Friday, April 21, 2006

An Easter Message from the Vampire Corner

In spite of what the TV weather people assume, not all of us crave the sunshine. And a lot more of us can't stand the glare of artificial light. In the mid-1990s, when I was working at Amtrak's Chicago Call Center up on the 38th floor of the Mid-Continental Plaza building, those of us who didn't like the glare congregated at the back of the former training room, where most of the overhead lights were turned off. The Vampire Corner, we called it. In those days there were slow times during the early afternoon and most of us vampires got to know each other pretty well.

I worked with a delightful young woman I'll call Julia. We often sat together and had amazing conversations about current events, art, philosophy, and religion. She was a former Roman Catholic who had converted to a fundamentalist sect which believed that the King James Version--and only the King James Version--was the inerrant Word of God. I appreciated the KJV for its poetic images, but preferred the New Revised Standard Version for meaning. We remained friends even though our religious views were poles apart.

One spring, she told me that Easter was actually named for Astarte, the Semitic goddess of fertility. I replied that it had been named for Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. Julia was originally from South America, so I asked her about the Spanish word for Easter. She acknowledged that is was Pascua, or Passover. But she stuck to her belief that Easter was named for the goddess often associated with sexuality, and appropriated by modern Satanists in their rituals.

I never understood why her denomination insisted on associating the principal holy day of Christianity with a pagan fertility goddess. After doing some research, I learned that a number of fundamentalist sects, such as the Restored Church of God, reject Easter as a pagan festival. They celebrate Passover, and believe Christ was resurrected on a Saturday. Their association of Easter with Astarte, or Ishtar, is folk etymology. Eostre is Germanic and Indo-European in origin, while Astarte is Semitic. And while there were cults of Ishtar in Rome and the Hellenic world, they did not exist among Germanic-speaking peoples. The name Easter is a borrowing from pre-Christians, but a rather benign one.

Nonetheless, Julia believed the word Easter was derived from Astarte, and nothing I or anyone else could say would shake her of that belief. In spite of this, she was beautiful person, and brought her spiritual light into that pleasant darkness.

I lost track of Julia after she left the office. The pressure of working at the call center was getting to her. And it was going get worse. The slow times when agents had time to chat were decreasing. She had young children and needed to spend more time with them. Her husband was a Chicago police officer, so she didn't have to worry about losing health benefits. The last I heard, she was working at a small health clinic.

Whenever I want to declare a blanket condemnation of fundamentalist Christians I try to remember her. Julia was a fundamentalist and had what I considered to be wacky beliefs, but was (and, I'm sure still is), a sweet, caring, and altogether wonderful human being.

This does not mean I can't oppose the fundamentalists when they want to tear down Jefferson's "wall of separation" between church and state, or try to impose their dogmas on the rest of us. It's just a reminder that when we attach labels to people, we can't forget that they're still human beings like ourselves.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Wet Monday

From the Wikipedia article, Dyngus Day:

Dyngus Day or Wet Monday (Polish Śmigus-dyngus, lany poniedziałek or Oblewania) is the name for Easter Monday in Poland. In the Czech Republic it is called Velikonocni Pondeli or Pomlázka.

Both countries practice a peculiar custom on this day. Traditionally, boys will awaken girls early in the morning and douse them with water and strike them about the legs with long thin twigs made from willow, birch or decorated tree branches (palmy wielkanocne). This practice is possibly connected to a pre-Christian, pagan fertility rite, although the earliest documented records of Dyngus Day in Poland are from 15th century, almost half a millennium after Poland adopted Christianity.

Most recently, the tradition has changed to become entirely water-focused, and the Śmigus part is almost forgotten. It is quite common for girls to attack boys just as fiercely as the boys traditionally attacked the girls. With much of Poland's population residing in tall apartment buildings, high balconies are favourite hiding places for young people who gleefully empty entire buckets of water onto randomly selected passers-by.

Here in the U.S., the spanking element has pretty much disappeared, and the liquid most common on Wet Monday is beer. Dyngus Day is mainly an occasion for eating sausage and quaffing brew. In South Bend, it's also the traditional kickoff for political campaigns. In 1968, the last time the Indiana Democratic presidential primary had any significance, Robert Kennedy was at the West Side Democratic Club on Dyngus Day. He won South Bend and Indiana handily.

Tonight, I expect Joe Donnelly to be at that same club. He's running against Chris Chocola, the plutocratic Republican congressman from Indiana's Second District. Two years ago Donnelly, a virtual unknown and without support form the national Democratic party, lost to Chocola by eight percentage points. This year, Democrats are taking the Second District seriously. has been running ads against Chocola. Donnelly is a fairly conservative Democrat, like former Congressman and 9/11 Commission member Tim Roemer, who represented what was then the Third District from 1991 to 2003. But compared to Chocola, the guy's a godsend.