Easter – Christian, Jewish, Pagan?


By:  Heather Abraham

Easter (Pascha in Greek and Latin) is arguably the most important feast in the Christian liturgical year yet the modern Easter celebration is often associated with Jewish Passover as well as pagan imagery and deities.  Is the modern Easter feast a purely Christian one or is there legitimacy in viewing Easter as a product of religious syncretism?

Vernal Equinox

As the oldest of Christian feast days, after the Sabbath, the Easter observance has its roots firmly planted in Judaism. Christians originally celebrated Easter two days after the Jewish Passover but in 325 CE, by order of the Emperor Constantine, the Council of Nicaea determined to move the holiday in order to forge a new and unique Christian identity—distinct from its Judaic roots.  The Jewish Passover story of Jesus’ death and resurrection was remade into a strictly Christian narrative.  Easter would no longer be celebrated as a Passover holiday but would become a moveable feast day no longer associated with the Jewish calendar.  After the Nicene council’s ruling, all subsequent Easter celebrations would occur on the first Sunday—following the first full moon—after the vernal Equinox which usually occurs from March 20th to 21st.  For Western Christianity, Easter can fall on any Sunday from March 22nd to April 25th.

Ostara - Spring Goddess of Fertility

As the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christianity left its modest beginnings behind, slowly expanding, conquering, and absorbing pagan rituals, deities, myth, and imagery as it spread throughout the European continent.    For each new culture it encountered, Christianity would embrace those Pagan rituals and beliefs which complimented the Christian narrative.  Pagan goddesses were absorbed into Christianity as Saints, pagan temples and shrines were reinvented as Christian Churches, and pagan imagery was incorporated into the Christian narrative.   Although the origin of the English name for Easter (Pascha) is still in debate, it is likely a derivative of Eostre or Ostara, a European fertility goddesses whose spring equinox festivals celebrated the triumph of life and renewal over the death and darkness of winter.

Easter Bunnies and Their Eggs

Other elements of the modern Easter celebration such as the Easter bunny and Easter egg are without question ancient  pagan symbols of fertility and creation.  One pagan myth tells the story of a bird who so admired the beauty of the rabbit that she asked the goddess to  remake her in the image of the hare.  Granting the wish, the goddess transformed the bird into a rabbit who became her devoted attendant and continued to lay eggs to honor her divine benefactress. This egg laying hare is one of the most recognizable images of the  modern Easter celebration.

Back to our original question:  is the modern Easter feast a purely Christian one or is there legitimacy in viewing Easter as a product of  religious syncretism?  I’ll let you decide!

Wishing everyone a happy Easter, Chag Sameach, and a belated Ostara!


Filed Under: Heather AbrahamViews, News, & Issues


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