This (Easter Sunday) morning I was listening to my local German radio station where an expert on religion was explaining how certain ‘European’ Easter traditions – like painting and hiding eggs for children – were increasingly adopted elsewhere. He linked this to the spread of television and children’s books and opined that ‘a majority of mankind’ now would adopt these.
Well, he was correct and missing the point at the same time. He missed the point because his explanation was Eurocentric. First, he overlooked that most of mankind is not Christian. Apart from that, also the new secular religion of consumerism (‘buy more chocolate eggs’) has definitely reached less people than he thinks. Among them is the one billion or so Muslims (and many other ‘non-Christians’ worldwide) who definitely do not celebrate Easter although they do recognize Jesus – or ‘Isa – as one of their prophets.
He was right that the ‘Easter’ egg plays a role in a wider part of mankind during this time of the year. But not for globalisation but because it has always been there: As a symbol for nature’s fertility returning with spring, Afghans, Iranians and Kurds celebrate their (pre-Islamic*) New Year – i.e. Nowruz or Newroz (in Kurdish) – and vend and play with eggs which they have hard-boiled, adding certain herbs to the water which give them colour. You can find them in the bazaar of Mazar-e Sharif when the New Year flag (the janda) is hoisted while Pashtuns play hagey jangawel (‘egg fighting’) during that time of the year: people go around with baskets full of eggs and knock them against each other; the one who’s egg cracks loses it.
No one then the mullas know better that this is pre-Islamic or, in their interpretation, non-Islamic. The Taleban tried to ban the egg fighting (and celebrating Nawruz altogether); in Gurbuz district of Khost this even led to a mini-war in 2001, expressing local disdain with the joyless regime in general. This year, conservative mullas in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan tried to emulate the Taleban by publicly calling on their fellow Muslims to ignore the ‘heathen’ festival. Not with much success: people continued to visit each other, wearing new clothes which are traditionally bought for the New Year.
One could say that the ‘egg’ part of our Easter is not so much a ‘pre-Christian’ but, wider, a ‘pre-monotheistic’ spring festival. I would not be surprised if variants of it were existing amongst tribes at the Amazon or in New Guinea.
(*) Muslims also use the lunar calendar which determines the festivals of their religion (like the holy month of Ramadan) which makes it ‘wander’ through our calendar. But they do not celebrate this New Year.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020