Dawn Brings a New Day

It’ll be Easter tomorrow.  

As a child, Good Friday and Easter Sunday were compulsory church days for me. Even now, as a half-pagan semi-atheist (I am multitudes), I sometimes feel a slight desire to attend church services during Easter. 

Easter, with its representation of new beginnings and coming back to life, feels even more important this year considering what we’re going through. The world after COVID-19 will not be the same. 

When we emerge from our homes after this lockdown is over, who will we have become and what will the world look like? 

In his newsletter Timeless & Timely, Scott Monty writes about renewal and how the holiest occasions in the Jewish and Christian religions occur in Spring. The two occasions — Passover and Easter — both act as reminders of how “the future can be better than the present”. 

“Spring is a time of growth and renewal. When the dormant trees and flowers come to life and remind us that nature is once again taking its course,” writes Monty.

No matter how bleak or barren Winter seems to be, the world comes to life in Spring. Monty writes: “Life goes on, even after the most unimaginable of circumstances.”

It’s a heartening reminder in these times. 

When heartache feels like the world’s end

As I write this, my 11-year-old dog is in the hospital. My family adopted Jacob after my aunt’s dog had puppies. I’ve known him all his life and after over a decade, I don’t know what life is supposed to look like if he isn’t around. 

Loving Jacob has taught me so much about loving myself. There have been times when I was curled up crying on the floor and this big-hearted salt and pepper Schnauzer would curl up beside me, providing comfort in his own little way. Looking at myself through his eyes makes me seem like a better person.

In the midst of being cooped up at home during this pandemic — not being able to see friends, being apart from family members — and having lost clients who can no longer afford to pay for my services, this has been the biggest blow yet. 

And so, as I do in times of emotional distress, I turn to reading and writing as a source of comfort. 

The scholar called Jacob, the goddess called Ēostre

My dog, Jacob is named after Jacob Grimm, of Grimm’s Fairy Tales fame. 

In Grimm’s writings in Deutsche Mythologie, he mentions a goddess called Ostara and suggests that she may be where the celebration of Easter began. 

He was exploring Bede’s writing on Ēostre, which said that feasts were once held in her honour but were eventually replaced by the Christian Paschal month

With only one person attesting to this, her existence in history is still a matter of controversy but after enough people have written about her, she’s certainly found her place in Germanic mythology. 

That belief in her existence, because enough people have heard her name, because she has taken form in the minds of people, she continues to exist in a way. 

The power of memory

The idea that memory and belief fortifies existence has been explored numerous times in fiction. From Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Jennifer Fallon’s The Demon Child trilogy to Pixar’s Coco

In American Gods, old gods struggle for their existence amidst new gods like Technology and Media. In Coco, a dead man fights to be remembered by his family on Día de Muertos before his spirit fades away. 

Irvin Yalom said, “Someday soon, perhaps in forty years, there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That’s when I will be truly dead — when I exist in no one’s memory.”

Perhaps it’s not just actual resurrection that can bring someone back to life. Maybe it’s remembrance as well. 

Keeping loved ones alive

After my father died, all those years ago, my mother kept going. She didn’t just keep going, she made sure she thrived. And by extension, my brothers and I thrived. 

She played the music he wrote. She told us stories. She read us his letters. Although we were rather young when my father died, she kept him alive in our minds. 

Years later, even my husband talks about my father as if they’d met. His presence permeates our home, a welcome ghost even in times when it feels painful to remember him. 

His death has also been a reminder that loved ones may leave. That they may be taken away earlier than you expect. 

His death is a reminder to love the ones left behind. 

Just gotta ride that cycle

The Holy Week is typically a time for contemplation. It’s a reminder that life moves in cycles. Both triumph and sorrow do not last forever. 

This year, I am reminded to seize beautiful moments, whenever they come, and that they will come even in the midst of crises. 

I am reminded that when going through trials, the only thing we can do is take it a step at a time and in my mom’s words “face it when it comes”. 

I am reminded that even if the bad times feel like they will last forever, they will not. There are better days ahead. 

Even if things get worse, and perhaps they will, dawn brings a new day. And that’s something to look forward to. 

Passionate Frenzy

Valentine’s Day has never been a big day for me. Not when I was single and believed that I would be forever alone, not when I was in a relationship. Not even after I got married.

I’ve always approached it from a cynical stance ie. as a day for KPI-driven capitalists to make a killing on profits. I’ve always seen it as a misguidedly overrated celebration.

But due to circumstances, this year I found myself in the thick of Valentine’s Day festivities (if you can call it that).

I was part of a crew handling a portion of the logistics for V-day gift delivery. I’d always been curious, you see, about how crazy things get during this internationally declared “day of love”.

It was crazy. Men had preordered an overwhelming number of gifts. And the pressure was on to deliver every single one of those gifts by mid-afternoon.

There were others still who showed up on the day itself to make a purchase that was considered “last-minute”, to be given to their significant other on their mandatory Valentine’s Dinner date.

The Cost of Tradition

I also do some work in the food and beverage industry, and leading up to the date I found myself dumbfounded as I watched prices for February 14 dinners shoot up by at least 25%.

Can’t you show love to your partner every day, I wondered. Why was this one day so special? Was I missing something? Could there be another angle to this?

And then Qingming crossed my mind. The Chinese festival to pray to our dead ancestors. On this day, the Chinese who still observe this tradition clean their relatives’ graves, bring offerings of food, and burn joss sticks and other paper items.

This could be done at any other time. There’s no need to drive all the way to your hometown, no necessity to compete for parking at the various cemeteries. There’s no need to endure the hours spend under the hot sun breathing in the smoke and scent of burning paper that fills the entire cemetery where everyone else is also burning paper.

But we do it. Because tradition. It’s a show of respect. It’s a sign that our loved ones are dead, but not forgotten.

I’m starting to see that Valentine’s Day is a tradition of its own as well. True, gifts and dinners can all be had on any other day. But celebrating Valentine’s Day with the person you love has its own symbolism.

Like making new year resolutions, perhaps V-day is yet another practice that’s part of the modern-day non-religious set of traditions and doctrines.

But February 14 hasn’t always been such a romantic day (unless you’re into BDSM) and like many other celebrations also has religious origins.

The Feast of Lupercalia

A Roman pagan festival that’s said to have started at around the same time that Rome was founded, Lupercalia was apparently a festival for fertility. It was celebrated sometime during the period between February 13 to February 15.

February 14 was supposedly celebrated in honour of the Roman goddess Juno, who reigned over women and marriage. The day after was Lupercalia — celebrating the god Lupercus, who’s associated with fertility.

Lupercalia involved feasting, of course, typically on goat meat. (The goat horn is a symbol of fertility.) Besides slaughtering the goats, the celebrants — fit men of military age, called Luperci — also used the goat hide to make whips.

After the feasting, the Luperci would run naked around the city whipping people. Apparently, getting whipped was a good thing because the belief at the time was that it would increase fertility.

It was also a “day of love” in the sense that men would pull women’s names out of a jar and they would spend the festival period in a f*cking (literally) frenzy.

How did a bordering-on-BDSM pagan festival (which sounds amazing, btw) become the celebration of romance that we know today?

The Martyr called St Valentine

There are multiple stories about a saint called Valentine. Some say that he went against the Roman emperor at the time to secretly perform marriage ceremonies for couples. Others say that he was imprisoned for practising Christianity.

All the stories end with his death, supposedly on February 14.

As Christianity continued to gain dominance in Rome, the Pope at the time “cancelled” Lupercalia and replaced it with St Valentine’s Day.

Although it was meant to celebrate the martyrdom of St Valentine, some aspects of Lupercalia made its way into the new festival. And with St Valentine being known as the “patron of lovers”, it’s not surprising that the idea of romantic love seeped into this new February 14 celebration.

And today, we celebrate Valentine’s Day as a day for lovers. The typical tradition includes gift-giving and candlelit dinners. For some, there may still be whips involved.

Becoming Better Humans

As a whole, the creature was too monstrous to accept. Sometimes it understood that, so it learned to break off little pieces of itself — pieces that were a little easier to welcome — and introduced those to the humans. The humans gave those little fragments their own names and forgot that they were once a part of a whole.

The new year hasn’t felt like a new year at all to me. I crossed over from December 31, 2019 to January 1, 2020 feeling as if it were just another day.

After all, I was in Langkawi (which meant that every day I started drinking at 10am). I was still unemployed. And I’d given up on making new year resolutions in 2017.

But this year, as I was inundated by Instagram ads trying to sell me productivity planners and life-tracking apps, I wondered: Why do people wait for the new year to make resolutions?

Unsurprisingly, as with most “traditions” and sometimes commercial holidays, the practice of making new year resolutions has a religious origin.

Have you heard of the Roman god Janus?

Back when world standard calendars were still “in progress”, the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar decided that the start of the new year would fall on Jan 1 in honour of the god of new beginnings — Janus.

Janus is typically depicted as a god with two faces, one looking backwards and the other forwards. He was worshiped as the god of doorways, duality, transitions and passages.

Part of the new year ceremony in honour of Janus involved reflecting on the past, forgiving enemies who had caused harm and asking for forgiveness for the wrongs one had committed.

The other part involved giving gifts and making promises for the year ahead, in exchange for blessings from the god Janus.

Apparently, if you go back even further to Babylonian times (when the new year was celebrated in what we now know as March, and festivities were dedicated to the god Marduk), the Babylonians made promises to “get on the right side of all their gods”.

Does this whole “making promises for the year ahead” thing sound familiar?

The desire to start afresh

While the practice of making new year resolutions may have religious origins, it’s grown to become something secular. Something that’s so embedded into our culture that as a civilisation, we’ve forgotten how this practice even began.

But perhaps one reason this practice has remained within our psyche and tradition is because it appeals to the side of us that craves progress. It somewhat abates our human desires to be better than we really are.

We like the idea of “starting from scratch”, of having a clean slate to begin again, to try things anew. To wipe away our past failures and start afresh.

The start of the new year feels like a good opportunity to do all that.

It feels like the perfect time to say, “Okay, maybe I didn’t do that well before. But this year will be different!”

Is religion man-made?

When I think about some of the things that have religious origins and have since become secular, I am further convinced that god and religion are things humans developed to make sense of the world. A kind of collective story.

And then as the world began to make more sense, we simply threw away the “religious” bits of our beliefs and kept the parts that we liked, that could be separated from the whole.

Things like meditation and practising mindfulness, for example. Or minimalism and being one with nature. There are certain practices and traditions that we simply gravitate to, that appeal to our minds and spirits.

Somehow, many religions — although super different — have very similar central principles. Most religions place importance on reciprocity, generosity, peace and forgiveness.

Does it matter what god you believe in?

When practised on a personal level, religion can be uplifting and cathartic. It can help provide a centre to one’s being.

When I was still religious, I felt like I had structure, boundaries, a fixed sense of principle. Looking at my friends who’re religious now — no matter what religion they’re from — I feel like they experience something similar.

But when people start forcing their religion down others’ throats, it becomes something dangerous. When religion becomes too dogmatic, it ceases to be something personal.

Instead of peace and clarity, it leads to guilt and disillusionment. It becomes something that can be used to start wars and campaigns.

The need for conversations

The anger that we feel towards those from religions not our own stems from a fear of the unknown. We fear what we don’t understand.

As a teenager, growing up in a conservative Christian community, I wasn’t exposed to other religions. Besides the attitude to women (which I found constraining and offensive), I also remember some negative sentiment towards other religions.

And then later, although I was curious, I hesitated to ask questions about other religions because I feared they might be offensive.

But eventually, I met people who were religious because they wanted to be, not because it was expected of them. These people didn’t seem to get offended when I asked questions like “what offerings should I make to Ganesha” or “is mock pork meat halal”.

Some admitted that they didn’t know everything. That like me, they were also figuring things out.

Back then, I always felt like people of different religions were worlds apart. But these days, I realise that we’re not so different after all.

When it comes down to it, we just want to be better humans.