly resonances of marriage, family, babies, animals, angels, and—thanks to the wise men—gifts, is eminently marketable to popular culture. It's a Thomas Kinkade painting come to life.

On the other hand, a card bearing the image of a near-naked man being stripped, beaten, tortured, and nailed through his hands and feet onto a wooden crucifix is a markedly less pleasant piece of mail.

The Easter story is relentlessly disconcerting and, in a way, is the antithesis of the Christmas story. No matter how much you try to water down its particulars, Easter retains some of the shock it had for those who first participated in the events during the first century. The man who spent the final three years of his life preaching a message of love and forgiveness (and, along the way, healing the sick and raising the dead) is betrayed by one of his closest friends, turned over to the representatives of a brutal occupying power, and is tortured, mocked, and executed in the manner that Rome reserved for the worst of its criminals.

We may even sense resonances with some painful political issues still before us. Jesus of Nazareth was not only physically brutalized but also casually humiliated during his torture, echoing the abuses at Abu Ghraib. In 21st-century Iraq, some American soldiers posed prisoners with women's underwear on their heads as a way of scorning their manhood. In first-century Palestine, some Roman soldiers pressed down a crown of thorns onto Jesus' head and clothed him in a purple robe to scorn the kingship his followers claimed for him. After this, Jesus suffered the most degrading of all Roman deaths: crucifixion. Jesus remains the world's most famous victim of capital punishment.