In much the same way that Christmas and Hanukkah co-opted Paganism, so Christianity also grafted itself onto the Pagan celebration of spring and called it Easter.
The Hebrews were of course Pagan before they converted to one god, and much of the Old Testament was taken from the days before they converted. They just changed the name of the particular deity in each story to God.
Christianity continued this tradition: as Christians came into contact with Pagan cultures, they Christianized them, and made them their own. The idea was that non-Christians would be more likely to embrace Christianity if they were allowed to retain their Pagan practices, especially if some Christian correspondence with their traditions could be established.
Ostera, Anglo-Saxon Goddess Of Spring
Thus, the name Easter comes from Ostera or Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, for a spring festival celebrating fertility and the renewal of life, which was held annually for thousands of years before the birth of Christ. It is from this Pagan festival that many of our Easter customs have come.
The Christian festival of Easter celebrates the torture and death of Jesus on a cross and his subsequent resurrection, and has links to the Jewish Passover, but most people, including Christians, unknowingly celebrate its Pagan influences, including colored eggs, representing the sunlight of spring, and the bunny, a symbol of fertility.
Interestingly, the early Christians did not celebrate Easter. It took more than 300 years before Christians established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon following the March Equinox at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E.
In fact, there is no celebration of any Christian holidays in the Bible’s New Testament. The four gospels were written between 40 and 70 years after Christ’s death. They were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor his disciples spoke, much less wrote. They were not written by eyewitnesses. And there are almost no details of the Easter stories found in one gospel that are not contradicted in another gospel.
Easter was invented hundreds of years after the “first Easter.”
What About Easter Eggs?
Yes, those also have Pagan origins.The egg as a symbol of fertility is found universally in ancient cultures. The Egyptians, Persians and Chinese all had customs of coloring eggs. Babylonian legend teaches that an egg of great size fell from heaven into the Euphrates River, where fishes rolled it onto the bank. There it was incubated by doves until it hatched out the “queen of heaven.”
The Roman Church incorporated the egg as an emblem of Christ’s resurrection. Pope Paul V taught people to pray at Easter, “Bless, O Lord, we beseech thee this, thy creature of eggs, that it may become a wholesome sustenance unto thy servants, eating it in remembrance of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Christians have also transformed the egg into a symbol of the rock tomb out of which Christ emerged to the new life of His resurrection.
The Easter Bunny
To answer this one, we need to go back to the goddess Ostera and her spring celebration in pre-Christian Germany. As the goddess of renewal and fertility, one of her symbols is the hare due to the creature’s high rate of reproduction.
Since Ostera gave her name to the Christian festival which became known as Easter, feasts once held in her honor became part of the celebration of the day in which Christians believe Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Eggs, rabbits, the beginning of spring and fertility were still honored even as Catholicism took hold and people began worshipping the life and death of Jesus Christ.
It’s actually pretty weird that the bunny, which gives birth to live young, has acquired a cherished role in the celebration of Easter as the legendary producer of Easter eggs for children in many countries.
Somehow, a Pagan symbol for new life has become entwined with the resurrection of Jesus and a story about a bunny laying eggs has become a legend to be believed.
Whatever your religious beliefs, this is the time of year to celebrate new life and new beginnings. Happy Spring!
Photo Credit: thinkstock
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