Author Sarah Ban Breathnach (pronounced "bon bannock") is best known for the series of books that sprung from her 1995 best-seller Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. She's also appeared on Oprah several times, most recently to discuss her rags-to-riches-to-rags story.
How does she enter into studies of Easter traditions? Because a collection of fabrications that she published on a K-12 school resource web site (horrors) in 1987 and republished in book form in 1990 and 2001 introduced several new wrinkles on the old, disproven "Christians stole everything about Easter from early pagan cultures" mythology.
The original article, which Ban Breathnach wrote for WorldandISchool.com, refers to supposedly ancient Saxon practices and beliefs that were actually invented in modern times. The following sentence cites "myths" that were actually fabricated by fairy-tale compiler Jacob Grimm in 1835 and years following. To be fair to Ban Breathnach, they are reported as fact in many reference books whose editors should have known better. That said, the following statement is patently and demonstrably false.
The part about the "goddess" Eostre was pretty much lifted from Jacob Grimm's fabrications (starting about 1835). The notion that the Saxons worshipped her "long before the birth of Christ" is nonsense.
A subsequent statement includes "ancient pagan practices" that never happened period, but which writers fabricated within the last century.
Again, every aspect of the statement above is patently false. Ancient Teutonic peoples (including Saxons) did not color eggs. They did not roll them across the fields. The only question I have at this time is whether Ban Breathnach copied the "information" from another source or whether she made the whole thing up herself, as she did the "bird-bunny" myth (below). I am inclined to believe that she actually made it up. Because every other reference I can find to this topic brings me right back to Ban Breathnach's writings or to other documents that are obviously based on them and have been created since 1987.
In case you still think Breathnach's writings show any sort of commitment to historical accuracy, you might be interested to know that in the original article, she also claimed that Christians argued about "whether Easter should coincide with the Jewish observance of Passover (which might fall on a weekday) or whether Easter should always be on a Sunday, regardless of the date." For the unitiated, the church NEVER considered celebrating Easter the same day as Passover - for one thing, Passover was on a Thursday the year Jesus was crucified. Nor did the church ever consider celebrating Easter on any day but Sunday. The Easter and Western church did disagree about whether to celebrate Easter the same week that contemporary Jews were celebrating Passover - the church calendar in Western Europe had got out of sync with the Jewish calendar - but that's an entirely different discussion. This bit of made-up history was deleted from the article before it was published in book form, however.
Most often I track the "rolling red duck-eggs" misinformation back to a book that Ban Breathnach published it in 1990 and republished in 2001, in which she repeated the above passages. The book's title in 1990 was Mrs. Sharp's Traditions: Nostalgic Suggestions for Re-creating the Family Celebrations and Seasonal Pastimes of the Victorian Home.
"Mrs. Sharp" is a sort of "Victorian Betty Crocker" that Ban Breathnach invented to typify what she believed would have been the ideal Victorian homemaker.* Ban Breathnach never made any attempt to hide the fictitious nature of her "spokesperson." What she did hide, though, was just how much of the book's content was really her own invention. For example, she has a page about how the Victorians celebrated "Christmas in July." Only there is no historical record of anyone in Western Europe or the United States celebrating "Christmas in July" until 1935. That's hardly a critical problem - Traditions was meant from the start to be a cleverly-conceived book of ideas, not a reference document. But it does show that Ban Breathnach's claim that all of the content comes from Victorian sources is, shall we say, overstated.
Traditions went quietly out of print a few years later. Then Ban Breathnach's 1995 success with Simple Abundance gave her a chance to reprint Traditions. The 2001 Version includes a new forward and some new illustrations, but mostly the same text.
In both printings of Traditions Ban Breathnach repeats the above paragraphs about alleged ancient Easter traditions, followed by this statement:
According to legend, Eostre's favorite animal was a large handsome bird, which in a fit of anger she turned into a hare. This is why each Easter a beautiful March hare continues to build a nest to fill with colored eggs.
Nothing much was made of this passage when it was originally published. However, the 2001 edition reached a much wider audience, including, apparently, children's story writer Jean-Andrew Dickmann. In 2002, Dickmann wrote a "kinder, gentler" version of the bird-bunny myth for Cricket children's magazine. Ban Breathnach could hardly accuse Dickmann of plagiarism, since Ban Breathnach had claimed that she was simply referring to an old legend.
Most versions that have been written since follow Dickmann's example and go the "kinder, gentler" route. In one of the most common versions, Eostre sees an injured bird. She knows that even if she heals it, it will never be able to fly and escape predators. So she turns it into a rabbit, but it still lays eggs.
Since Ban Breathnach and Dickmann both present the story as ancient legend, people who were already fans of Jacob Grimm's fabricated legends adopted it immediately into their "canon." Also, nobody felt any qualms about rewriting it themselves. Today, you can find dozens of retellings in print, and hundreds of retellings on the internet, all claiming to be reporting the "true story of the Easter Bunny" or some such. Most of the retellings date after 2002. I have yet to find one example that dates before 1990. Nearly all of them, however, claim that it is an ancient legend going back thousands of years, "proving" that Easter eggs, Easter egg rolls, and/or the Easter Bunny were stolen by Christians and their pagan origins suppressed for centuries.
If there were any evidence actually showing that, I'd be glad to admit it - after all I do the same for Christmas, which borrowed at least the date of the festival from a Roman feast. But in the complete absence of evidence for the pagan origin of modern Easter traditions, I do get tired of being inundated every year with "Easter is Not a Christian Holiday" blogs.
Here's how you can help. If you can offer historical evidence that the "bird-bunny" existed before 1987, I'd be very glad to see it. Or "proof" from before 1835 that eggs or rabbits or hares were ever part of Teutonic spring festivities. Here's a hint - books written in 2005 claiming that the "bird-bunny" myth or Easter egg rolls are really thousands of years old don't count.
Ms. Ban Breathnach: If you're reading this, first of all, I hope you are well. Secondly, if you did not invent the "red duck-egg roll" or the "bird-bunny," I would be very glad to:
Ms. Dickman: If you are reading this, I also hope that you are well. In addition, if you had some source for the "bird-bunny" myth besides Ms. Ban Breathnach's writings, I'd be very glad to see those as well.
To everyone else: please enjoy the spring season and your Easter holiday season in the way that seems best to you.
*Many folks in the last few decades have looked on the Victorian era as an emblem of "simpler times," and "appropriate family values." Look at the popularity of Thomas Kinkade art for an example. Of course, such nostalgia overlooks the fact that for women, those times were only simpler if they were married to men who could afford nice houses, decent furniture, housekeepers, cooks, and workmen to do maintenance on the house when it was necessary. For the vast majority of European and North American women, it was a time of drudgery during which it was nearly impossible for women to own property or to have any say in the major decisions affecting their own lives. If you worked from dawn 'til dark feeding and clothing the family; if you had to send your daughers off to apprentice as housemaids at the age of twelve and your sons off to factories at the age of ten, those were not "simpler times."
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