From Pagan Festival to Christian Celebration
For many, myself included, Easter is no more than a long weekend spent overeating and binging on chocolate Easter eggs. Others focus on secular traditions, like Easter egg hunts and, possibly, make the effort to attend an Easter church service. The more devout focus their observance and celebration of Easter on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Regardless of how we choose to observe (or not to observe) Easter, though, society at large recognizes that the holiday is related to Christianity.
As I do every year roundabout this time (creature of habit that I am), I wonder how it is that a pagan festival became a Christian celebration. Sure, I have a vague idea of what happened, but I thought it might be interesting, as I work my way through a box of 48 marshmallow Easter eggs, to find out exactly what happened and how Easter traditions came about.
Long before the advent of Christianity, Easter was a pagan festival celebrating spring in the Northern Hemisphere. For thousands of years, numerous cultures celebrated seasonal renewal around 20 March, the time of the vernal (Spring) equinox, when the Sun is exactly above the Equator, and day and night are of equal length. Pagans mapped their whole life according to the patterns of nature, and when daylight and dark came back into balance, it was a time to celebrate the new life of plants and trees, and new life in the animal world. This occurred in “Ōstarmānod”, the equivalent month to April on the old Germanic calendar.
As reported by Venerable Bede, an 8th century English Monk, the pagans in medieval Northumbria held the festival in honour of, and offered sacrifices to, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of dawn, Eostre.
By the 19th century, Eostre had become an important part of German culture, in literature, paintings, and folklore. Jacob Grimm, of the Brothers Grimm, wrote, “Eostre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the Christian’s God.”
With that in mind, it makes sense that early Christians chose the Spring equinox, already being celebrated for light and life, as a good time to celebrate the rebirth of Jesus.
(Progress report: 3 down, 45 to go; eggs in this box seem smaller than usual.)
Why Does Easter’s Exact Date Vary?
Very simply, the Quartodecimans chose to celebrate the Resurrection on the same date as the Jewish Passover, around day 14 of the month of Nisan (Gregorian equivalent: March or April.) This date emphasized continuity with Judaism, out of which Christianity emerged, and put the focus on the day Jesus died. Others preferred to celebrate on a Sunday, since that’s when they believed Jesus’ tomb was found.
In A.D. 325, Emperor Constantine, convened a meeting of ecumenical leaders to resolve important disputes at the Council of Nicaea. The Council of Nicaea decreed that Easter should be observed on the first day following the first full moon after the spring equinox (March 21). Therefore, Easter can fall on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25.
Was Easter named after a Pagan Goddess?
The short answer is “no”. The Anglo-Saxons didn’t borrow the name of a pagan goddess to name the festival which is known as Easter.
Eostre (also Eastre) is derived from the root word “aus/eas” of the proto (unrecorded) Indo-European language and means “to shine”, or “the East” (the sun shines from the East). The festival was marked by the natural phenomenon of Spring equinox, which they called “Eostre”, so they simply denoted it by the name. The name of the goddess and the feast are etymologically connected, though, and this confirms the context of Venerable Bede’s words: “Eostur-month, which is now interpreted as the paschal month, was formerly named after the goddess Eostre, and has given its name to the festival.” In other words, the festival was named after the month that it (and Passover) occurred.
(Progress report: 7 down, 41 to go, beginning to feel ill.)
Pagan Easter Myths
Myths are traditional tales about how the world was created and why astronomical events or natural phenomena occur. In the absence of the sciences, pagans created myths to help them understand life. These stories were part of an oral tradition, passed from one generation to the next and, while some have factual origins, others are completely fictional. In a pre-scientific age, myths were the only explanations of life on earth and, therefore, were accepted as truth and became beliefs.
Tammuz and Ishtar
The myth of Tammuz and Ishtar, an ancient Sumerian (present-day Iraq and Syria) legend discovered on tablets dating back to circa 2500 B.C. explains the cycle of winter death and spring life or, more specifically, the Spring equinox:
Tammuz was the Mesopotamian god of fertility with the power for new life in nature in Spring; and, Ishtar was the Mesopotamian goddess of love, beauty, war, and fertility. (Note: goddesses multitasked.)
When Tammuz died, his wife Ishtar was devastated and, in her grief, followed him to the Underworld, where she was killed by Ereshkigal, the goddess of the dead (or Underworld). In her absence, the earth loses its fertility – animals stop reproducing and crops stop growing. After three days, her faithful handmaiden, Ninshubur, goes to the temple of the great gods and asks for their help to rescue Ishtar – unless something is done, all life on earth will end. Enki, the god of water, goes to the Underworld and gives Tammuz and Ishtar the power to return to earth as the light of the sun for six months. After six months, Tammuz returns to the Underworld, Ishtar pursues him, and Enki rescues them (again, and again, and again).
Germanic mythology includes a tale that explains how the Easter Bunny came to be. Eostre, the goddess who gave her name to the festival of the Spring equinox, healed a wounded bird she found in the woods. She changed it into a hare and, because it which was still partially a bird, it laid eggs to show its gratitude to the goddess.
(Progress report: 9 down, 39 to go, cannot eat another one (at this stage).)
The Easter Bunny
Historian Stephen Nissenbaum writes that before the 17th Century, “…children were lumped together with other members of the lower orders in general, especially servants and apprentices – who, not coincidentally, were generally young people themselves.”
From the 17th century onward, however, there was an increasing recognition of childhood as a joyous time of life and the newfound doting upon children affected how Easter was celebrated.
Decorated eggs had been part of the Easter festival since medieval times, but it wasn’t until the 17th century that a German custom involving an “Easter Hare” that brought eggs for good children became an Easter tradition.
In a way, this was the Protestant rejection of Catholic Easter customs. Protestants rejected the fasting tradition of Lent, which they regard as imposed by the Pope. Catholics weren’t allowed to eat eggs during Holy Week, so by Easter time, there was an excess of painted and decorated eggs. It is said that Protestants explained the excess of eggs to their children by blaming the bunnies, who were known for their fertility.
Interestingly, in Switzerland, the cuckoo brings Easter eggs, and in Westphalia, it’s up to the fox.
Easter Egg Hunts
The custom of Easter Egg Hunts comes from Germany. With reference to the story of the Resurrection, in which the empty tomb was discovered by women, Protestant reformer Martin Luther organised egg hunts. The men would hide eggs and the women and children would hunt for them.
In 1682, Georg Franck von Franckenau’s essay, De ovis paschalibus (‘About Easter eggs’) told of a hare that would bring a basket of brightly painted eggs for all the children who had been good. These eggs would then be hidden around the house and in the garden for the children to find.
Egg hunts became popular in England in the late 19th century. An expanding Victorian middle class had more disposable income and family life became more of a priority. As a result, Easter transformed from a primarily religious to a more family-centred celebration, with a focus on fun activities for the children.
Traditional Easter Food
Many Easter traditions derive from pagan practices and folk customs and, until they were absorbed by Christianity as symbols of the Resurrection, had little to do with the religion.
Hot Cross Buns
There are a few claims of origin, and I’m not sure which one is correct – you decide!
- Cross Buns were baked by the pagans to celebrate Eostre (the season and the goddess). The cross symbolised rebirth after winter and created four quarters, which represented the phases of the moon.
- Israelites baked sweet buns for an idol and Christian leaders, determined to put a stop to idol worship, insisted the pagan bakers add a cross to the buns to make them more Christian.
- Greeks and Romans baked sweetened rolls for the goddess of morning, Eos, and the goddess Eostre. The cross on these rolls symbolized the horns of a sacrificial ox.
- Home bakers in the Middle Ages marked their loaves with crosses before baking to ward off evil spirits that prevented the bread from rising.
- A 14th-century monk called Thomas Rocliffe made the Alban Bun to give to the local poor on Good Friday. He marked them with a cross to honour the day, and the practice eventually came to mark the end of Lent. The cross on an Alban Bun is cut into the top of the bun rather than being piped on, like the hot cross buns we eat today.
Pickled fish on Good Friday is a South African Easter tradition. It doesn’t originate from a pagan custom but, rather, from practical necessity. It is said that in the olden days, before fridges and freezers, fishing boats didn’t go out over Easter and pickling fish was essential to avoid it rotting.
(Progress report: still 9 down, 39 to go, but now contemplating a toasted and buttered hot cross bun… I thought talking about pickled fish might dampen my appetite, but it didn’t.)
Lamb is a traditional Passover dish and refers the story of the Jews in Ancient Egypt that smeared lamb’s blood on their doorposts to avoid a plague of God (the Book of Exodus). Early Jews celebrated Passover by eating lamb to mark the occasion, and when they converted to Christianity, they kept the tradition with them to celebrate Easter.
The church prohibited the eating of eggs during Holy Week (the week preceding Easter Sunday). Of course, chickens didn’t know it was Holy Week, and they continued to lay eggs. These eggs became known as “Holy Week” eggs and to identify them as such, they were decorated. The egg became a symbol of the Resurrection, symbolising new life emerging from the eggshell. Painted Easter eggs were first recorded in the 13th century.
(Final progress report: strictly speaking, there has been no progress – 39 chocolate-covered Easter eggs remain uneaten; but, the hot cross bun was quite delicious).
A shout out to all the great photographers on Unsplash for the use of their photos – thank you! And, before I go, a word of really good advice courtesy of Evan Esar, “Easter is the only time when it’s perfectly safe to put all of your eggs in one basket.“