Where did Easter and its customs come from? The Bible doesn’t mention rabbits or eggs or sunrise services. So what is the origin of Easter?
Since Easter is one of the most renowned holidays in the Christian world, why should we be concerned about the origin of Easter?
For centuries, questions have arisen as to the relationship between bunnies and painted eggs and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The truth of the matter is that Easter has its roots in ancient paganism and polytheism.
The origin of Easter
According to William E. Vine, “The term ‘Easter’ is not of Christian origin. It is another form of Astarte, one of the titles of the Chaldean goddess, the queen of heaven. The festival of Pasch [Passover] held by Christians in post-apostolic times was a continuation of the Jewish feast. … From this Pasch the pagan festival of ‘Easter’ was quite distinct and was introduced into the apostate Western religion, as part of the attempt to adapt pagan festivals to Christianity” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1997, “Easter”).
Another source states: “As recounted by the English monk Bede, the 7th-8th century ‘father of English history,’ the former pagans in England called April, or the month marking Jesus’s resurrection, ‘Ēosturmōnaþ’—Old English for the ‘Month of Ēostre.’
“According to Bede in his ‘De temporum ratione’ (‘The Reckoning of Time’), the Christian holiday ‘was called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honor feasts were celebrated in that month.’
“Ēostre is variously depicted by scholars as a fertility goddess and a goddess of dawn and light. The dawn connection could explain a linguistic link between Ēostre and the word ‘east.’
“An academic and a Christian missionary, Bede’s reference to Ēostre (or Ostara) is textually unique, to the extent that many throughout the centuries have asserted it was fabricated. It was only in the 1950s that archeological evidence was found supporting his claim of such a goddess in England. But recently, work was done at the University of Leicester on place names and their connections to Ēostre, which, arguably, buttress Bede’s version” (“The Pagan Goddess Behind the Holiday of ‘Easter’,” The Times of Israel, April 5, 2015).
Two Catholic reference works are also open about the etymology of the name “Easter”:
- “The word Easter, which comes from the Anglo-Saxon, is a term derived from the pagan goddess of the dawn” (The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1987, p. 177).
- “Etym. Anglo-Saxon Eastre, Teutonic goddess of dawn and spring” (Modern Catholic Dictionary, 1980, p. 175).
Two popular Bible resources, written largely from a Protestant perspective, also note the pagan etymology of “Easter”:
- “The word Easter is of Saxon origin, Eastra, the goddess of spring, in whose honor sacrifices were offered about Passover time each year. By the 8th century Anglo-Saxons had adopted the name to designate the celebration of Christ’s resurrection” (Unger’s Bible Dictionary, 1966, p. 283).
- “The term Easter was derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Eostre,’ the name of the goddess of spring. In her honor sacrifices were offered at the time of the vernal equinox. By the 8th cent. the term came to be applied to the anniversary of Christ’s resurrection” (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1982, Vol. 2, p. 6).
The Ancient History Encyclopedia, in its article on “Easter,” supports this explanation of the origin of the holiday’s name and also adds insight into the origins of the eggs and rabbits associated with the holiday:
“There are two possibilities for the source of the term ‘Easter.’ One is that the name comes from the Saxon fertility goddess Eostre (sometimes spelled Eastre or Ostara). The legend goes that Eostre owned an egg-laying rabbit or hare and the story symbolized fertility and life. In the 8th century CE work De temporum ratione, written by an English monk named Bede, the author claims that, during the month of April, the pagan Anglo-Saxon community used to have feasts to honour Eostre, but that custom had died out by the time of his writing, replaced by the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. Another accepted origin of the term Easter is that it comes from the German ‘Ostern,’ which comes from the Norse word ‘Eostrus,’ meaning ‘Spring.’
“The pagan holidays of the goddess Eostre (or Ostara) celebrated fertility and new life: The egg symbolized perfection and wholeness in its natural state and the rabbit was a symbol of fertility. For many cultures, the beginning of the spring season was a symbol of rebirth. This relates to the fact that after the darkness of winter, nature gains a new strength that was symbolized as the ascent of life from the realm of darkness to the world of light.”
There are hundreds of other websites that discuss the pagan origin of Easter.
Should Christians celebrate Easter?
So, what is a Christian to do with the knowledge of the pagan origin of Easter? According to the Bible, God does not want His people to follow or seek after pagan customs.
When ancient Israel entered the Promised Land, God warned them not to seek after the teachings and traditions of the nations that once inhabited the land. He said, “Take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:30-32).
Later, Christ told His disciples: “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men” (Mark 7:6-8).
Therefore, anything that has pagan origins must be avoided by Christ’s disciples, no matter what the intent or long-standing tradition.
What the Bible tells us to celebrate
It is also important to note that the Bible nowhere tells us to honor the day of Christ’s resurrection. Instead, God established a command that the Passover should be observed annually to honor Christ’s death. Today, Christians are not to participate in the Easter holiday, but rather in the New Testament Passover, which is the memorial of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for our sins.
In great solemnity, once a year on the 14th day of the first month on the Hebrew calendar (Leviticus 23:4-5), we are to observe the Lord’s Passover. On that special evening, the apostle Paul instructed the members of the Church to partake of the bread, which symbolizes Christ’s body broken (beaten) for us, and to drink of the wine, which symbolizes the New Covenant in His blood (1 Corinthians 11:23-29).
As to Christ’s resurrection, this occurred exactly three days and three nights after His burial (Matthew 12:39-40; Luke 24:46-47). Christ was crucified on a Wednesday afternoon, buried just before sunset, as Thursday was an annual holy day. He was resurrected three days later on Saturday afternoon (the weekly Sabbath) just before sunset. It must also be noted that on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene had come to the tomb while it was still dark. Christ had already risen—long before sunrise (John 20:1-2).
So, the story of Christ’s resurrection occurring on Easter Sunday morning (as well as rabbits laying eggs) is a polytheistic myth. Instead of observing Easter or any of its customs, Christians are instructed to observe the biblically authorized holy days of God.
You can learn more in the section “Holy Days vs. Holidays.”