Christians around the world will be celebrating Easter on Sunday. But how exactly did Easter traditions form? What do chocolate bunnies and finding hidden painted eggs have to do with the resurrection of Jesus? Something is missing here.
Just like my previous look into the origins of Christmas, many facets of the Christian Easter celebration find their origin in pagan traditions from before, during, and after Christianity’s beginnings.
According to Christian tradition, Jesus died and then resurrected just after the Jewish Passover. In fact, Jesus’ death was symbolically understood to be a kind of Passover sacrifice. But the earliest known record of Christians celebrating Easter does not come until the late 2nd century in the writings of Irenaeus. And Irenaeus attests to the fact that even in his time Christians could not agree on when, or how, or for how long to celebrate Easter and Lent.
The Council of Nicaea in the year 325 made pronouncements on when Easter should be celebrated. It was their decision to celebrate it on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox.
The time of year that Easter is observed was full of celebrations or other rites of worship for many pagan fertility gods and goddesses. This was a largely agrarian society, where a successful harvest each year was critical to the survival of each community. People would pray to their gods and goddesses in the hopes that a bountiful harvest would follow.
Eostre was a Germanic fertility goddess who had her own festival on the spring equinox itself. Her sacred animal was, you guessed it, the rabbit. She is only attested to in the 8th century work, De Temporum Ratione (On the Reckoning of Time), by the Christian Saint Bede the Venerable. There is some debate as to whether Eostre was actually worshipped among ancient Germanic people or if she was an invention by Bede. But the name Eostre seems to derive from a proto-Germanic word for “dawn”. If this is true then Eostre could be a later representation of earlier dawn goddesses such as the Greek goddess Eos or the proto-Indo-European goddess Aeusos. In Rome Eos was known as Aurora.
Alright, so maybe the whole rabbit thing came from a pagan fertility goddess associated with rabbits. What about the eggs? Where do they come in? Well, aside from the egg being recognized as a symbol of fertility and new life, the specific tradition of painting eggs around the spring equinox existed centuries before Christianity. The Persian celebration of Nowruz marks the New Year. They celebrated their New Year during the spring equinox, and as part of this rite one of the things they would exchange were brightly painted eggs. It seems like quite a coincidence that there existed an ancient tradition of painting eggs and exchanging them on the spring equinox centuries before Christians adopted the tradition of painting eggs around the spring equinox. And they most certainly had interactions with people celebrating Nowruz, so it cannot be claimed they were ignorant of the tradition.
So, did the Christians deliberately set out to incorporate some of these non-Christian traditions into their holiday? Maybe, maybe not. We cannot really be sure. We lack a letter or diary by some clergyman saying something like, “If I add this rabbit to Easter then all these Germanic tribes will come over to our side! Mwahahaha!” Without a smoking gun like that, we have to leave some of this to conjecture. But one thing we can say for sure is that Easter is not an original idea. It is some Frankenstein’s monster made up of pagan, Jewish, and Christian ideas and traditions.