By Philip L. Tite
Over the Easter weekend, I heard a story of a young child at a local school discussing the Easter holidays with her friends. The holiday that her family celebrates, she said, is actually called Zombie Jesus Day, not Easter. Her friends challenged her, saying that “it’s really Easter” – to which she replied that it was Zombie Jesus Day.
For this little girl, Zombie Jesus Day – not Easter – is what her family celebrates. It’s what her parents always called it and so it was the real holiday. She did not celebrate Easter. She kept Zombie Jesus Day.
Such a lighthearted story reminded me of the important role that language plays. Our labels serve a range of purposes. It is through language that labels embody our identities, challenge alternative social narratives, and by which we make moral claims as “obvious” (and thus normative) choices. Perhaps her parents used the new holiday name around the home as a joke, a way to poke fun at a long establish day within the Christian liturgical calendar. Perhaps they had been amused by Jesus zombie films (I’ve seen at least one short film, by Ira Hunter, where the resurrected undead Jesus transforms his disciples into zombie evangelists by having them eat his body. The creators describe this film as “the ultimate in sacrilegious humor” and “biblical blasphemy”). I don’t know why the parents introduced Zombie Jesus Day into their home, but I do know that this little girl accepted it as the “real” thing, not a parody or joke holiday.
What is fascinating for me is that what likely started as a playful bit of humor was transformed by a shift in perception. Such shifts are significant points for analysis. Such shifts can affect the “thing” that is created by the social actor – and such a transformation, if not shared by others, can lead to conflict. Whereas this child held a serious, positive view of the name of this holiday (and very adamantly distinguished it from Easter), the value imposed on the label by her classmates seems to have been an attempt to return the defining narrative to one where the zombie reference would be rendered, perhaps once again, to a mock status as a simple parody; a parody drawn from popular culture and one that, as parody, is not to be taken seriously. The “real” holiday for them likely was Easter, not Zombie Jesus Day.
This little girl is not alone. Others evidently keep – or at least promote – Zombie Jesus Day. One can even purchase t-shirts celebrating Zombie Jesus Day (I’ve even seen baby versions online). A quick web search will bring up, for example, an online website dedicated to Zombie Jesus Day. The creators of this site identify themselves in a very playful way:
Our organization is the world leader in promoting the excitement and mirth of this most wondrous of holidays. What better excuse to celebrate spring, visit with friends, and eat chocolate than the timing of some lunar cycle and the rise of the undead?
Even if you don’t believe in Christ or Christianity and do not normally celebrate the traditional “Easter”, you surely believe in zombies so, c’mon, join the party!
Obviously, the creators of this website take Zombie Jesus Day as a playful parody of Easter. It’s a day of “excitement” and “mirth” rather than somber reflection on a soteriological narrative. They want us to have fun: “c’mon, join the party!”
Yet, encoded within the very humor are social perceptions as to what constitutes traditional religious celebrations. Specifically, by offering us an alternative to Easter, they challenge a specific “religious” hegemony over spring celebrations. The holiday is opened to a more secular or pluralistic ownership of such a holiday. By shifting labels, this celebration is relocated from the domain of Christian adherents. The fun is for everyone. Belief is not important. A tradition of keeping Easter is not vital. Believe in zombies and let the chocolate good times roll.
Religion, within such a parody, is for everyone. Not because everyone is religious but because the religious is no longer a requirement of religion. It’s more than just Easter: it’s Zombie Jesus Day. And for one little girl at least (though not necessarily with the same secular-sacred dichotomy in mind), that’s a real holiday. Labels shape reality, because in a sense labels are reality.
Author Bio: Philip Tite is co-editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from McGill University (2005) and is currently an affiliate lecturer at the University of Washington in Seattle WA, USA. His most recent book is The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolarly and Rhetorical Analysis (TENTS, 7; Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012).