If you’re like most Americans, you’re celebrating Easter today. If you have kids, you probably hid plastic Easter eggs around the house and had your children find an Easter basket full of candy and plastic toys. This is how I remember celebrating Easter but when I became a Christian, Easter took on a whole new meaning. It wasn’t about the eggs or the Easter bunny or the candy, it was all about Jesus and how he died for our sins. I was a member of an evangelical church and I can say that this is probably the most important holiday to Christian’s. It’s the corner stone of their belief system but what is it about Easter that makes it so special? Where did it come from and why do we celebrate it like we do today? And what’s the deal with all those damn rabbits? I will answer all this and more in today’s C-Webb’s Sunday School.
First up is the Christian perspective, seeing how this is kind of their holiday. Easter is usually preceded by Lent, a 40 day period of fasting, repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline. Easter Sunday is celebrated by Christians all over the world and it signifies the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is believed that Jesus rose from the dead three days after he was crucified. Typically the death of Jesus is celebrated on Good Friday, the Friday before Easter Sunday. Christian theology states that through Jesus’s death, burial and resurrection, Jesus paid the penalty of sin, thus we can now have eternal life as long as we believe in Jesus . Some of the notable passages in the bible about Jesus’s death and resurrection are Matthew 27:27-28:8, Mark 15:16-16:19, Luke 23:26-24:35 and John 19:16-20:30.
The Christian origins of Easter dates back to between the second or fourth centuries. This Easter celebration differed from modern Easter celebrations because Christians of those centuries celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus on the same day. Easter has been compared to the Jewish celebration of Passover. For the Jews, Passover celebrates the escape from Egyptian bondage whereas for Christians, it is the celebration of escape from death due to sin. So Easter could be considered the Christian Passover . With all that in perspective, where did Easter actually come from and why do we celebrate it in the spring and why rabbits?
Easter’s Pagan Roots
There’s nothing new under the sun and like most things in Christianity, Easter is not of Christian original. We have to look no further than our Pagan ancestors to find the origin of the Easter celebration but before we go on, let me define what it means to be Pagan. If you ask a Christian, it means of the devil or Satan worshipping or anything not Christian. The word pagan has its roots in the Latin word paganus which means “country dweller or villager.” When Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire, those still wanting to practice their non-Christian religion were pushed to the outskirts of the cities. Paganism is typically associated with earth based religions and is typically polytheist: meaning more than one god, pantheism: which typically identifies God as or with the universe and animism: which is the belief that natural object possesses souls. Pagans do not worship Satan, which is a Christian creation and they also believe in the immortality of the soul and the unending cycles of the season which signifies birth, death and rebirth .
Easter today is far more secularized than in the past and this has to do with commercialization. The same is said about Christmas. Eggs, candy and bunnies are not Christian but many Christian partake in this style of Easter celebration without knowing its roots. The pagan roots of Easter have to do with celebrating the spring equinox. Spring is seen as a rebirth from winter, where everything dies yet in spring, everything comes back to life. This birth death cycle is probably one of the earliest forms of ritual in human culture. One of the earliest known celebrations of Easter dates back to 2400 BCE to the ancient Babylonians. The city of Ur had a celebration dedicated to the moon and the spring equinox which occurred during our months of March and April. Jews celebrate the Feast of Weeks and Passover during the spring and it is believed this is a holdover from their captivity in Babylon. Given your geographical location, the celebration of Easter differs. In northern European countries, the vernal equinox signified a time for planting and around the Mediterranean, the vernal equinox happened in summer and this was when crops began to sprout. This is important to the cycle of death and birth or new life over death. When your civilization relied on the seasons for food, it was important to know the correct growing season and you can see how significant it was when winter ended and spring began.
The notion of gods dying and being reborn is not unique to Christianity. Spring festivals typically focused on a particular god dying during the winter and being resurrected in the spring. In paganism, where worshipping of the earth is part of the belief system, the rebirth of the earth god was something to celebrate. In some legends, these gods descend in to the underworld such as Attis consorting with Cybele, a fertility goddess. Attis acquired other names in different cultures including Osiris, Dionysus and Tammuz. Cybele worship started in Rome around 200 BCE and a cult dedicated to her was located on what is now Vatican Hill. Early Christians and worshippers of Cybele often celebrated in close proximity to each other and usually at the same time.
The word Easter is derived from the goddess Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon lunar goddess and is the root for the female hormone estrogen. Eostre’s feast day was held on the first full moon following the vernal equinox. On this date, she is believed to mate with the solar god, conceiving a child name Yule that is to be born 9 months later during the winter solstice. Does Yule log sound familiar to anyone? Two of her most important symbols were therabbit because of their fertility and the egg, which symbolized the growing of new life. Christians have yet to assimilate these meanings into their mythology .
Easter is celebrated both publically and privately. Public celebrations of Easter are done with chocolate, Easter egg hunts, the Easter bunny and so on. In Christian churches, they tend to focus specifically on Jesus and his death and resurrection. So as you can see, the Christian celebration of Easter is not original. It makes sense in the context of history. If you are looking to convert people to your new religion, you have to incorporate some of their old beliefs into your new one. There is nothing special about Easter to secularist beside a day to spend with family and eat chocolate, so go and have fun and don’t worry about death or sin, enjoy spring for what it is…a beautiful time of year to spend out doors with your loved one.