The other day I was having lunch with a good friend of mine. At one point the subject of Easter came up and he shared with me how he doesn’t believe we should celebrate it as Christians. Partly because it has ‘iffy’ pagan beginnings and partly because it has become less about Jesus’ resurrection and more to do with commercialism. Is he right? And if he is, should we then all cease to celebrate this Christian holiday?
Certainly, for some people in our culture, Easter Sunday is more about the Easter bunny, colourfully decorated Easter egg hunts and chocolate treats then it is about Jesus’ resurrection. Granted, most folks still know that Easter Sunday has ‘something’ to do with the resurrection of Jesus yet are unclear as to how that is related to the Easter eggs and the Easter bunny. That’s because there is no connection between the resurrection of Jesus and the common modern traditions related to Easter Sunday.
The truth is, that in order to make Christianity more attractive to non-Christians, the ancient Catholic Church mixed the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection with celebrations that involved spring fertility rituals. These spring fertility rituals are the source of the egg and bunny traditions.
Fast forward to today, our consumeristic culture can’t seem to help itself in trying to cash in on the gullibility of people to be parted with their money for none essential trinkets and sweets which focus on those eggs and bunnies. So, it seems that Easter might as well have pagan origins, since it has been almost completely commercialized – the world’s focus is on Easter eggs, Easter candy, and the Easter bunny and not on the resurrection. Does that mean we stop celebrating Easter? And what about the ‘iffy’ pagan origins?
Pagan origin theories
Some have made the claim that we get the name Easter from pagan sources, one being Ishtar an ancient Mesopotamian goddess of war, fertility, and sex. She is featured in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the “Ishtar Gate” was a part of King Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. Her worship involved animal sacrifices; objects made of her sacred stone, lapis lazuli; and temple prostitution.
A popular meme has been circulating the internet with these words superimposed over an image of Ishtar: “This is Ishtar: pronounced ‘Easter.’ Easter was originally the celebration of Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex. Her symbols (like the egg and the bunny) were and still are fertility and sex symbols (or did you actually think eggs and bunnies had anything to do with resurrection?). After Constantine decided to Christianize the Empire, Easter was changed to represent Jesus. But at its roots, Easter (which is how you pronounce Ishtar) is all about celebrating fertility and sex.”
Here’s the thing, there is absolutely no conclusive connection between the pagan goddess Ishtar and the Christian celebration of Easter. Any theory that Easter is named after Ishtar is pure speculation. Added to that, there is also no proof that Ishtar was ever associated with eggs or rabbits as symbols. Truth be known – Ishtar’s sacred animal was actually a lion. Both lions and bunnies are fluffy and furry, but certainly not the same.
Another theory makes the claim that the name Easter comes from a pagan figure called Eastre (or Eostre) who was celebrated as the goddess of spring by the Saxons of Northern Europe. According to this theory, Eastre was the “goddess of the east – from where the sun rises,” her symbol was the hare (a symbol of fertility), and a festival called Eastre was held during the spring equinox by the Saxons to honour her.
This theory on the origin of Easter is highly problematic however, because we have no hard evidence that such a goddess was ever worshiped by anyone, anywhere. In fact, the only mention of Eastre comes from a passing reference in the writings of the Venerable Bede, an eighth-century monk and historian.
Bede wrote, “Eosturmononath has a name which is now translated as ‘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 the Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance” (source: De Temporum Ratione).
Other than this one source though, Eostre is not mentioned in any other ancient writing; no shrines have ever been found, no altars discovered, and nothing has ever been identified to document the worship of Eastre. So, it is quite possible that Bede simply extrapolated the name of the goddess from the name of the month.
Others contend that the word Easter ultimately derives from the Latin phrase in albis, related to alba (“dawn” or “daybreak” in Spanish and Italian). In Old High German, in albis became eostarum, which eventually became Ostern in modern German and Easter in English.
In the end, even if it could be proved that the word Easter is etymologically related to the name of a pagan goddess such as Ishtar or Eostre, it would not change what the Easter holiday itself means to us. For that matter, I don’t think that it should go unnoticed that the word Wednesday comes from Woden’s Day in honour of the Norse god Woden or Odin – but we don’t fret about ‘that’ word’s pagan origin.
In the end, while the word Easter most likely comes from an old word for “east” or the name of a springtime month, we don’t have much evidence that suggests anything more. Assertions that Easter is pagan or that Christians have appropriated a goddess-holiday are untenable.
What Does Scripture Have to say?
Christians celebrate Easter as the resurrection of Christ on the third day after his crucifixion. It is the oldest Christian holiday and the most important day of the church year because of the significance of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. I get that because of the commercialization and possible pagan origins of Easter, many churches prefer to call it “Resurrection Sunday.”
The rationale is that, the more we focus on Christ and his work on our behalf, the better. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:17, that without the resurrection of Christ our faith is futile. What more wonderful reason could we have to celebrate!
But, whether we call it “Easter” or “Resurrection Sunday,” isn’t the important thing. What is important is the reason for our celebration, which is that Christ is alive, making it possible for us to have eternal life. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” – Romans 6:4
So, should we celebrate Easter or allow our children to go on Easter egg hunts? This is a question both parents and church leaders struggle with. Ultimately, I believe that it comes down to a matter of conscience as Paul speaks to in Romans. “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” – Romans 14:5
There is nothing essentially evil about painting and hiding eggs and having children search for them. What is important is our focus. If our focus is on Christ, our children can be taught to understand that the eggs are just a fun game. Parents and the church, however, do have a responsibility to teach the true meaning. In the end, participation in Easter egg hunts and other secular traditions must be left up to the discretion of parents.
Regardless of where the name Easter came from, or what the world has done to commercialize an ancient experience, Easter itself is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is a critical doctrine of the Christian faith. When we celebrate, we are making a statement declaring definitively that Jesus conquered death and the grave, proving to be the world’s Saviour from sin and death. “Whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” – John 3:16