Author: Patrick Krentz Th.M., Managing Writer for Foundations by ICM
What is the history of Easter? We can all agree about where it started – with the resurrection of Jesus Christ some 2000 years ago. But where does Easter fit in, and what’s with all the bunnies and eggs? Many recent studies have concluded that Easter is based on ancient pagan celebrations, that the date and perhaps especially the name of Easter are pagan through and through. In this estimation, Christians merely adopted the pagan holiday and attached the story of Jesus to it. In this blog, I want to introduce you to a counterpoint to this pop history.
How it All Began?
To summarize the popular premise, at least the most common among many, “Easter” got its name from a pagan goddess named Eostre. This Eostre is a semi-mythical figure dating back thousands of years before Christ. She was a ruler to whom were ascribed the traits of a god – specifically a god of fertility and life. It is said that a yearly festival was established in her honor and that eggs and rabbits were part of that celebration.
Fast forward a few thousand years and pagan people across the world still celebrated this holiday. Christians, with the best intentions in mind, co-opted this holiday but replaced Eostre with Christ because…you know…resurrection and life. Seemed like a good fit. So Easter became a Christian holiday in much the same way as Christmas (we have a blog about that, too!). At least, that’s what we’re told.
What’s In a Name?
But let’s talk about that name for a moment. This seems to be the central point of contention for those who argue for the pagan roots of Easter. Did early Christians use the name Easter? Certainly not. Originally, Easter was called Pascha. This name refers to the Jewish Passover, not an ancient fertility goddess.2 In fact, for the early Church, Pascha was simply Passover after the resurrection of Jesus. Pascha comes from the Hebrew word Pesach, meaning ‘to pass over,’ and refers back to the Exodus story.
Ok, but everyone calls it Easter these days, right? Not nearly. Most Eastern Christians call it Pascha, and the word for Easter in many non-English languages translates to Pascha (e.g, Spanish Pascua, Italian Pasqua, Portuguese Páscoa, and Romanian Pasti). Calling it “Easter” is a Western, Anglo addition likely deriving from one of many German words.
Think about it. If the original name is not Easter but rather this name was added later by Western, Anglo society, then the very idea that Easter is a pagan holiday because it has a pagan name is an entirely anglo-centric argument. Think about it, the argument is essentially saying ‘It’s pagan because English-speaking peoples call it by a pagan name’…that does not seem like a good argument. It ignores the long history of what the church has called the celebration of the resurrection and it ignores the reality that its origins are Middle-Eastern.
So, even if the word Easter is pagan (and this is a big if, but one that we don’t have space to talk about here), that doesn’t make Easter, or rather Pascha, a co-opted pagan celebration.
How Was the Date of Easter Determined?
But what about the date of Easter? Isn’t it based on the pagan Eostre celebration? Going hand-in-hand with the discussion of the name of this holiday, the timing of our celebration centers on Pascha, or the paschal moon, not on an ancient holiday. In the early church, the timing of Easter was a point of considerable debate. The prevailing sentiment of the Church, however, was that the Christian Pascha celebration was to be celebrated separately from, and in most cases after, Passover.
Why does this matter? Because it is abundantly clear that the date for Easter is based on the Jewish festival, not the pagan holiday. While originally the idea was that Easter should be celebrated after Pascha because Jesus ate the Passover meal before going to the cross, a change in calendars meant a change in dates. When the West switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, the original connections faded, but the idea remained. The date of Easter is far from having a pagan origin.
Where Do the Easter Bunny and Easter Eggs Come From?
The argument that Easter is a co-opted pagan holiday is perhaps strongest in regard to some of its peripheral elements – bunnies, eggs, lambs, etc. Some are easier to explain than others. The lamb, for instance, has clear connections to the Christian story.
But what about the brightly-colored eggs? How are they religious? Well, ancient Easter practices included the season of Lent where certain foods were forbidden, including eggs. As a result, when Easter came and the restrictions were lifted, it became customary to give an egg as a gift. As the custom grew in popularity, the eggs began to be painted or decorated. In Russia, the tradition was so widespread that the nobility would gift egg-shaped, jeweled ornaments – think of the Faberge Eggs. So, far from being pagan symbols of fertility, eggs merely celebrated the fact that people could start eating whatever they wanted again.
Ok, then what about the Easter Bunny? Surely that must be pagan, or at the very least entirely commercial? To that objection I could merely concede as there is much less evidence for the religious roots of the bunny… and yet, even he likely came in through the Church.
You see, as the Lent tradition mentioned above was practiced by Catholic and Orthodox Christians, early protestants rejected the practice of giving up certain foods before Easter. Instead, some protestant groups began what could be seen as a very early Christian meme meant to poke fun at their Catholic neighbors. So, as the joke goes, why don’t Catholics eat eggs until Easter? Because the Easter Bunny hides them. In some accounts, the bunny itself even lays the eggs, but I won’t even try to speak to the religious significance of that.
What is the History of Easter?
Putting this all together, Easter, or rather Pascha, is thoroughly Christian and dates to the beginning of the second century A.D. at the very latest. The date of Easter has Jewish and Christian roots, and even the elements that seem least religious have cultural and historical significance for Christians. Only the name, Easter, appears to have pagan roots, but even that is likely a historical coincidence as the word Easter more likely derives from one of many Christian terms (such as the German word for Resurrection).
The oft-cited pagan history of Easter is anglo-centric and anachronistic. It lacks a basis in real history, instead of creating a pop history. Don’t fall into the trap this Easter season when you see popular theories showing up on your social media feed. Celebrate the resurrection of Jesus with confidence knowing that the church, from its inception, has considered this the most sacred of days of the Faith.
1Also known as Queen Semiramis, wife of Nimrod, who later became known as mother goddess Ishtar or Eostre.
2The main historical evidence that ties the word Eostre with Easter comes from an 8th-century monk named Bedewho briefly mentions the connection in one of his writings