What are the origins of Easter?
Question: "What are the origins of Easter?"
Answer: The origins of Easter are obscure. It is often assumed 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 the 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 honor her. This theory on the origin of Easter is highly problematic, however.
The major problem with associating the origin of Easter with the pagan goddess Eastre/Eostre is that we have no hard evidence that such a goddess was ever worshiped by anyone, anywhere. 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, “Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated as ‘Paschal month,’ and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honor 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” (De Temporum Ratione). And that’s it. Eostre is not mentioned in any other ancient writing; we have found no shrines, no altars, nothing to document the worship of Eastre. It is possible that Bede simply extrapolated the name of the goddess from the name of the month.
In the nineteenth century, the German folklorist Jakob Grimm researched the origins of the German name for Easter, Ostern, which in Old High German was Ostarâ. Both words are related to the German word for “east,” ost. Grimm, while admitting that he could find no solid link between Easter and pagan celebrations, made the assumption that Ostara was probably the name of a German goddess. Like Eastre, the goddess Ostara was based entirely on supposition and conjecture; before Grimm’s Deustche Mythologie (1835), there was no mention of the goddess in any writings.
So, 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. Today, however, 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.
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 Christ, the events upon which Christianity is based (1 Corinthians 15:14). In some Christian traditions, Easter Sunday is preceded by the season of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting and repentance culminating in Holy Week and followed by a 50-day Easter season that stretches from Easter to Pentecost.
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 that without the resurrection of Christ our faith is futile (1 Corinthians 15:17). What more wonderful reason could we have to celebrate! Whether we call it “Easter” or “Resurrection Sunday,” what is important is the reason for our celebration, which is that Christ is alive, making it possible for us to have eternal life (Romans 6:4)!
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, it comes down to a matter of conscience (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. Children should know the true meaning of the day, and parents and the church 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.
Recommended Resource: The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas
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