Easter—What Are Its Origins?
BY MANY Easter is considered to be Christendom’s chief religious festival. Early on Easter morning large numbers throughout the world meet together for the Easter sunrise service. Everywhere the churches are filled with worshipers, some even several times, and thousands crowd into the square of St. Peter’s Basilica on that day to hear the pope give his Easter blessing. Great throngs of pilgrims also flow into the old walled city of Jerusalem to make their Easter pilgrimage.
But Easter also has another side to it. During the Easter season bakeries display hot cross buns, and candy counters feature butter-cream eggs and chocolate rabbits. There are also Easter music, Easter perfume, Easter jewelry, Easter clothing for men and women and Easter dinners. And not to be overlooked is the Easter parade, in which hundreds of thousands parade on New York City’s Fifth Avenue alone, to be seen or just to see. In the United States the Easter festival may be said to come to an end on Monday with the egg-rolling contest on the presidential White House lawn, which in times past was a decorous affair but of late appears to have deteriorated into a boisterous egg-throwing affair.1
The ostensible purpose of Easter is to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This being so, it may well be asked, What do hot cross buns, eggs, rabbits, new clothes, and so forth, have to do with Easter? Little, except that both for long have been associated with the spring of the year. As An Encyclopedia of Religion, by Ferm, says: “Pagan practices were introduced into the Christian observance of Easter at an early age on account of the fact that the feast coincided with the beginning of spring. . . . At that season of the year, the New Year and the creation of the world were celebrated in ancient times by an exchange of gifts (Easter eggs) and by generous hospitality to friends, to the poor, and so forth.”
YES, PAGAN ORIGINS
Did you know that the very name “Easter,” is of pagan origin? Says an early eighteenth-century Catholic scholar, a Benedictine monk, in a work that may well be said to have been the forerunner of the modern Bible dictionary:
“Easter is a word of Saxon origin; and imports a goddess of the Saxons, or rather, of the East, Estera, in honor of whom sacrifices being annually offered about the passover time of the year (spring), the name became attached by association of ideas to the Christian festival of the resurrection which happened at the time of passover; hence we say Easter-Day or Easter Sunday, but very improperly; as we by no means refer to the festival then kept to the goddess of the ancient Saxons.”2
To the same effect testify other authorities, from the eighth-century English historian Bede to the lastest encyclopedias.
Concerning the use of hot cross buns at Easter time we are told:
“Like the Greeks, the Romans ate bread marked with a cross . . . at public sacrifices, such bread being usually purchased at the doors of the temple and then taken in with them—a custom alluded to by St. Paul in 1 Cor. x. 28. The cross-bread was eaten by pagan Saxons in honour of Easter, their goddess of light. The Mexicans and Peruvians are shown to have had a similar custom. The custom, in fact, was practically universal, and the early Church adroitly adopted the practice, grafting it on to the Eucharist and so giving us the hot crossbun.”3
What about the Easter eggs? It is a well-known fact that in the ancient pagan cosmogonies, or theories about the origin of the universe, the egg looms up prominently. One tells of the “Egg of Light,” another of the “World-Egg.” From one or another of these eggs was supposed to have issued the first god, the Maker and Ruler of the World. Eros, the god of “love,” is also said to have issued forth from an egg.4
True, some claim that the use of eggs at Easter is due to the fact that at one time eggs were banned during Lent, but this does not explain the featuring of eggs on Easter ever since that ban was lifted and now when eggs can be eaten all during Lent. Neither does it explain why the same prominence is not given to other foods that are still banned during Lent and that may be eaten only beginning with Easter. The eating of ham on Easter does not prove the contrary, for it began to be featured in Easter dinners for an entirely different purpose. Says one authority: “Many American Catholics have a boiled ham for dinner on Easter without being aware of the origin of the custom. It is a survival of the ancient habit among the English of eating a gammon of bacon on that day to show their contempt for the Jewish custom of not eating pork.”5
The more pertinent explanation for eating eggs on Easter is that found in The Catholic Encyclopedia: “The custom may have its origin in paganism, for a great many pagan customs, celebrating the return of spring, gravitated to Easter. The egg is the emblem of the germinating life of early spring.”6
Concerning the Easter bunny, this same religious authority states: “The Easter Rabbit lays the eggs, for which reason they are hidden in a nest or in the garden. The rabbit is a pagan symbol and has always been an emblem of fertility.”6
Even the early Easter sunrise service is not without pagan antecedents. “According to old superstition, the sun rising on Easter morning dances in the heavens; this belief has been traced to old heathen festivals of spring, when the spectators danced in honor to the sun.”7
And the same must be said of the impressive ceremony that takes place throughout Christendom on the day before Easter in which new fire is blessed and certain candles and lamps are lit. A detailed description of this ceremony includes the following: “The obtaining and blessing of the new fire is probably a rite of Celtic or even pagan origin, incorporated in the Gallican* Church service of the eighth century.”8
How did all this originate? Certain it is that it does not go back to the beginning of Christianity, for as The Encyclopædia Britannica states:
“There is no trace of the celebration of Easter as a Christian festival in the New Testament or in the writings of the apostolic fathers. The sanctity of special times or places was an idea quite alien from the early Christian mind; too profoundly absorbed in the events themselves to think of their external accidents [nonessentials]. ‘The whole of time is a festival unto Christians because of the excellency of the good things which have been given,’ writes Chrysostom. . . . Origen [urges] in the same spirit . . . The ecclesiastical historian Socrates . . . states with perfect truth that neither Christ nor his apostles enjoined the keeping of this or any other festival. ‘The apostles,’ he writes, ‘had no thought of appointing festival days, but of promoting a life of blamelessness and piety;’ and he attributes the introduction of the festival of Easter into the church to the perpetuation of an old usage, ‘just as many other customs have been established.’ This is doubtless the true statement of the case.”9
This should not surprise us, for had not both Jesus and his apostles foretold a falling away from the pure worship? This is what Jesus had reference to when in one of his parables he said: “While men [the apostles] were sleeping [in death], his [Christ’s] enemy [Satan] came and oversowed weeds [false Christians] in among the wheat [true Christians], and left.” And the apostle Paul warned: “I know that after my going away . . . from among you yourselves men will rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.” The apostle John likewise foretold a falling away, in fact, said that it had already begun in his day.—Matt. 13:25; Acts 20:29, 30; 1 John 2:18, 19.
History shows that these prophecies have been fulfilled, and the facts regarding Easter are an illustration of it. Before the end of the second century there was much disputing as to just when Christ’s resurrection should be celebrated, Victor, the bishop of Rome at the time, unsuccessfully attempting to impose his views on the rest of the then professedly Christian world.10 To end this conflict was one of the purposes for which the Council of Nice was called. It ruled that Christ’s resurrection should be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox, or after March 21.11 It appears that antipathy to the Jews played a part in determining this date.12
Concerning this trend in early Christendom Sir James G. Frazer, a historian, revealingly states:
“Taken altogether, the coincidences of the Christian and heathen festivals are too close and too numerous to be accidental. They mark the compromise which the Church in the hour of its triumph was compelled to make with its vanquished yet still dangerous rivals. The inflexible Protestantism of the primitive missionaries, with their fiery denunciations of heathendom, had been exchanged for the supple policy, the easy tolerance, the comprehensive charity of shrewd ecclesiastics, who clearly perceived that if Christianity was to conquer the world it could do so only by relaxing the too rigid principles of its Founder, by widening a little the narrow gate which leads to salvation.”13
However, let it be noted that nowhere did Jesus command his followers to conquer the world by conversion or by force of arms. His Kingdom gospel was to be preached in all the world for a witness to all nations.—Matt. 24:14.
In this connection it will no doubt be news to most Protestants that just as at one time Christmas was forbidden by law in certain Protestant lands because it was held to be a pagan festival, so “with the rise of Puritanism in England and its abhorrence of religious ceremonial the Protestants for a long time took no note of Easter, or of any other of the church festivals. . . . It was during the Civil War [1861-1865] that the non-ritualistic churches [of the United States] began to observe Easter.”5
THE SCRIPTURAL POSITION
In view of all the foregoing what should be the attitude of those who would please God toward the celebration of Easter together with all its pagan appendages? As already noted, neither Jesus nor any of his apostles established any Christian festival days. Nor was this any mere oversight, as shown by Paul’s rebuke to the Christians at Galatia: “How is it that you are turning back again to the weak and beggarly elementary things and want to slave for them over again? You are scrupulously observing days and months and seasons and years.”—Gal. 4:9-11.
Even more strongly condemned in the Scriptures is the comingling of paganism with the worship of the one true God: “Flee from idolatry. . . . What, then, am I to say? That what is sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No; but I say that the things which the nations sacrifice they sacrifice to demons, and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers with the demons. You cannot be drinking the cup of Jehovah and the cup of demons; you cannot be partaking of ‘the table of Jehovah’ and the table of demons. Or ‘are we inciting Jehovah to jealousy’? We are not stronger than he is, are we?” Paganism is the product of Satan and his demons, and to mix it with Christianity is an affront to Jehovah God that he will not permit to go unnoticed, for he is “a God exacting exclusive devotion.”—1 Cor. 10:14-22; Ex. 20:5.
The adopting of pagan appendages in Christian worship is also ruled out with these words: “What fellowship does light have with darkness? Further, what harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what portion does a faithful person have with an unbeliever? And what agreement does God’s temple have with idols?” None whatever. “‘Therefore get out from among them, and separate yourselves,’ says Jehovah, ‘and quit touching the unclean thing”’; “‘and I will take you in.’” Godless paganism is part of this unclean world, and Christians must keep themselves “without spot from the world.”—2 Cor. 6:14-18; Jas. 1:27.
Yes, what a discredit to associate such pagan appendages as hot cross buns, eggs, rabbits or hares, eternal fire and suchlike with the greatest of all miracles, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, from the dead, one of the paramount truths of Christianity! True, children need entertainment—and adults too—but surely there are better forms than those that make a pagan caricature of the great truths of God’s Word!
Christians show appreciation for the miracle of Christ’s resurrection, not by celebrating a certain day set aside by some ancient council of men, and doing so with pagan appendages, but by accepting by faith the fact of Jesus’ resurrection and by letting it give them hope for their dead loved ones and for themselves and then letting that hope spur them on to serve Jehovah God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength.—Mark 12:30; 1 Cor. 15:58.
1 New York Times, April 24, 1962.
2 Dictionary of the Bible—Calmet, p. 363.
3 The Encyclopædia Britannica (1959 Edition), Vol. 4, p. 381.
4 Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics—Hastings, Vol. 4, pp. 147, 148.
5 The American Book of Days—Douglas, pp. 200-202.
6 Vol. 5, pp. 225-227.
7 The Encyclopædia Britannica (1959 Edition), Vol. 7, p. 531.
8 The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 7, p. 438.
9 Ninth Edition, Vol. 7, p. 531.
10 History of Christianity—The First Three Centuries—Neander, Vol. 1, pp. 523-537.
11 The Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 9, p, 507.
12 Ecclesiastical History—Socrates (Bohn’s Edition), pp. 37, 38.
13 The Golden Bough—Frazer, p. 361.
The Roman Catholic Church in France as distinguished from the church in Italy.