Here is the surprising story of how a pagan festival came to be regarded as a Christian holiday.
HAVE you ever wondered what colored eggs have to do with the death of Jesus Christ? And what Easter rabbits and "hot-cross" buns have to do with a supposed Sunday resurrection? How did a Christian world come to accept and celebrate what were at one time pagan religious traditions? Let's pull back the curtain of time and see, at this season, how and why these strange customs became part of today's religious heritage.
The Little Known History of Easter
Turn back the pages of history for a moment to the year 8 B.C. It's about four years before Jesus' birth. Notice what was taking place in that particular year among the non-Christian population of Europe — the Germanic people. As was customary with the spring of each year, a particular event was about to take place. General excitement permeated the towns and villages. It was a Saturday evening, called Sunnun-abend, when the event was to occur. On this particular evening in 8 B. c., everyone left his habitation and then gathered outside the village or town. All those capable would collect wood, place it around an oak tree, and set it alight. As the massive mountain of wood began to burn, everyone would gather around the fire, completely encircling it. Flames would light up the entire sky. This ceremony occurred throughout the land. Then followed the more solemn part of the evening. The populace would kneel and beseech Sunna, their goddess of dawn as she was then called, imploring her to bring back the long-awaited spring days. The date of this festival was a Saturday night about the twenty-first of March. This was the time of the vernal equinox, when the short winter days cease and the long, warm spring months begin. (As a matter of interest, the German word for Saturday — Sonnabend — traces its origin back to the Saturday night on which the goddess Sunna was worshipped. The ancient Germans counted their days from evening to evening. Thus Saturday eve was actually the beginning of Sunday.) After having offered sacrifices to the goddess of the spring on this evening, the people retired till early morning. On this morning, Sunday — some time before dawn — everyone would meet again outside with their faces to the East — toward the rising sun — praising their goddess Sunna for bringing them this long-awaited first day of spring. This day, the first Sunday after March 21, was their annual holiday. It was a joyous day of various celebrations and games. One of the games was to find colored eggs which were hidden in the grass, around trees, and in other hiding places. The children especially enjoyed these games. Although the coloring varied, the predominant colors of the eggs were red and gold — symbolizing the bright rays of the sun. Some of the eggs were given as an offering to the spring goddess and the others were eaten. Eggs were regarded as the emblem of germinating life of early spring. "Hot-cross" buns were also baked and offered to the goddess. (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 2, p. 34 and Symbolik, W. Menzel, p. 180.)
Why Called Easter?
Moving forward in history to a time several centuries after the birth of Christ, we find the heathen populace of Europe still observing this annual spring festival to the goddess of dawn or spring. But now she was known by another, more general name — Eostre. The name Sunna had merely been the localized German name, which was now changed to the more general name Eostre. Here is what happened. During the previous centuries, vast numbers of people from Persia and Assyria had settled on the European mainland. These Eastern peoples were also worshipping a spring goddess. Their celebration likewise coincided with the beginning of spring. In fact, even colored eggs were associated with their spring festival. The ancient Persians, when they kept the festival of the solar new year in March, mutually presented each other with colored eggs. The spring festival of these Eastern immigrants was identical to the festival the Germanic people celebrated. There was only one difference. The name of their goddess was ISHTAR. The Germans pronounced it slightly different, resulting in Eostre, which was pronounced as we today pronounce Easter. Thus the settlers from the East influenced the local population to alter the name of their goddess Sunna to that of Easter. But it was still the same goddess. It was still the same festival on which they worshipped the goddess Sunna several centuries before. They still gathered wood on Saturday eve. They still had their huge bonfire that night. They still arose early the next morning for the sunrise service. And they still played games and looked for colored eggs on that day. It was still a highly popular festival. With the influx of these Eastern tribes, it became more generally celebrated than ever before. Nothing had changed except the name of their goddess, now Eostre or, in more modern terminology, Easter.
Introduced into Christianity
But how and why did the Christian world accept this festival, knowing its heathen origin? The first three centuries after Christ reveal what transpired. Notice the words of a historian of the third century, Socrates Scholasticus, "Neither the apostles, therefore, nor the Gospels have anywhere imposed... Easter" (Ecclesiastical History, volume 22). And again, "The first Christians continued to observe the Jewish festivals [that is, the festivals God had given to His people Israel], though in a new spirit, as commemorations of events which those festivals had foreshadowed" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, volume 8, p. 828). There was no holiday commemorating a resurrection, only a festival (the New Testament Passover) commemorating Christ's death. Instead of celebrating a resurrection or Easter festival — the early Christians kept the annual festival, the Passover "The Jewish Christians [those who were Jews before conversion and others who commemorated Christ's death] in the early church continued to celebrate the Passover" (International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, James Orr, p. 889). But why was this new Sunday festival introduced on a day that doesn't even commemorate the resurrection? Philosophers — Magi — from the East had traveled westward, bringing their philosophy with them. Their powerful influence actually changed the religion of the Roman populace. This is how it happened. "Some of the most powerful divine invaders who came from the East to conquer the West were SOLAR DIVINITIES.... These immigrants from the East... brought the religion of the SUN with them" (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Hastings, vol. 8, p. 59). And one form of sun worship they were very familiar with was a resurrection festival in the spring. Now these Eastern immigrants settling in the West — with their appealing sun worship — made a profound impression on the mind of the average Roman. Because of this, and the fact that a large percentage of the population was already Eastern in origin, the professing Christian world thought of a way to add immense numbers to its membership rolls. Realizing that a vast portion of the population in the Roman Empire was familiar with sun worship, it was decided to make use of the day on which these Easterners worshipped — Sunday. A resurrection feast was instituted — not to the literal sun, which the pagans had worshipped, but supposedly in honor of the true Sun — Christ! This Sunday festival was introduced in the mid second century A. D.
Heathen Become "Christians" Overnight
Introducing this new festival on the pagan day of Sunday paid immediate dividends. The heathen populace of Rome quickly noticed the similarity of the newly introduced festival with their own spring festival in honor of their goddess. As a result, they became Christians in droves. The church grew in number — speedily outgrowing all other rivals. Since the goal during the time of her ascendancy and growth was to quickly attract new members, church leaders would often meet the heathen halfway. This lenient policy made it easier for the unconverted to become members. Deliberately soliciting new members, the church allowed the unconverted populace to retain many of its heathen practices and beliefs — in a watered-down version. For example, the church knew that many of the immigrants from the East were used to celebrating a heathen spring festival. So these heathen practices and festivals were given a Christian dressing. The newly converted were asked, not to worship their pagan gods or goddesses on certain days, but rather to worship the Christian God and Saviour on these days. And the days chosen by the church for these Christianized celebrations were the identical days on which the pagans worshipped their gods. This compromise is admitted by the scholar, Aringhus. He mentions that the church "found it necessary, in the conversion of the Gentiles, to dissemble and WINK AT many things, and yield to the times" (Diegesis: The Discovery of the Origin of Christianity, Robert Taylor, Boston, Mass., 1829, p. 237). Such compromise with the pagans gained Christianity vast numbers of converts. By the time of Constantine in A.D. 325, church leaders were able to influence the emperor to pass a decree forcing all within the empire to keep this Sunday resurrection. Simultaneously, it was strictly forbidden for any Christian to continue keeping the New Testament Passover. It was considered Jewish. Pagans, now professing to be Christians, developed a "Christian" philosophy of their own.
In the following centuries, as the culture of the Roman Empire expanded into Central Europe, the religion of the Roman Empire also spread into these areas. The policy of converting pagans continued. Whole tribes were forced into accepting Christ and into accepting what was claimed to be His religion. This policy was zealously carried out by the Christian emperors. Charlemagne (about A. D. 800) was especially zealous in bringing thousands of unconverted pagans into the fold of the church. Here is what he did. After being crowned Emperor in A. D. 800, Charlemagne set out to subdue the German tribes living in the East. The western part of Europe, France, the Rhineland, and Italy were already under his sway. He forced the German chiefs to be baptized with their entire people. At first, the chiefs and their subjects refused. But finally, seeing there was no choice, the defeated chiefs relented. Thus in one day, tens of thousands became Christians. Although these newly converted Germans resented the method used in their conversion, they soon found themselves right at home. Noticing especially the resurrection festival that was being kept on their own day of worship — Sunday — the new converts needed little persuasion to celebrate this so-called Christian spring festival, which was similar to what they had been used to in the worship of their spring goddess Easter. As time passed, these former pagans — now converted — were not satisfied to merely observe a Sunday resurrection festival to Christ. They coveted and yearned for the beautiful but pagan embellishments which they were accustomed to observing. Thus, in the process of time, they were influential in changing the name from "resurrection festival" to Easter. But they didn't stop here. They further introduced into the Christian world more outright paganism. Soon, all of Western Europe was hunting for Easter eggs on this man-made, unbiblical festival. The Easter rabbit also became a symbol of fertility. Many even continued to rise early Sunday morning to face the sun in prayer. Campfires were lit each Saturday evening leading up to Easter. (And this is still done in parts of Germany. I have witnessed these fires myself on Saturday eve before Easter.) Many pagan converts would also bake cakes called "hot-cross" buns and eat them at Easter. In due time these and other pagan spring rites were celebrated on Easter Sunday. Thus the man-made festival supposed to commemorate Jesus' resurrection came to be embellished with more and more paganism.
The Twentieth Century
Most people reason, "I know Easter is of pagan origin. But after all, we grew up observing Easter as part of our Christian tradition." But you may have wondered, "If Easter is a pagan festival, WHY should Christians celebrate it?" Which, of course, is a good question! If a person wants to use the Bible as his spiritual guide, then why not consider what is mentioned in the Bible? And, at the same time, why not read the eye-opening facts of history and of your Bible in our booklet The Plain Truth About Easter. It is published as an educational service by the Ambassador College Department of Theology. You have never read anything quite like it.