There are no rabbits on Tanna. There are also no chocolate eggs in the stores. That’s cool with me, I don’t like chocolate much anyway. For those who do, I have been able to get my hands on two packs of Tymos – much like the Australian Tim Tam but better because they come in coconut flavour. Personally, I would prefer the rabbit itself, but as I said, none of them either.
Eggs aren’t a part of Easter here. Why would they be? Even if people did know what a rabbit was, I’m pretty sure they could take a fair guess and say that they don’t lay eggs. An egg-delivering fur-ball just isn’t part of their past. But it is part of ours of course.
The jury’s still out on the exact origin of Easter but suffice to say that in ancient times various pagan festivals were held around the Mediterranean rim and across Europe during the spring equinox. These festivals were held in honour of variations of a goddess of fertility sometimes depicted as or with a rabbit or hare. This deity, who bore names such as Eostre, Ostara, Austra and Eastre, was commonly associated with fertility. It’s a bit sketchy but we get the gist: rabbit = fertile animal; egg = birth, life, spring etc.
It all seems quite quaint – the benevolent bunny with the basket – but this was the pagan religion of many of us westerners’ ancestors. This is what people turned from to ‘serve the living and true God’ (1Th 1:9). And yet western Christians still practice the giving and receiving of eggs on a day bearing the name of an ancient goddess (can you have a new goddess?).
But is western Christian Easter syncretism? Syncretism being the combining of two different beliefs. In this case, the continued practice of pagan or polytheistic worship alongside Christianity.
Many Easter moons ago I was in the checkout queue at a Woolworths in Perth, Australia, eyeing a trolley-full of glistening chocolate jewels. The trolley’s skipper, returning my gape and taking in my meagre collection of fair-trade items, threw wide his arms and declared, ‘well you gotta get heaps, mate … that’s what it’s all about!’
Chocolate is a distraction, yes, and probably unhelpful in that regard, but that doesn’t necessarily make culinary revelry syncretism. I feel confident that western Christians can eat their chocolate on the morning of the Sunday following the first full moon after the March equinox, with thankfulness to God. Why? Because the egg has been emptied of its spiritual significance. The person eating the egg has no pull towards worshipping Eostre, sacrificing to her or engaging in fertility rituals in order to ensure blessing on livestock and harvest.
Easter on Tanna doesn’t bring eggs, but it does bring yams. The harvest is a big deal and it falls roundabout Easter time. As with all of Tannese life, the cycle of planting, raising and harvesting yams is interwoven with what we might call ‘magic’ or animistic practice, and what Tannese call ‘kastom.’ It includes fasting and observations of ‘taboos,’ right relationships and honouring particular members of society and the manipulations of the elements through a combination of rituals involving spirits relating to stones and the mental and emotional state of the people involved. This doesn’t just occur on an individual level, as it might in western society, but on a corporate level where the actions and beliefs of all members of the community can impact on the harvest of the whole.
That makes it tough for Christians who want to honour God rather than the totems and spirits. It’s hard to pick through and work out what is merely cultural and what is in conflict with their new religion.
I wonder how long it took for our pagan past to become little more than a golden aisle at Coles? The giving of coloured eggs in a spring festival goes back to the Egyptians and Persians – we’re talking possibly about 2000BCE. It was around the 7th of 8th century CE that the name ‘Easter’ was used for the Christian celebration.
Christianity first came to Tanna when John Williams landed and left Samoan teachers in 1839. The church wasn’t established until 1880 after over a decade of work by the Watts and Neilsons and many people from neighbouring Aneityum, and didn’t go out to much of Tanna until the turn of the twentieth century. By the 1930’s much of the work of the church was undone by the rise of a movement now often referred to as John Frum, which called people back to their traditional beliefs.
You get the picture: it’s all very fresh and new here. Christianity is very young compared to the centuries of theological thinking that we have access to. Some of our western thinking is helpful on Tanna, but it isn’t entirely because each separate form of animism raises its own questions and issues that need to be worked through. To further muddy the water, there are many indigenous Tannese and Ni-Vanuatu theologies that seek to combine incompatible elements of animism with Christianity.
When I was a kid and I asked the inevitable question of what the chocolate eggs meant, I was told that they were a symbol of re-birth used at Easter time because Jesus rose from the dead. I never really bought it because I could never see how anything was ‘re’-born in an egg. I have also heard that the hollow egg reminds us of the empty tomb, but let’s face it, that doesn’t really work either because the best Easter eggs are those small solid ones … aren’t they? – and what about Kinda Surprise? These are attempts to ‘Christianise’ pagan, or perhaps now, secular practices.
The Tannese, as they seek to grapple with Christianity, do the same. Sometimes they are successful, in that they are able to maintain or substitute an element of culture without compromising their faith, and other times they are not.
I preached at a yam thanks giving service in a local church. The service fell on Easter Sunday. It was about half way through the service that I realised that I was the only one excited about Easter. It was great that they were willing to express their thankfulness to God for their yams, but such a shame that it overshadowed Jesus’ death and resurrection. This year some Tannese will take their yams to the nakamal (meeting place and centre of animistic activity) and some will take them to the church. Many will do both and all around Tanna there will be debates as to which should be done first.
What all this shows is that coming fully to Christ can be a long and difficult process. Please pray for the Tannese and Ni-Vanuatu Christians as they continue to work through these issues. Ask God that he produce wise men, deeply rooted in God’s word, who can guide the church.
It also shows how necessary it is that we, as foreign teachers, understand the culture. It would only be of minimal help if we taught theology in a way that is only relevant to the western church. We need to be immersed in this culture so that we can teach in a way that is applied and helps people to think through the issues that they face. That’s why it’s so important that we live here, and why couldn’t do what we do by just visiting. So thank you to our supporters this Easter; it is you that make it possible for us to be here.
Please pray for us that God gives us great insight and that he will use us to assist the Tannese Church and the wider Church in Vanuatu.
We’d also like to take the opportunity for a little shout out for this book: Christianity and Animism in Melanesia by Kenneth Nehrbass, which has been so helpful in guiding us in our work, as have many other missionaries who have gone before us and who continue to advise us.
Happy Easter: enjoy a chocolate egg or stewed rabbit – whichever takes your fancy – with thankfulness to God! He raised his Son for our Justification!