There has been a mighty ruckus about the National Trust and Cadbury’s decision to rename the traditional Easter Egg Hunt on National Trust properties the Cadbury Egg Hunt. Two things are quite striking about this story: first, that it concerns something pretty trivial; and second, that there has been widespread and strong reaction to it.
The National Trust was facing a membership boycott amid a growing backlash over the decision to drop “Easter” from the name of its annual Easter egg hunt. The charity and Cadbury’s faced criticism from all quarters including the Prime Minister, other faith leaders, and members of the Cadbury family over the “frankly ridiculous” decision to rename their annual event. Members said that they were reconsidering their payments to the National Trust as many took to social media to ask the charity how they could cancel their subscriptions.
The National Trust stated that the decision had been made by Cadbury’s marketing department; Cadbury’s said all the fuss was silly as the word ‘Easter’ occurs numerous times on their website. And, of course, there is no way that a commercial enterprise like that could be seen to back down in response to popular outrage—even if it is almost universal.
Theresa May reacted to the news yesterday morning pointing out that she was a National Trust member as well as a vicar’s daughter. She said: “Easter’s very important. It’s important to me, it’s a very important festival for the Christian faith for millions across the world. So I think what the National Trust is doing is frankly just ridiculous.” She found an unlikely ally in Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, who said: “It upsets me as well because I don’t see why Cadbury should take over the name, because that’s what it’s done, it’s commercialisation gone a bit too far.”
Other religious leaders also objected, including the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Romain, and Jagjit Singh, spokesperson of Sikh Council UK. James Cadbury, great-great-great-grandson of the Quaker founder of the company also objected.
He was a deeply religious man and the founding principles of Cadbury’s were based on the Quaker religion and helping anyone access all religions, so to drop the word Easter he would have been disappointed.
It is not a little ironic that the Cadbury family fund the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Birmingham. Its director of public policy, Professor Francis Davies, also expressed his amazement—not least because the Director General of the National Trust, Dame Helen Ghosh, is a practicing Catholic who was the senior civil servant in charge of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the UK in 2010.
I am astonished at Helen Ghosh. Having run the Home Office and given her own personal background, it is astonishing. As chief executive of the National Trust, she should have known better.’
And the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, came out guns blazing:
Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry were Great Quaker industrialists. If people visited Birmingham today in the Cadbury World they will discover how Cadbury’s Christian faith influenced his industrial output. He built houses for all his workers, he built a Church, he made provision for schools etc. It is obvious that for him Jesus and justice were two sides of the one coin. To drop Easter from Cadbury’s Easter Egg Hunt in my book is tantamount to spitting on the grave of Cadbury. Maybe everyone should now buy The Real Easter Egg.
At this point it is worth pausing and reflecting on how important the egg really is in communicating the message of Easter. Eggs were first associated with spring time as a pagan tradition of celebrating new life and the fertility of the earth. Eggs became associated with Easter when the mediaeval church discouraged their consumption during Lent, as part of a fasting discipline—which is why they came to be used in pancakes on Shrove Tuesday before the beginning of Lent. In many European countries, it is still a popular tradition to paint and decorate hard-boiled eggs—though in sweet-tooth Britain, this has been overtaken by the chocolate egg industry, which is now worth hundreds of millions of pounds a year.
It then becomes slightly embarrassing to realise that the term ‘Easter‘ itself is most likely a pagan word; the Venerable Bede believed that the month of April was previously named after ‘was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month’—but Bede is our only source for this, and most of the other theories about Eostre are pure speculation as part of the rise of neo-paganism.
In fact, the egg itself is not a very good illustration of the resurrection—even though I have used a giant, eight-foot high cardboard egg as an illustration for an all-age Easter-day talk. The common thread is new life coming from an unexpected place, and looks lifeless. But of course an egg is not actually without life before the chick hatches, whereas the tomb where Jesus had been laid really was. And, as quite a few people have pointed out, Cadbury’s are in the business of making chocolate; it is the church which should be in the business of promoting and explaining Easter.
The spoof news site Newsthump came rather too close to offering a real news story when it pointed out the incongruity of Theresa May’s complaint—while heading for a visit to Saudi Arabia.
Theresa May has spoken of her outrage that the word ‘Easter’ has been removed from posters for an Easter Egg Hunt while taking time out from a busy trip getting chummy with people who behead people found guilty of blasphemy.
“Easter is an incredibly important issue for my government, and will speak out whenever it is threatened – especially if it means you will talk about this and not the other things we are currently doing. But beheading people because of what they say in private is not really something for us to comment on, obviously.”
Here is a key point: is there any virtue in defending the use of ‘Easter’ whilst denying key ethical teachings of Jesus? And yet if we waited until we were without fault before speaking up, then none of us would say anything.
In the light of all this, why was the reaction so strong? Easter Eggs don’t teach us much about the resurrection; it is the church’s job, not Cadbury’s, to promote Easter; and it is dangerous to make public pronouncements when there are glaring problems with our ethics. Yet the suggestion of eliminating the word that links the season to a Christian festival provokes strong emotions—and for good reason.
Suggestions a few years ago of a local council renaming Christmas ‘Winterval’ might have been a bit extreme. But widespread displacement of the Christmas story in school nativity plays creates a sense of the loss of contact with a basic understanding of Christian teaching, and this not only cuts off contact from the gospel, it cuts off contact from much of Western history and culture. Add to that the rejection by cinemas of the Church of England’s video about the Lord’s Prayer, and European Court rulings on the prohibition of religious symbols in the workplace, and you create a clear impression of the marginalisation of belief. Radio 4 has been broadcasting a weekly Lenten Reflection on Tuesday’s at 9.45; last week’s argued that we could not believe anything that Jesus claimed for himself but at least he taught us to be determined in the face of suffering. It is difficult to see how this could be anything but offensive to Christians when labelled as ‘Lenten’, and it is hard to imagine the BBC broadcasting a ‘Ramadan’ meditation on how mistaken Mohammed was.
The lost of ‘Easter’ for the National Trust was particularly galling as it was in the name of commercial sponsorship. The one god we must not offend, it seems, is the god of the market. (Cue the joke about the Pope doing a sponsorship deal with McDonald’s to change the Lord’s Prayer to ‘Give us this day our daily burger.’ He says to the cardinals: ‘The good news is that we have a major new stream of income. The bad news is that the sponsorship deal with Hovis has come to an end.’) (Drawing courtesy of Taffy Davies).
The names of celebrations might not communicate the Christian message but they do serve to keep the rumour of God alive—or perhaps (to change the metaphor) keep the door ajar for the telling of the story. ‘Airbrushing’ the name out, not least in the name of commercialism, threatens to silence the rumour or slam shut the door—and that is something that it is worth feeling strongly about.
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