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For thousands of years, from Lebanon to Cyprus and around the eastern Mediterranean, women heralded the coming of spring by creating Adonis gardens. They packed earth into shallow potsherds, seeded it with wheat, barley and herbs, and effectively over-watered it, so that the seeds sprouted too quickly, shot up, and died. Then, with great wailing and lamentation they cast their small gardens into rivers–in Aqfa in Lebanon it was always the Adonis River. In this way they memorialized the life and sudden death of Aphrodite’s beautiful lover Adonis, and they also sought to encourage a fecund and beneficent springtime.

For thousands of years in Egypt, from one end of the Nile to the other, people created Corn Osirises. These were small earthen effigies of Osiris which they seeded with grain and kept moist. Osiris being the god of the underworld, these effigies symbolized life born out of death, or the return of the Nile flood and the fertile season of planting. One of the most ancient of Egyptian deities, Osiris probably originated as a fertility god, but was transmogrified over time by the priestly class into an intercessor between the dead and the judges of the afterlife. Though the priestly Osiris cult focused on this role, to the people he never lost his association with agrarian concerns. Corn Orisises are found by the thousands in Egyptian tombs and graves.

Seeding something at a significant time of the year was such a long-lived ritual that it seems only natural that we would have antecedents of the practice in our modern holidays. After all, the evergreen tree at Christmas, Jack-o-lantern at Halloween, and painted egg at Easter are all symbols taken from older, ‘pagan’ observances. And indeed, it appears that there is something which is closely associated with the Adonis garden and Corn Osiris which makes its appearance every year, just as the winter holiday season comes around.

I saw yesterday a commercial for Chia Pets, my first this year. I usually mute commercials, so I missed the voice over chanting the trademark ‘Ch-ch-ch-chia’ theme. But there on the screen I saw the various models available to slather with the tiny seeds of Salvia hispanica, keep wet for two weeks, and watch the fun begin. Or not. I was given a Chia once a long time ago, and try though I might, I couldn’t get it to sprout. I think it’s kind of like a Tamigotchi pet. You can’t just walk away; you have to pay attention. In this regard it is even more like the old Adonis garden or Corn Osiris–it takes some commitment, it is much more meaningful than other cheap holiday gifts that you can pick up at Walgreen’s on the way to see someone you didn’t remember to buy a gift for.

Recognizing this traditional, almost pious legacy of the Chia Pet gives us new perspective on the whole Chia enterprise. A few years ago, when they brought out the Chia Obama to commemorate the first African-American president’s election, some saw it as disrespectful. But no, the exact opposite is likely truer–it verges on the idolatrous! Is Obama then up there with Osiris, with Adonis? Of course, the Chia Obama does not usually get buried in tombs, or cast into a river. Yes I know, given the recent frustration over the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, that may change, but it is not meant to be treated that way.

There are Chia Simpsons, Chia Scooby-doos, even a Chia SpongeBob SquarePants. Any of these beloved cartoon characters, in their appeal to children, may now offer parents a chance to create teachable moments: did you know, you can tell your kids, that the Chia has ancestors reaching back to the time of the pyramids? How thrilled they will be to learn of the ancient practice of casting these effigies into streams! (But a word of caution is in order: the Chia Pet is not flushable under normal conditions.)

In these times of over-commercialization of holidays, when the message of Christmas itself gets lost in the hustle to make money, it is reassuring to know that some of the most ancient traditions endure. I for one wish to extend a note of gratitude to the people at California-based Joseph Enterprises, Inc. for their good sense and dedication in working to save a little part of the world’s cultural heritage; and I wish them much continued success in the marketing the Chia Pet in all its brilliant varieties.

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