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Much like any major Christian holiday, there are the usual arguments and accusations about how it’s all just pagan festivities with a “Christian mask”. Easter is no different, and usually gets hit the hardest over its so-called “pagan roots”, or in the month or so preceding it, Lent being some “invention of the Catholic Church”.

I like to try and observe Lent, as it is one of the most ancient customs in the Church, which led me to researching its origins, along with the Easter celebration, to see where they have their basis. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that much of the accusations against Easter and Lent as “pagan” are either fabricated or is just misinformation. So let’s examine the different aspects of Easter to see how we got from Passover to resurrection, to little bunnies and chocolate eggs!

The Lenten Fast

A forty day fast prior to Easter has been a long established practice within the Church dating back to possibly within the first century. This is well established from ancient letters we still have available, such as from Irenaeus in the second century:

For some consider themselves bound to fast one day, others two days, others still more. In fact, others fast forty days … And this variety among observers [of the fasts] did not have its origin in our time, but long before in that of our predecessors.

–Irenaeus (c.180)
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Notice here that Irenaeus mentions that this was a practice passed onto them by their “predecessors”, a term often used in conjunction with the Apostles themselves, or those who immediately came after them, putting the origins of this Lenten fast much earlier than when Irenaeus wrote in 180, and also possibly having Apostolic origin.

The Easter controversy and why we celebrate it when we do

Back in the days of the early church, there arose a controversy around the celebration of Easter (or “pascha” as it was known then). But no, before your imagination runs wild, it wasn’t quite as exciting as it sounds and still had nothing to do with “paganism”. The dispute was over which day to hold the festival!

Yep, the controversy really is as mundane as that. In fact, it was one of the issues raised at the council of Nicea to be discussed and hopefully settled, and is officially known as the Quartodeciman (lit. Fourteenth) controversy/dispute. It’s called this due to the issue being over whether the Easter celebration should follow the Jewish pattern of Passover on the 14 Nisan or not and simply follow the days of the week (Friday and Sunday). It became a bigger issue when the not only the Jewish community of believers wanted to follow this method, but when the Gentile Asian communities also claimed that their Quartodeciman practice was of Apostolic origin!

It was a disciple of John the Apostle, and bishop of Smyrna, called Polycarp (c.69–c.155) who followed this practice in one of the seven churches of Asia as well as Melito, bishop of Sardis (died c.180). Irenaeus tells us that, in his old age, Polycarp visited the bishop of Rome to discuss this matter with him as the Roman church had diverged from the Quartodeciman custom and celebrated the resurrection according to the day Jesus rose instead: Sunday (the first day of the week).

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We gain an important glimpse about this whole dispute from Irenaeus though, when he tells us of the meeting between Polycarp and Anicetus:

Neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it, as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him. … And they parted from each other in peace, both those who observed, and those who did not, maintaining the peace of the whole church.

–Eusebius, Church History, Book V, Chapter 24

Despite their differences in how they celebrated Easter, they both agreed that it ultimately didn’t matter because at the end of the day, they were both celebrating the risen Lord! Sadly, this peace didn’t last and the tensions grew until the Roman custom was eventually set as the “right” way to observe the feast. Constantine wrote a letter after Nicea to send to all those who couldn’t attend so they would know the decision about when to celebrate. It almost begins with good intentions so “that it would be convenient that all should keep the feast on one day” since “what could be more beautiful and more desirable, than to see this festival, through which we receive the hope of immortality, celebrated by all with one accord, and in the same manner?”. But then the real reason behind this desire displays itself: “We ought not, therefore, to have anything in common with the Jews”, as it would be “unworthy” to follow their customs concerning Passover! Seems a shame really if it truly does deviate from apostolic tradition.

But what this does show for certain is that Christians have been celebrating (and debating) Easter/Passover since at least AD 150, long before Constantine or even any other “pagan” influence could take hold.

Is the Name “Easter” really the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre?

In short: no.

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There’s also no link between “Ishtar” and “Easter” either. Ishar was an ancient Near Eastern fertility goddess, but just because the names sound somewhat similar in English, it doesn’t mean there is any etymological connection at all. Ishtar is also originally Akkadian, which was a language spoken in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Syria) between about 2,800 BC and 500 AD, and was also the goddess of war and sexual love. Not really anything there to do with “rebirth”, rabbits or Spring, nor even a historical connection to ancient Britain.

Eostre on the other hand, actually does originate in ancient Britain from the Anglo-Saxons and there is one (yes, only one) historical mention to a supposed Anglo-Saxon goddess by this name. The only problem is that this historical reference only comes about in the 8th century from a Northumbrian monk known as the Venerable Bede. Here’s what he has to say:

“Eostremonath has a name which is now translated Paschal month, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.”

–Bede, De temporum ratione (“The Reckoning of Time”), XV

This is the one and only source for this claim though. No other document in history mentions or gives credence to a goddess by this name. Even if Bede was correct and there was some minor and relatively unknown goddess associated with the Spring equinox, it’s a rather large leap to assume that the 8th century Christian Church was somehow influenced enough by European “paganism” to incorporate (or blend) the Eostre tradition into itself when the actual Easter/Pascha festival had been celebrated since the second century at the very least.

If we look closer, the older root of the word Eostre simply means “East” or “dawn” in some other renditions, according to An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Ester and oster, the early English and German words, both have their root in aus, which means “east”, “shine”, and “dawn” in various forms. Thus it is more likely that “Eostre” is simply a word that describes the season (Eostremonath = East Month) due to the position of the sun, and not a name that belongs to anyone, least of all a goddess.

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But an even more primitive root is where these words derive: Auferstehung which means resurrection! That seems more fitting for the Easter season, don’t you think? Other than English and German, pretty much all other languages have a word with its root meaning coming from pascha — ie. Passover. Which is what the original Christians called this time of year too.

By the time of the Council of Nicea (AD 325), Easter celebrations within the Church was a standard event which was preceded by at least forty days of fasting. Athanasius had a custom of writing his “paschal (Easter) letters” to the churches at this time of year to give encouragement for fasting, self-control and moderation, linking the 40 days to the length of Jesus’ fast in the desert. His letters are useful as they show quite clearly that the time of Lent and Easter have been established for many centuries in the Church, and have nothing to do with paganism as they predate any Anglo-Saxon or German goddess by about 600 years (if they even existed)!

The beginning of the fast of forty days is on the fifth of the month Phamenoth [Ash Wednesday]; and when, as I have said, we have first been purified and prepared by those days, we begin the holy week of the great Easter on the tenth of the month Pharmuthi [Palm Sunday], in which, my beloved brethren, we should use more prolonged prayers, and fastings…

–Athanasius, Letter III (c. AD 332)

Chocolate eggs and bunnies?

So if the recognition and celebration of Pascha or the “Easter festival” dates back to the early second century of Christianity, and is wholly and totally centred around the resurrection of Jesus (and not so-called “pagan goddesses”)… How did chocolate eggs and rabbits come into the mix?

This is another thing which is also surrounded in murky pseudo-history and internet myth too, but that, again, has nothing to do with the generic catch-all “paganism” claim.

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In a similar way that aspects of Santa Claus originated in Dutch culture, and were imported to the United States in the 17th century via immigrants, so the Easter Bunny (or Oschter Haws) was imported from Germany to the States around this era. And much like Christmas and Santa, the character was widely commercialised and used to make money and popularise the Easter holiday.

The history of the decorated eggs is much older, but surprisingly, a medieval Christian tradition! During the Lenten fast during the middle-ages, the restrictions on what you could or couldn’t eat came to rule out meat, dairy and eggs. This was first solidified as a rule at the Council in Trullo (aka the Quinisext Council) in AD 692:

It seems good therefore that the whole Church of God which is in all the world should follow one rule and keep the fast perfectly, and as they abstain from everything which is killed, so also should they from eggs and cheese, which are the fruit and produce of those animals from which we abstain.

–Council in Trullo, Canon 56

Thomas Aquinas also writes about the dietary restrictions during Lent in his Summa Theologiae (1265–1274), showing that this tradition of abstaining from meat and dairy had prevailed for centuries:

Eggs and milk foods are forbidden to those who fast, for as much as they originate from animals that provide us with flesh: wherefore the prohibition of flesh meat takes precedence of the prohibition of eggs and milk foods. Again the Lenten fast is the most solemn of all, both because it is kept in imitation of Christ, and because it disposes us to celebrate devoutly the mysteries of our redemption. For this reason the eating of flesh meat is forbidden in every fast, while the Lenten fast lays a general prohibition even on eggs and milk foods.

–Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Question 147, OF FASTING

This practice is where we get our traditions of Shrove Tuesday from as well as the decorated eggs. Before the Lenten fast began, everyone would use up what they had in their houses which they wouldn’t be allowed to eat for the next forty days, and thus pancakes were born (well, maybe not “born” but this is why we have a ‘pancake day’ even today). Obviously, chickens don’t stop making eggs during this time, and so they were collected up ready for the end of the fast. At some point around this time in history (c. 13th century) the eggs also began to be painted as part of the tradition. It’s also worth noting that during Passover, Jews place a hard-boiled egg on the Passover ceremonial plate, and they all eat hard-boiled eggs dipped in salt water as part of the ceremony — so maybe the egg tradition has older roots too.

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It was then when the fast was ended on Easter Sunday that everyone could enjoy eating eggs again and so another tradition which still prevails today was born, and that is why we have eggs associated with Easter. Another tradition which came out of this has it that the eggs represented the empty tomb, dead on the outside but life of the inside, and were dyed red to symbolise the blood of Jesus. So once again, nothing even remotely “pagan” at all.

Chocolate eggs first appeared in the 17th century in France in the court of Louis XIV and in 1725, solid chocolate eggs were produced. The first chocolate Easter egg appeared in Britain in 1873 and then in 1875, Cadbury’s created the modern Easter egg we know today. Fancy chocolate is obviously easier to market than colour boiled eggs, so it’s no wonder they became more popular as Easter gifts!

Concluding Thoughts

To conclude with a brief rundown then:

  • The name "Easter" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Eostre meaning "East", and may or may not have a tenuous connection to an unknown Springtime goddess. Bede, in the 8th century, is the only person in history to make this connection.
  • The Easter Rabbit/Hare is a German folk legend which was imported to America between the 15-17th centuries and then became widely commercialised later on.
  • Easter Eggs or painted eggs are a Middle Ages tradition which is borne out of the Lenten fast. Since people were fasting, eggs weren't being eaten and were stored up until Easter Sunday. During this time, people began to decorate them to give to children. They were often painted red to symbolise the blood of Jesus, and the shell used to represent the empty tomb of the resurrection. Chocolate eggs only came along in the 1700s, based on this tradition.
  • Christians have been celebrating Pascha since the first century, primarily remembered via the Eucharist, and so the ancient practice of celebrating around Springtime predates any connection to paganism by centuries, if there even are any connections!

That’s all for the history of Lent and Easter (or Pascha), but I hope you can see from this article that the practice has been well established in the historical Church since the beginning, and isn’t a “new” or invented thing merged from/with paganism and fertility goddesses. Most of the traditions are firmly rooted in Christian history, Biblical events and as an outworking and devotion to our faith in Christ and his resurrection as being the fulfilment of the Passover. If you're interested in reading more about how Christ is our Passover lamb and the way he fulfils these things, see my other article How was Jesus a sacrifice?

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Have a blessed Easter and know that you are celebrating something that thousands of Christians have celebrated before you for nearly two millennia!

 

 


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