Whence did Easter Sunday originate? While the Church says that Easter Sunday is the day when Jesus Christ rose from the dead, the fact remains that the pagan of Europe celebrated Easter long before Christians did.1 Let us trace the history of Easter into its ancient roots.
What is Easter?
“The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day.”
— the resurrected Jesus, Luke 24:46
Easter Sunday is the day immediately following Lent. A solemn period among Christians, Lent commemorates the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before the messiah’s death on the cross.
The word Lent is a shortening of Lenten, which originated from the word lencten, Old English for “spring.”2 This one word holds a clue to the origin of Easter Sunday. What does spring have to do with Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection? Did Jesus’ sacrifice, starting with Christ’s first day in the desert, happen on spring?
Easter the Passover
It is a night to be much observed to Yahweh for bringing them out from the land of Egypt. … Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the ordinance of the Passover.”
— Exodus 12:42-43
Though the Easter holiday celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the old tradition associated with Easter Sunday is the Pasch (Pascha in Latin, Pesach in Hebrew), the Passover. This Jewish feast marks the Hebrew people’s exodus from the land of Egypt at least 12 centuries before Jesus Christ.
While the date of the Passover falls around spring in Europe, this is only incidental, since the date of the Jewish festival depends on the Jewish calendar, not the seasons in Europe. In addition, the two holidays may be weeks apart.
Neither is the Jewish celebration based on the resurrection of Jesus, whom the Jews don’t actually recognize as the Messiah.
Still, Passover and Easter were eventually confused, with the two names becoming interchangeable. How can Passover, the Hebrews’ liberation from Egypt, be Easter the resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Easter the Last Supper
When Jesus had finished all these words, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.”
— Matthew 26:1-2
The history of Easter does touch on the Passover, specifically during the Last Supper. The Lord’s Supper, where Jesus and his twelve disciplines shared their last meal together, happened on the Jewish festival of Passover. Jesus was to be crucified the following day.
The Last Supper was a Passover meal. Still, while the Passover today equates with Easter, the Last Supper is remembered, not on Easter Sunday, but on Holy Thursday. This renders the Passover less relevant, if at all, to Easter Sunday. Where did Easter actually come from?
Easter Goddess of Dawn
Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month,” and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre.
— Saint Bede the Venerable
How the name of the most important Christian festival refers to a pagan goddess is totally strange, but that is what the origin of Easter is. The word Easter originated from the Old English Ēastre, Ēostre1 in West Saxon, a name referring to a goddess. The Germans of Europe, including the English or Anglo-Saxon people, worshiped this ancient goddess.
After the onslaught of Christianity drove the pagan religion to extinction, little is known of the goddess Eostre besides that she was goddess of light, especially of the dawn. Her name means “to shine,” as of the dawn from the east, a word of the same origin.3
Easter the Fertility Goddess
Besides her identity as goddess of the dawn, there is a goddess worshiped throughout most of Near East whose name peculiarly sounds like Eostre’s: Ishtar of Babylonia, and Astarte of Phoenicia. The ancients shared gods and goddesses. If Ishtar, Astarte and Easter are the same goddess as is likely the case, then Eostre is the queen of heaven, and goddess of love and beauty. A fertility goddess, her equivalent in Greek is Aphrodite.
Easter Goddess of April
What is clear from the writings of Saint Bede the Venerable, who documented the computation of Easter date in his treatise The Reckoning of Time, is Eostre was a goddess so important that an entire month in the Old English calendar was named after her.
April used to be called Eosturmonath in Old English1, and is still called Ostermonat in German, literally meaning “month of Easter.” This month was later renamed Paschal month1, though the latter failed to demolish the old name, and April is still more popularly known for Easter than Pasch. What was in the month of Easter that empowered the goddess’ name to endure even as her worshipers were converted?
Easter the Pagan Festival
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.
— Saint Bede the Venerable
The month of Easter was not named after the goddess Eostre for nothing. It was literally the month of Easter, the entire month having been dedicated to the goddess. Easter was a month of festive celebration honoring the goddess Eostre.
The pagan Easter festival has not died completely, but is still alive to this day, observed by neo-pagans and Wiccans. The feast simply goes by the goddess’ Old High German name, Ostara. Does the pagan festival by any chance have to do with Lent, which the whole Christian season of penance before Ostara is called?
Easter the Spring Festival
Lent means “spring,” and Ostara marks the spring equinox, that time of year when, after the fading cold of winter, the day is finally as long as the night. The pagan Easter celebrates spring and all the meaning associated with the season: new light, new life, and so on.
As evidenced by the holiday’s very name, the Church took the festival of spring equinox from the pagan and made Easter Christian. This was also how the penitent period among Christians is called by the rather irrelevant name Lent, “Spring.” Lent was just that, the season of spring, and Easter was the pagan festival celebrating its equinox. How did the pagan celebrate Easter?
The Pagan Easter
Through long ages there seem to have lingered among the people Easter-games so-called, which the church itself had to tolerate: I allude especially to the custom of Easter eggs, and to the Easter tale which preachers told from the pulpit for the people’s amusement, connecting it with Christian reminiscences.
— Jakob Grimm
The Christian Easter is commonly celebrated with painted Easter eggs. As adults tell children, these eggs come from the Easter bunny4, who supposedly lays eggs to give to well-behaved kids. Have you asked a Christian priest of the origins of Easter eggs and bunnies? Even if the clergyman told you, you’d probably get more plausible answers from a witch.
Bunnies don’t actually lay eggs, but both bunny and Easter eggs serve as Easter Sunday’s surviving ties to its pagan roots. A sacred symbol to Aphrodite5, the hare, with its breeding prowess, may have likewise been associated with the goddess Eostre6; while the egg even on its own represents fertility. Both bunny and eggs are symbols of fertility and the fertility goddess.
The pagan celebrated Easter by decorating eggs. As lore tells us, Easter eggs come from the Easter bunny itself. Decorating eggs and the lore of the Easter bunny to this day survives in the Christian celebration of Easter.
The Easter Conflict
The hare, because it chews the cud but doesn’t have a parted hoof, is unclean to you.
— Leviticus 11:6
There is nothing that stands as testament to Easter’s conflicting roots as strong as the Easter bunny does. Like pigs, rabbits are deemed unclean in the Bible.7 Yet the bunny has long-sufferingly endured in representing the festival of her goddess.
Do you like Easter? Which part of Easter do you like the most, the part that commemorates the resurrection of Jesus, or the part that brings the Easter bunny and eggs to the spotlight?
- Saint Bede the Venerable, The Reckoning of Time (725)
- Etymonline, (Accessed March 13, 2019)
- Etymonline, (Accessed March 13, 2019)
- Phebe Earle Gibbons, Pennsylvania Dutch (1882)
- Theoi.com, Aphrodite Estate & Attributes (Accessed March 13, 2019)
- Jacob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie (1835)
- Leviticus 11:6