Celebrating Eostre

We are waiting, as we have been for the past two weeks.

Jessica’s Jersey cow, Precious, is due to give birth—over due. At first, we were expecting a calf around March 25. Then we realized that we had misremembered the day the deed was done. Replacing the incorrect June 19 with June 25, we recalculated: back three months, forward five to seven days, and arrived at a new due date, April 1. We also realized that the “normal” gestational period for a Jersey can expand from 283 days to 291, taking us through the first week in April. Up to now.

So we are really ready!

Precious, however, seems to have other ideas.

Is she pregnant at all? It seems so. She has not come into heat regularly over the past nine months, and if you palpate her belly alongside her ribs, you can feel the lumps of what must be curled limbs. And they move.

On the other hand, her udder is still small—not yet bursting with the milk that her calf will need right out of the chute. The muscles of her tailbone have not yet sunk. She walks comfortably, munching the greening grass. As our farmer neighbor says: If she isn’t trying, nothing is wrong.

Is she waiting? Or is it just we humans who are drenched with anticipation?
Sunday will be Easter, and I have been researching the pagan threads woven through this most important of Christian holidays. A spring celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection dates back to the second century, when it was primarily a ritual of baptism. Those seeking to join the Christian community would undergo a 40-day period of isolation, education, and prayer before being born again with the sun/son into the body of the church as a member. This ritual of new beginnings wasn’t called Easter, however.

The name Easter, or “Eostre,” dates to the seventh century, when Christian missionaries purportedly subsumed the spring celebrations of an Anglo Saxon goddess by the same name within their own Paschal rites. As Venerable Bead (679-735 BCE) writes, the month of April, or “Eostremonath,” was named after a goddess of fertility (think “estrus” and “estrogen”), spring, and the dawning of a day (think “east”). The newly-converted Anglo Saxon Christians, Bede claimed, were now borrowing this “time-honoured name” to describe the “joys of the new rite” the missionaries had introduced.

Whether or not there actually was such a goddess is difficult to verify through other means, though few suspect Bede of lying. What is clear is that the Christian missionaries to England had been instructed by their pope, Gregory, in a letter of 601 BCE, to allow the “heathens” to continue worshipping in their own temples and practicing their own rituals as long as those temples were purged of “idols” and those rituals redirected to the Christian God. Bede may be confirming, then, the continuation of pagan practices under the auspices of a spring celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, now named “Easter.”

There are no bunnies in the Bible. No colored eggs or hot cross buns. But there is evidence that Anglo Saxons considered the hare an exemplar and symbol of fertility; that they decorated and exchanged eggs in celebration of the vernal equinox (as did many cultures), and that crosses on sweet breads may have represented the horns of a bull honored—or sacrificed—in the name of a a god or goddess, like Eostre.
We are not interested in sacrificing any bulls this Easter. (Come on, Precious! Give us a heifer!) But it is hard not to celebrate the new beginnings sprouting up around us. There is a sense of irresistible relief and joy that comes when the grip of cold breaks and new life peeks out from its hiding places.

At the same time, however, that joy is woven through with a sense of tremendous yearning for all the things yet to emerge. Spring is a time when desire wakes up—the sap runs, fluids flow, and we want what will be.

So what are we celebrating? And why?

We are celebrating the seeds. The return of desire, the return of hope and promise for what is not yet.

And we celebrate the seeds for there is work to be done. Hard work. We must plant and protect, warm and water, and watch vigilantly for signs of sickness. We must, in short, wait, and we will need all the good will and determination, all the patience and attention, that our celebration will stir in us.
Perhaps it is fitting that my book, What a Body Knows, is out just now, on the eve of Eostre’s festival. For this book is all about desire—and about how we deal with our own. The book is not about “getting what you want” as much as it is about how we sense and respond to the sensations of longing that surface in us.

There is work to be done here, and it is the work of opening a sensory space where we can feel our desires, and welcome the feelings of frustration that so often signal their arrival as guiding us to move in ways that will align our pleasure and well being. It is the work of waiting for an impulse to move, and following it through.

We are waiting. Waiting for Precious to calve. Waiting for spring to come. Waiting for What a Body Knows to make its way into the world. Waiting to be born.

Perhaps we need to celebrate Easter so that we will have the energy and focus to wait for the harvest, the birth, the becoming. It will happen, we remind ourselves. It will happen. The spring we thought would never arrive has finally come, and so will the birth we desire.

Come on, Precious!

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