The Truth About Easter Customs
It is a ponderous stone that seals the tomb of Jesus. And the three women moving through the predawn darkness do not know how they will move it. But their desire to perform one last labor of love for their slain Master is compelling. Stone or no stone, they will tenderly grease the body so cruelly nailed to the stake three days earlier! It is a small but profoundly loving gesture.
Approaching the garden tomb, the problem of moving the stone looms larger than ever in their minds. But upon arriving they are astonished to see that the stone has been rolled away and the tomb emptied! A white-clad angel explains: “Stop being stunned. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was impaled. He was raised up, he is not here.”—Mark 16:1-6; John 20:1, 2.
THE resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the bedrock beliefs of Christianity. Said the apostle Paul: “But if Christ has not been raised up, our preaching is certainly in vain, and our faith is in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:14) Would it therefore not seem logical for Christians to commemorate this great event?
‘Do This in Remembrance of Me’
Proclaimed the Vatican: “Every week, on the day which she has called the Lord’s day [Sunday], [the church] keeps the memory of His resurrection.” Additionally, “in the supreme solemnity of Easter she also makes an annual commemoration of the resurrection.”—The Documents of Vatican II.
Nowhere, however, does the Bible indicate that early Christians observed either a weekly Sunday or a yearly Easter to commemorate Christ’s resurrection. The night before he died, Christ ordered quite a different celebration. He served his disciples a simple meal of wine and bread and commanded them, “Keep doing this in remembrance of me.”—Luke 22:19.
It was thus Christ’s death, not his resurrection, that Jesus wanted memorialized. And how often? Jesus served this meal on the night of the Jewish Passover meal—a yearly celebration of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. (Matthew 26:19, 20, 26-28) Obviously, Jesus intended to replace the Passover with a yearly serving of this memorial meal. Neither Easter nor any other celebration was commanded by Christ. Fifth-century church historian Socrates said: “The apostles had no thought of appointing festival days, but of promoting a life of blamelessness and piety.”
Both Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul predicted that Christianity would be infiltrated by false teachings. (Matthew 13:24, 25, 36-40; 2 Timothy 4:3) After the death of Jesus’ apostles, the idea took root that it would be appropriate to hold a fast (now known as Lent), followed by a feast, at Passover season. Somehow this became thought of as a way to commemorate Christ’s resurrection.
Easter and Its Customs
Easter’s ascendancy as a festival thus was not Bible based. In fact, scholars claim that the very word Easter is of Anglo-Saxon origin, referring to the springtime. During that season, the ancients thought the sun was reborn after months of winter death.a Other terms for the festival, such as pâques or pasqua, are derived from the ancient Hebrew word peʹsach, or “passover.” Christendom argues that Easter replaces this Jewish festival. But this ignores the fact that Jesus replaced the Passover, not with Easter, but with his memorial supper.
Historian Socrates therefore concluded: “It seems to me that the feast of Easter has been introduced into the church from some old usage, just as many other customs have been established.” The plethora of Easter traditions indeed comes from “some old usage”—the usage of idolatrous nations! Catholic priest Francis X. Weiser admitted: “Some of the popular traditions of Lent and Easter date back to ancient nature rites.” These rites of spring were originally designed to “frighten the demons of winter away.”
But did not the church stamp out such paganism in her converts? Curiosities of Popular Customs explains: “It was the invariable policy of the early Church to give a Christian significance to such of the extant pagan ceremonies as could not be rooted out. In the case of Easter the conversion was peculiarly easy. Joy at the rising of the natural sun, and the awakening of nature from the death of winter, became joy at the rising of the Sun of righteousness, at the resurrection of Christ from the grave.”
In The Easter Book, Weiser justifies all of this by saying that the church has ‘elevated the pre-Christian symbolism of nature into a Christian sacramental.’ Non-Christian practices, he says, “have added a charming touch to the supernatural meanings of the [Easter] season.”
Admittedly, the sight of children scrambling for brightly colored eggs may seem “charming.” The same could be said for many Easter customs. But are they simply harmless fun? Said one Greek café owner: “I know that the egg—it is stupid; and the bunny—more stupid; and that we fast for 40 days before Easter—it’s stupid. But this adds a bit of spice to our life.”
Perhaps. But sincere Christians are concerned that the Bible says: “For what fellowship do righteousness and lawlessness have? Or what sharing does light have with darkness? . . . ‘“Therefore get out from among them, and separate yourselves,” says Jehovah, “and quit touching the unclean thing.”’” (2 Corinthians 6:14-17) Surely that would include customs that are clearly derived from—or unmistakably resemble—false religious practices. True, clerics argue that such practices become acceptable when brought into the church. However, it was this same line of reasoning that once nearly led the Israelites to ruin!
In violation of God’s command, they made a golden calf. (Exodus 20:4) It was no doubt modeled after idols they had seen in Egypt. Then they used the idol in a rite they called “a festival to Jehovah.” But did Jehovah God feel that this added “charm” to his worship? On the contrary! Only Moses’ intervention spared the Israelites from extermination!—Exodus 32:1-5, 9-14.
Easter customs—eggs, bunnies, and bonfires—are therefore not cleansed by being practiced by Christians. Rather, they defile anyone practicing them.—Compare Haggai 2:12, 13.
Interestingly, though, an article in the Australian magazine The Bulletin observed: “Jehovah’s Witnesses write Easter off as an amalgam of Christian and pagan rites.” Yes, they decline participation in idolatrous rites. Yet they do give honor to the resurrected Christ. The article continued: “Witnesses gather . . . [once a year] to commemorate Jesus’ death.” This is done in the way Christ commanded—by the serving of unleavened bread and wine.
The challenge now to those who know the truth about Easter is whether they will act upon what they know or not.
a Eighth-century Catholic scholar Venerable Bede claimed that the word was derived from the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, “Eostre.” In his book The Two Babylons, Alexander Hislop claimed a connection between Easter and the Babylonian goddess Astarte.
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Easter sunrise services originated with sun worshipers
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Pagan Practices That Were “Christianized”
Easter Eggs: Since the eating of eggs was formerly forbidden during Lent, “decorated eggs,” claims The Encyclopedia Americana, “could symbolize the end of the penitential season and the beginning of joyful celebration.” However, reference works agree that the egg was a symbol of life and fertility among idolaters. Says the book Celebrations: “Eggs were said to be dyed and eaten at the spring festivals in ancient Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome. The Persians of that time gave eggs as gifts at the vernal equinox.”
Easter Hares and Rabbits: In Europe, the hare has long been a traditional symbol of Easter. (In North America, the animal is a rabbit—a close relative of the hare.) Yet The New Encyclopædia Britannica explains that the hare was “the symbol of fertility in ancient Egypt.” Thus when children hunt for Easter eggs, supposedly brought by the Easter rabbit, “this is not mere child’s play, but the vestige of a fertility rite.”—Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, volume 1, page 335.
Sunrise Services: Says The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over: “It was a common belief among the early Christians that on Easter morning the sun danced in honor of the Resurrection and people rose long before the sun to see the feat. Perhaps this ancient belief is the inspiration for the many sunrise services that take place on Easter morning in all parts of the United States and Europe.”
But says Walsh’s Curiosities of Popular Customs: “This idea of the sun dancing on Easter Day may easily be traced back to heathen customs, when the spectators themselves danced at a festival in honor of the sun, after the vernal equinox.”
The book Celebrations adds: “Sunrise services are not unrelated to the Easter fires held on the tops of hills in continuation of the New Year fires, a worldwide observance in antiquity. Rites were performed at the vernal equinox welcoming the sun and its great power to bring new life to all growing things.”
Water Rites: The belief that running water on Easter morning is especially blessed is common. However, Hastings’ Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics reminds us: “Since water is one of the essential factors in the preservation of life and the growth of the crops, it naturally plays a conspicuous part in rainmaking ceremonies and other seasonal rites among primitive people.”
The Blessing of the New Fire: A Catholic rite, in preparation for the Easter vigil, in which a fire is started from a flint rock. Says Hastings’ Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics: “The new fire probably took rise from a pagan custom to which, when adopted by Christians, a gospel symbolism was attached.”
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Ham Dinners: Ham on Easter is a long-standing custom among many Catholics. However, the custom is a relic of English bigotry. The American Book of Days says that the English had a habit “of eating a gammon of bacon on that day to show their contempt for the Jewish custom of not eating pork.” William the Conqueror, according to the book Celebrations, changed the bacon to ham to suit his liking.
Easter in America: Because the religious scene in America was for a long time dominated by puritanical thinking (the Puritans disdained ritual), Easter was at first a rather small-scale event. It appears that the holiday became popular, though, during the U.S. Civil War. So many families lost loved ones during this conflict that the holiday was promoted as a means of bringing consolation to the bereaved.
Easter Bonfires: Easter bonfires were originally banned by the church as being a pagan symbolism, says Weiser. (Synod of Mainz, 742 C.E.) However, “Saint” Patrick introduced the practice in Ireland “to supplant the Druidic pagan spring fires with a Christian and religious fire symbol of Christ . . . This tolerated custom became so popular eventually that the popes incorporated it into the liturgy of the Western Church in the latter part of the ninth century.”—The Easter Book, by Francis Weiser, S.J.
Easter in Japan: A Catholic woman asked a Japanese nun why they didn’t use bunnies in their Easter celebration (called Fukkatsu-sai, or festival of resurrection). Her reply: “What are they? Do they have any special meaning on Easter?”
Says one former Catholic: ‘Easter in Japan was an occasion a bit more serious than in Western countries. After Mass, we received colored eggs, but we were not told their meaning. Also, in church the crosses and other images would be covered with purple cloth during Lent. But on the day of Easter, the coverings would be removed to symbolize the joy of the resurrection.’