Sunday, April 08, 2007

What Easter Means to Me

I've been hearing a lot of people asking about the Easter Bunny, a holiday character that seems to have little or no connection to Christ and his resurrection. A character some may compare to the tooth fairy. The Easter Bunny, I assure you, is no mere corporate concoction. There are some of us who take him very, very seriously.

I'd like to celebrate Easter Sunday by sharing a little bit about my family's tradition. Every family has its own unique way of celebrating holidays, but I think mine may be rather unfamiliar to those outside of Minnesota. My family worships the Easter Bunny, also known as Peter Cottontail, or, as we know him back home, Petro Cottonnius.

What's normal in that folksy Midwestern paradise may seem odd to people today in, say, Brooklyn, New York, but our cultural heritage has deep roots in Ninth-century Eastern Europe, specifically the Balkans. My Scandinavian ancestors inherited the traditions from Viking traders who brought the holiday back to the Nordic countries, and we proudly carry on the celebration today.

I offer this bit of history not just for my readers' edification, but as an alternative to the Christian Easter tradition, which makes many of us very uncomfortable, what with all of its worship of the dead.

So here, dear readers, is the story of Petro Cottonnius, the Rabbit King of Albania, a story very close to the hearts of all Minnesotans.

In around the Tenth-century after Christ's birth, the people of Montenegro, righteous Unitarians all, were suspicious of what they saw as zombie worship with the resurrection of Christ. The medieval Unitarians firmly held that Jesus Christ was a mortal man -- a great one, to be sure (they gladly celebrated Christmas) -- but certainly not the son of God. And definitely not one who rose from the grave.

The Slavs of the middle ages were terrified of the notion of the dead arising, and rightly so after the reign of Viktor the Bleeder, the usurperious King of Albania who would kidnap peasant children and drink their blood. The story goes -- and this may be the earliest European vampire legend -- that King Viktor would bleed the stolen children dry and then bring them back to life as yellowed walking corpses who would in prowl the night wreaking havoc on livestock and crops.

Scholars today argue about Viktor's legacy; some say it was merely the way the following generations explained an awful king who mishandled a famine. But the suspicion of dead people who come back to life was real. The combination of this native fear and the theological belief that there was just one God (hence Uni-tarian, as opposed to Trinitarian), led to a different tradition.

The Montenegrans rightly sought a more jovial hero for this day, Easter. They didn't have to look far, for Easter, as it's celebrated today, happens to fall near the birthday of Petro Cottonnius, the Rabbit King of Albania.

Petro Cottonnius was called the Rabbit King for his abnormally tall ears and a deformity in his knees wherein the joints were actually reversed, giving Cottonnius a peculiar gait that some say resembled a hop. He was of noble birth, and became king during a time of great poverty in the Balkans. The Cottonnius family returned to the throne after Viking mercenaries (not yet Christians, it is interesting to note) defeated the vicious regime of Viktor the Bleeder.

There was much reconstruction to do, not just in the architectural sense, but also in the psyche of the common people of Albania and Montenegro. Rebuilding the trust of the children was on the top of the new king's list.

Legend has it the Rabbit King would hide eggs made from the royal stock of imported sugar (brought in by the aforementioned Viking trader/mercenaries) in the little hamlets of his kingdom. Children would find them and be delighted for the day, forgetting about their crushing destitution. But more importantly, the spectre of that gruesome kidnapper Viktor the Bleeder was no longer haunting families. The throne was a source of joy again.

The celebration of King Cottonnius came about more than a century after his death. While the kingdom was Christian in the sense that they followed the teachings of Christ, they weren't in the sense that they saw Christ as divine. This of course is true of Unitarians today. So the Balkan kingdoms never celebrated Easter until an influx of Catholics came with the widening of trade routes created by the Vikings.

When the Pope officially appointed a bishop for the Albanian region, the Unitarian majority reacted by redefining Easter on their own terms: a celebration of Albanian heritage, and of their Unitarianism. This was now a celebration of the Rabbit King Cottonnius. The practice of making chocolate rabbits didn't come about until some time after Columbus, maybe the 1600s.

Meanwhile, back in Scandinavia, parents had been telling their children the story of the Rabbit King for decades, ever since Viking traders brought back the story of the generous king who would hide sugar eggs for poor children. The Nordic version of the Rabbit King celebration was held in the Spring, but in May, for the Scandinavians had no reason to connect it to Easter.

At some point in the Nineteenth-century, about a thousand years after Cottonnius lived, the Scandinavian and Balkan Cottonnius holidays sort of merged. Both cultures celebrated the day on Easter, but now both held the Christian Easter to be more important. All that was left was a story about some bunny rabbit and an odd tradition of hiding colorful eggs.

But in Minnesota, and in some parts of northern Norway and Sweden and rural Denmark, as in Montenegro today, Petro Cottonnius reigns supreme on Easter.

And so in my family, a typical Minnesotan family, we would wake up on Easter morning knowing that old Petro Cottonnius had hopped through, hiding eggs and chocolate effigies of himself. We weren't suspicious of Christians the way some of our ancestors were -- we were too well steeped in the lore of the good Rabbit King to dwell on some walking dead. It wasn't until I moved to New York a couple of years ago that I realized how insulated I was in Minnesota. It seems that most Americans don't know the true history of the Easter Bunny. I hope this story helps clear some of the confusion about this jolly character.

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