Friday, April 10, 2009

"Since when is Easter a jokey holiday?"

--thus spake commenter "Joan" in response to this post on one of my favorite blogs, Cake Wrecks. I don't often read the comments there, since there are usually scores of them, mostly from readers trying (unsuccessfully) to out-wit the Blogger, Jen.

But this post, and the comments, caught my folklorist's eye: what is up with a cake shaped like a lamb with a cigarette, or what looks like a cigarette, in its mouth?

To summarize the commenters' theories:
  • It's Joe Camel.
  • The lamb is smoking to signify the end of Lent, and the enjoyment of vices one might have given up for Lent, such as smoking.
  • The cigarette is supposed to represent a paintbrush, and is colored on the end to suggest the lamb's blood that was used to paint door frames during the original Pesach.
  • What looks like a cigarette is actually a scroll, and is in the lamb's mouth to illustrate a passage from Revelations: "Then I saw, between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. The Lamb went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne."
Perhaps the best comment, though, was from a guy who wondered why whoever took the photos hadn't thought to ask the baker about the cakes' meaning. A little fieldwork goes a long way, folks.

I'll be interested to see if Jen posts a "definitive" answer, but I suspect there isn't all good traditions, there are going to be multiple interpretations of the same object.

I am puzzled, though, by the comment that Easter isn't a jokey holiday. Granted, it does mark a very somber occasion, but it's still a holiday, which means it's inherently festive.

Yesterday I took to my folklore class a bunch of parody Passover songs that a former student collected as part of a fieldwork project on her family's Pesach traditions. I'd never come across anything like them before, and was blown away by the collection, and by her description of how they were incorporated into her family's Seder. Here are the lyrics to a couple of my favorites:

My Passover Things (to the tune of “These Are a Few Of My Favorite Things”)
Cleaning and cooking and so many dishes,
Out with the hametz, no pasta, no knishes.
Fish that’s gifellted, horseradish that stings,
These are a few of our Passover things.

Matzoh and karpos and chopped-up haroset,
Shankbones and kiddish and Yiddish neuroses.
Tante who kvetches and uncle who sings,
These are a few of our Passover things.

Motzi and maror and trouble with Pharaohs,
Famines and locusts and slaves with wheelbarrows.
Matzoh balls floating and eggshell that cling,
These are a few of our Passover things.

When the plagues strike,
When the lice bite,
When we’re feeling sad…
We simply remember our Passover things,
And then we don’t feel so bad.

There’s No Seder Like Our Seder (to the tune of “There’s No Business Like Show Business”)

There’s no Seder like our Seder,
There’s no Seder I know.
Everything about it is halachic,
Nothing that the Torah won’t allow.
Listen how we read the whole Haggadah
It’s all in Hebrew
’Cause we know how.

There’s no Seder like our Seder,
We tell a tale that is swell:
Moses took the people out into the heat,
They baked the matzoh
While on their feet.
Now isn’t that a story that just can’t be beat?
Let’s go on with the show!

Even the most somber of holidays need festive elements--in fact, somber holidays are perhaps even more inclined toward "jokiness," to lighten the mood. Christians hide eggs, summon forth the Easter Bunny, eat chocolate rabbits and marshmallow chicks--jokey!

Both Pasque (Easter) and Pesach (Passover) are probably the most "mysterious" of holidays in each tradition: Jesus was resurrected? The Red Sea parted? In a way, it seems the only response to great mystery is great mirth. And really, doesn't Easter ultimately commemorate the greatest practical joke ever pulled off? "You thought you killed me...Ha-ha!"

Several other commenters noted that the lamb cake isn't exclusive to Easter celebrations, either, but that in some places, they are also traditional at a child's First Communion: the kid gets to lop off the lamb's head, and--in some instances--the head and neck have been filled with grenadine so that red "blood" oozes out when the head is chopped off. Now that's a jokey tradition.

My friends Mike and Don annually create a Jell-O tableau fashioned after a famous scene in The Ten Commandments (see past examples here). And I'm waiting with bated breath for the Washington Post to reveal the winners of this year's Peeps Diorama Contest.

Then there's this fabulous "Facebook Haggadah," and Erica over at The Good Old Days laments not buying a set of "Ten Plagues" finger puppets she saw in a catalog years ago.

However, my all-time favorite inquiry into the sheer absurdity of holiday traditions is David Sedaris' brilliant essay, "Jesus Shaves," about trying to explain the Easter Bunny to his fellow language students when he first moved to France. Listen to it below--my summary can't do it justice. (Longish, but totally worth it for the ending. Seriously.)

UPDATE 4/11/09: The Washington Post Peeps Diorama contest winners are online!


Michael said...

As half of Mike and Don, I must thank Rose for the mention of the Jell-O tableaux, but we only host the parties at which the tableaux are unveiled (and eaten with gusto). It is actually Julianna Link, formerly of Columbus, now of Norman, Oklahoma, who not only makes the Jell-O scene, but even harder, comes up with the ideas for them, usually illustrating a scene in The Ten Commandments. We haven't gotten together with her for Easter/Passover in a few years, but I have every faith that one day again, the Jell-O tableau will manifest itself.

Rosemary said...

Mike is absolutely right--I should give proper credit where it's due. Julianna is, indeed, the creator of the Ten Commandments Jell-O extravaganzas.

I, too, pray for the resurrection of the Jell-O tableau.

Erica said...

I actually have to think for a couple seconds nowadays to remember what Easter is about -- its association with jelly beans, rabbits, chicks, and egg hunts is so strongly ingrained in my mind. While it is certainly taken seriously by many Christians, those same Christians will cheerfully put together Easter baskets for their kids and hide plastic eggs full of candy around the backyard.

If you can't enjoy your holiday celebration, what's the point? And it's healthy to occasionally take a step back from your traditions, realize the oddities, then shrug, laugh, and continue. For instance, my husband loves to point out at Pesach the injunction against leavening should really only be against the yeast-raised bread that the Israelites didn't have time for. We laugh, then eat our matzah and avoid foods leavened with baking powder, too :P

Those Jell-o Ten Commandments scenes are wonderful -- especially that burning bush :D

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the summary! Quite frankly didn't have the patience to read through all the comments on Cakewreck, but like everyone else, was pretty intregued by the smoking lambs.

Calliope99 said...

I wonder if it's one of those things that once had a specific meaning like the scroll or the paintbrush, but the meaning has gotten lost completely, and nowadays many regional bakers just use the cigarette without actually realizing why. Many times traditions seem to work like the this - maybe great grandparents used a cigarette to represent something, but by the time it got down to modern times, no one actually remembers what it represents, simply they remember THAT that's what you do with the lamb cake. Having grown up in the South, I saw many examples of people using expressions (symbolic language) that had clearly been altered from their original form, and were now fairly devoid of meaning and bastardized from their original longer form, but still persisted quite, well, persistently in use...

Thanks for a very interesting discussion - and thanks very much for not forcing me to go through all 275 comments to reach summation on the topic! Oh, and also, very interesting about the 1st Communion grenadine filled lamb cake. Kinda jokey, yes, but kinda horrifying as well. Maybe some traditions should die out...

historiann said...

I'll do your paschal lamb-to-the-slaughter one better. We're making a family member's famous traditional Easter dish known as "bunnies in blood" (aka moulded French cream with raspberry sauce). I'll take a photo and post it tomorrow!

Rosemary said...

@Calliope99...You said that far more succinctly than I did! Yeah, I suspect people carry out *most* traditions pretty uncritically--it's not until an outsider comes in and raises questions that anyone stops to think about why they do what they do.

And Erica, it never occurred to me that the "unleavened" rule might not apply to things leavened with baking powder!

On the other hand, there seem to be lots of Kosher "workarounds"--I'm visiting my parents, who live very close to a great Kosher bakery that has the best bagels in the world, but realized they'd probably be closed for Passover. Apparently, though, they have an arrangement to temporarily "sell" the business during Pesach so they can continue baking & selling their usual stock. So, I bought a dozen and threw them in the freezer for later!

And needless to say, Historiann, I'm eager to see the bloody bunnies.

Theatre Geek said...

Please learn the correct definition and usage of somber!

1: so shaded as to be dark and gloomy 2 a: of a serious mien : grave [somber dignitaries] b: of a dismal or depressing character : melancholy c: conveying gloomy suggestions or ideas 3: of a dull or heavy cast or shade : dark colored

Easter is in NO WAY somber! Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are somber. Easter is joyful and celebratory! It is a happy time!

H. Joy said...

Thank you for taking the "since when is Easter a jokey holiday" comment to task. It had been bothering me ever since I read it, and I appreciated the gentle rebuttal you offered.

Anne said...

Beautifully stated post! Easter is the great feast of our faith (and a joyful feast at that!), and I make sure every year to explain to my children why we celebrate and what it means. Every year, as they get a bit older, they understand something new. But, as you said, it is a festive holiday, not actually a somber one. If we want a day to mourn, that was started on Thursday. We were supposed to be in mourning until this evening, our Easter Vigil, when light came back into the world and our Messiah was resurrected.

I think sometimes we forget that we are made in God's image, not he in ours, and that means that our Creator must also have a wonderful sense of humor!

A Happy Easter, and Chag Pesach Sameach.

Unknown said...

Thanks to Cake Wrecks for sending me here! Wish we had an answer for the smoking lambs. Joe Camel is what came to my mind, too. But I like the "lost to the ages" explanation best. My father-in-law likes to (badly) tell the joke of the woman who always cuts of the ends of her brisket, saying "that's the way mama always did it" only to find that mama did it b/c her pan was too small.

For our seder, we started adding props, like Rocky Horror, to illustrate the plagues--plastic frogs, sunglasses for darkness, etc. It makes the interminable wait for the food a bit less tedious.

Jane Kokernak said...

My first thought, when I saw the lamb, is that s/he has had brain surgery, and now has a shunt to drain the fluid build-up.

Happy Easter. We ate ham today, and chicken, at my mother's house. No lamb. No cake. And for that matter, it was the first Easter without peeps! It seems that we're all trying to cut down on sweets.

Red Wolf said...

Well, I always go to one of my friends for a seder for Pesach and last year the head of the household recited part of the Haggadah in a Darth Vader voice. This year I heard a little Yoda and some Sean Connery.

krylonultraflat said...

The sacrificial lamb = Jesus = basically, a good friday cake.

What's funny is a) it needs a blindfold and b) setting it up for an execution is just weird, considering it's suggesting a sort of glee over killing jesus.

Rosemary said...

@krylonultraflat--yes, that's one of the other theories that came up in the Cake Wrecks comments that seemed most plausible: that it's the Agnus Dei carrying the banner of victory. See for an illustration.

You can see there how the banner kind of *looks* like it's sticking out of the lamb's mouth, a la a cigarette...but that's still a pretty strange choice for a substitute banner!

@sixgables and Lizzie K.--those are great stories and traditions...sad to say, almost nothing amuses more than that kind of mingling of the sacred and the secular.

RND said...

Passover=nothing to do with parting the red sea. Ok almost nothing

Jessica said...

Thanks for the David Sedaris clip. That is one of my all-time favourite Sedaris stories--I used to read it aloud sometimes to my students learning Spanish. I'd never heard him read it, though.

Roland said...

I'm a year late, but anyway:

Rosemary, krylon was brilliant.

Slaughter = Execution.
Blindfold and...


LOL. Ready...Aim...Slice!

Rosemary said...

Roland, I think you're right about Krylon's observation...which would make the cake even "jokier" than I originally imagined!

Anonymous said...

great post

Aurelas said...

This is very interesting--I've never seen a smoking lamb cake before (thank goodness!) so maybe it's not a NW FL thing.
PS. Note to pregnant women: do NOT listen to the clip unless you are at home and have a spare set of clothing ready...this one will make you literally wet your pants laughing!

Anonymous said...

This is totally random, but I just read some of your blog (I read Cake Wrecks) and saw that you're from Morgantown!!! I grew up there, and for some reason it made me strangely happy to find a bizarre connection to it... so anyway... ! :)

Anonymous said...

Actually, since the Catholic church changed all its celebrations to coincide with Pagan Holidays, the reason for the eggs and bunnies and such is Imbolic, a Celtic holiday celebrating birth/ spring, the time of birth and renewal. Rabbits come out of their warrens with their new kits, eggs are the ultimate symbol of birth, etcetra... That way the pagans would be seen celebrating Holidays the Church wanted its followers to celebrate, and over the centuries, people forgot the reason certain Holidays were celebrated the way they are.

Unknown said...

I didn't get a lambie to sacrifice for MY First Communition - sniff.