Is Easter a pagan festival?
Often at this time of year, memes and claims start popping up on social media suggesting Easter is a pagan holiday.
There are different versions, but the main thread is usually, Easter’s name comes from a forgotten pagan goddess, and that the time of year we celebrate it is one Christians stole, with elements from the original celebration eventually evolving to form Christianity’s own festival.
So, is Easter really a pagan festival?
The short answer is no.
The long answer? It’s a medieval festival whose symbolism is somewhat lost on modern audiences. Christians may have taken the name from an ancient goddess, but that is where the similarities end.
One claim that circulates about Easter is that it gets its name from the ancient goddess Eostre, whose festival fell in the same time of the year we now celebrate Easter.
While the claim varies, usually it asserts that Eostre’s symbols included eggs and bunnes, hence where we get these chocolates from.
While Eostre may be where the name originates from, the main problem with this idea is that, outside the name of the goddess, no evidence of Eostre worship exists outside of one mention.
In an attempt to account for when Jesus was crucified, many of our forebears in the ancient church did painstaking historical work.
One of the most cited historians from the time was Bede (or the Venerable Bede). As scripture says Christ was crucified and resurrected near the time of the Jewish Passover, Bede observed that this time of year would have fallen around the same time as Eostre’s festival.
Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “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 that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.
Outside of this singular mention however, Eostre is mentioned zero times in history, an omission that has led some historians such as Ray Page to suggest Bede made the whole thing up. In 1995’s Anglo-Saxon Paganism: The evidence of Bede, Page calls Eostre, “an etymological fancy on Bede’s part.”
However, many scholars are happy to take Bede at his word that Eostre was the name of a pagan fertility goddess, from whom we get the name for the festival. Given that there is no other evidence for Eostre, however, that is when the connection ends.
So what about the other elements about Easter, such as rabbits and eggs? The first evidence for these appeared much later than Eostre, and dates back to the medieval period.
Rev. Dr John Squires is the Editor of With Love to the World and a New Testament scholar.
“Let’s not fall for the old chestnut that “Easter was originally a pagan festival”, drawing alleged links between Easter and Eostre, the goddess of fertility,” he said.
“Easter developed from the Jewish festival of Passover. Writing that out of the story is a form of antisemitism; it is already embedded in the earliest Gospel narratives.”
Easter has a well-documented history in Christian tradition. It commemorates Jesus’ resurrection and Christians have celebrated it since at least the second century. The date of Easter is determined by a complex set of calculations based on the lunar calendar and the equinox, and has been celebrated on different dates in different times throughout history.
For more information on Easter, Eostre, and the history of pagan/Christian relations, this video from Religion For Breakfast contains much further context: