The Christian History of “Pagan” Easter

I bought Easter candy for my students. It was a mistake.

Although the students made a valiant effort to eat as much as possible, they left a few Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs (a particular weakness of mine) in the candy basket. Needless to say, they didn’t last long.

Reese’s eggs are just one of many newer adaptations of older Easter traditions. Recent twitter posts have made me realize how much confusion still persists about these traditions. My favorite was a screenshot on March 6 of a white board explaining that “Easter is a pagan conspiracy” originating in the Middle Eastern cult of Ishtar and the ancient Babylonian empire . Another, posted on February 24, proclaims that eggs and bunnies are “fertility and sex symbols” that apparently existed in a pagan celebration christianized in the aftermath of Constantine.

Most Americans, according to a 2010 Barna poll, consider Easter to be a religious holiday. Yet, because of similar traditions about eggs and spring found in ancient cultures, belief persists that Easter has pagan roots (see websites like www.christiananswers.net ).

I would like to assure you that Easter is a Christian holiday.

Yes, The Venerable Bede did write in the 8th century that the name Easter stems from the goddess “Eostre” who gave her name to the “Eostur” month. How easily the public has swallowed this statement as “fact,” however, testifies to why the world needs historians. No historical evidence exists to support Bede’s statement. Indeed, scholars have long known that Bede provides interpretations based on his own opinions instead of supporting historical evidence (i.e., not everything he says is correct!). Historian Ronald Hutton, lamenting how Bede’s statement “has been so often quoted without any inspection or criticism,” stresses that “it is equally valid…to suggest that the Anglo-Saxon ‘Eoster-monath’ simply meant ‘the month of opening’ or ‘the month of beginnings’, and that Bede mistakenly connected it with a goddess who either never existed at all, or was never associated with a particular season, but merely, like Eos and Aurora, with the dawn itself.” As historical evidence for this “shadowy deity” evaporates, Hutton continues, all evidence for a March/April “pre-Christian festival in the British Isles” also evaporates.

Yes, eggs have existed as a symbol of new life in many cultures throughout history. The most direct historical link to Easter eggs, however, is not ancient Middle Eastern practices but rather Medieval European practices. Medieval French scholar Terence Scully explains this well in The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. “Because eggs were one of the most important foodstuffs covered by the dietary injunctions of Lent…the end of this long period of purification and abstinence…was celebrated by a blessing of eggs in church. These eggs, stained and gaudily decorated with the happiest of bright colours in anticipation of their return to the dining board, were exchanged as gifts among friends and relatives; quite naturally they became known as Easter Eggs.” Ronald Hutton relates how the household of Edward I distributed 450 decorated eggs during a 1290 Easter celebration; how thirteenth-century medieval villages gifted manorial lords with Easter eggs; and how, by the early modern era, Easter eggs were presented to poor children. In other words, the tradition of decorating eggs at Easter and giving eggs to children stems clearly from the medieval Christian practice of Lent.

So let me say it again, Easter is a Christian holiday. Similarities with pagan practices may exist, but the most direct links come from the medieval Christian world. The Easter bunny is perhaps the biggest exception. Once again, however, a pagan goddess is not the root of this tradition. The earliest reference to a rabbit bringing eggs is from a late sixteenth-century German text (1572). The earliest reference I can find linking Easter traditions with Bede’s “shadowy goddess” Eostre (Ostara) is from an 1835 account of the-famous-writer-of-fairy-tales-himself Jakob Grimm. Thus, the historical trail of evidence for the Easter Bunny begins in a world far, far removed from ancient paganism.

Just as the modern manifestation of the Easter Bunny is more firmly rooted in early modern Christian Europe than the world of an ancient pagan goddess, the Easter tradition represented by the Reese’s eggs I can’t help but eat have roots firmly entrenched in medieval Christianity.

Remember, historical parallels are not the same as historical evidence. To parody a quote attributed to Freud: sometimes a historical similarity is just a historical similarity.

More on Engaging Easter and other Patheos Topics

A Pastor's Quick Guide to Reliable Historical Research
The Value of Failure in Graduate School
Counting the Cost of a History PhD
The Modern Roots of "Pagan" Easter
  • John C. Gardner

    Thank you for the interesting post. Would you please recommend some sources which could provide further information on this topic? May God bless you and your family.

  • April Davidson Hollingsworth

    I doubt there are any. This article is nothing but opinion.

  • hackendorf

    Actually, the notion that Easter and Christmas are rooted in paganism is a fiction. A good place to get accurate historical information is http://steadfastlutherans.org/tag/redeeming-holy-days-from-pagan-lies/

  • Beth Allison Barr

    I rarely engage in comments after my articles as it seems pointless to engage many of them (see most of the other comments here). But, John, I would be happy to give you my sources since my article is based on historical evidence. First, I recommend Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun as well as his recent book on Pagan Britain. Hutton is an excellent and established historian. You may disagree with him, but his arguments are based on historical evidence. Second, as per my discussion of Bede (which has caused most of the controversy in the comments), I can recommend several sources. Hutton, of course, provides the argument that I still tend to favor (although as all good historians, I am willing to see it differently if the evidence convinces me). An article by Carole Cusack, The Goddess Eostre: Bede’s Text and Contemporary Pagan Traditions, in The Pomegranate: A Journal of Pagan Studies (9.1.: 2007, 22-40), contains a good overview of Bede’s Eostre. As you will see in the article, a great deal of scholarly disagreement revolves around Bede’s Eostre. Although Bede is certainly a very reputable historian, as I stated in the article, this doesn’t mean that he is always right. Historical debate about Eostre demonstrates that many scholars do disagree with Bede’s interpretations. For example, R.I. Page in an article in Pagans and Christians (1995) argues that “Eostre too has long been shrewdly called into question. Again there is no confirmation of it as the name of a pagan goddess. A related word Ostern occurs in certain German dialects from the spring festival…A goddess has no place in this naming; and Eostre is an etymological fancy on Bede’s part.” Several years earlier, E.G. Stanley came to similar conclusions about the reality of ‘paganism’ in Christian texts in his The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism, 1975. Please note that all of these sources I have provided are by reputable and esteemed academics. I hope this is helpful!

  • hackendorf

    Very good. I understand that if it were not for Bede, we would have no independent mention of a goddess named “eostre”- though, as you mentioned, the Bede is a generally reliable historian.

  • vulture

    So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.
    7You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
    8“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;

    9in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

  • hackendorf

    Excellent. It is also important to note, is it not, that the very word “Easter” and its Germanic cognates are only relevant in the linguistically Germanic countries and that most others simply call the celebration of Christ’s resurrection “Passover” (or something like that)?

  • Jeffrey A Jones

    Passover does not celebrate the resurrection of Christ. It celebrates His crucifixion. Easter has ZERO to do with the Biblical record or the Passover/Days of Unleavened Bread holy days.

  • hackendorf

    It has everything to do with it. The Church has always called its celebration of the resurrection “The Passover of Christ.” Pascha. This is a matter of history. The word “Easter” came in Britain, nearly a thousand years after Christians everywhere celebrated Pascha as a festival of both the death and resurrection of Christ. In fact, the earliest known written sermon on the Resurrection of Christ is by Melito, Bishop of Sardis around 150 AD. It is called “Concerning the Passover.”

  • Jeffrey A Jones

    I don’t care what the ‘church’ has to say about it. The Bible commands the observance of Passover (observing the death of the Savior) and Days of Unleavened Bread, symbolizing the coming out of sin via the sacrifice. The Creator is very specific on how He must be worshiped. Creation of an artificial celebration with heavy pagan influence and tradition, saying he was crucified on Friday and rose on Sunday with NO biblical justification, and all the other extra-Biblical trappings is an offense.

    This scripture should give one pause;

    Mat 12: 39 . . .An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas:
    40 For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

  • Jeffrey A Jones

    Silly article. It ignores Catholic literature dating back to 325 when that church decreed Easter would replace Passover and Days of Unleavened bread as the official celebration. Easter is nowhere in the Bible sanctioned. I would think that someone wanting to be Christian would observe what Christ commanded. It is easily proven from scripture that Christ was crucified on Wednesday just before sunset and resurrected on Saturday just before sunset. All through the New Testament the Holy Days are kept and commanded, not the easily proven pagan Easter, Christmas, etc. Just saying these are not pagan celebrations does not make them go away.

  • LaVada Triesch

    Very well said.

  • hackendorf

    There was no “Roman Catholic Church” in 325. The practice of using the term Pascha for the celebration of the resurrection goes back to the 2nd century Church. This had nothing, zero to do with paganism. Same with Christmas, too but that is another myth to bust on another day

  • Jeffrey A Jones

    A distinction without a difference. The Church of Rome of the period is well understood to be the Catholic Church presided over by the Pope/Bishop of Rome.

    The First Council of Nicaea was a council of Christian bishops convened in Nicaea in Bithynia by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in AD 325. This first ecumenical council was the first effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom, although previous councils, including the first Church council, the Council of Jerusalem, had met before to settle matters of dispute. It was presided over by Hosius of Corduba, a bishop from the West who followed the Pope who was the bishop of Rome and the Patriarch of the West. I guarantee the Catholic church in its accounting of history takes full ownership of this council.

    And to say Easter and Christmas are not of pagan origin is puzzling. If that were the case then all encyclopedias and reputable history books need to be rewritten.

    “The Christian ecclesiastical calendar contains many remnants of pre-Christian festivals. Although the dating as December 25 predates pagan influence, the later development of Christmas as a festival includes elements of the Roman feast of the Saturnalia and the birthday of Mithra. Prior to and through the early Christian centuries, winter festivals—especially those centered on the winter solstice—were the most popular of the year in many European pagan cultures. Reasons included the fact
    that less agricultural work needed to be done during the winter, as well as an expectation of better weather as spring approached. Many modern Christmas customs have been
    directly influenced by such festivals, including gift-giving and merrymaking from the Roman Saturnalia, greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year, and Yule logs and various foods from Germanic feasts. The Egyptian deity Horus, son to goddess Isis, was celebrated at the winter solstice. Horus was often depicted being fed by his mother, which also influenced the symbolism of the Virgin Mary with baby Christ.” from Wikipedia article on Christmas.
    Doesn’t sound like how the Creator forth universe wants to be worshiped.
    Easter is similarly not biblical as can easily be demonstrated from any encyclopedia.

  • Dragic Cvjetinovic

    Wow, so you are saying that contemporary encyclopedia’s (Wikipedia being the most reliable of all) are relevant historical sources?

  • Jeffrey A Jones

    When they report factual info, yes. I used Wikipedia as an easy cut and paste source since that article is factual. Go to your local library and look up the subject in ancient hard copy encyclopedia (I think you would trust them to be reliable sources?) and they will tell you the same story. I am 67 so I depend more on the old tech than modern technology but have to stoop to using it in venues like this. Did I ever mention I hate computers?

  • paganmegan

    Strange. I was taught in my medieval history class the Venerable Bede was one of the more reliable sources. Making Christian holidays out of pagan celebrations was a fairly common practice, apparently initiated by Pope Gregory the Great, and is responsible for both Halloween and Christmas celebrations.

    Frankly, I’ve always thought it a bit odd the celebration of Easter, which from a biblical perspective should be aligned with the Jewish Passover, seemed to follow its own unique schedule (and different between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches as well). If the Easter celebration wasn’t linked to pagan holidays, then what was the reason for the change? Antisemitism?

  • http://www.bewilderingstories.com/bios/thomas_r_bio.html Thomas R

    If it were linked to pagan holidays shouldn’t it actually be on the equinox itself? Or on a pagan holiday?

    But it does look like the change linked to wanting to differentiate from Jewish people.

  • Charlie Sutton

    The Christian Church used the Roman calendar, while the Jews continued to use their lunar calendar. Lunar calendars vary a good deal year to year because the 365.25 days it takes for the earth to go around the sun is not 12 lunar months. It’s as simple as a difference in calendars.

  • Jeff

    Oh yeah, there’s totally nothing at all pagan about a holiday that’s tied to the spring solstice and moon.

  • http://www.bewilderingstories.com/bios/thomas_r_bio.html Thomas R

    Pagans don’t own the Moon or Lunar calendars, Spring is an equinox not a solstice, the timing of Passover relates to those things, the Crucifixion and Resurrection are mentioned as having been around the time of Passover, and Melito seems to have mentioned Pascha in pre-Nicene times. Sad such a shoddy sentence gets such upvotes.

    Pascha (Easter) is Christian. Or if you prefer its origins are in Pre-Nicene Christianity. Like that or don’t. Like Christianity or not. But the holiday being Christian is factual.

  • Dragic Cvjetinovic

    “Spring solstice” 😀 I am speechless….

  • Jeff

    Yeah, yeah, I goofed on that one. Feel free to mentally replace “solstice” with “equinox” in my post.

  • Brandon Roberts

    let me guess you also believe “saving christmas” is accurate and the atheists are out to get you? this seems like lies

  • Beth Allison Barr

    Actually, I don’t. Please see my previous posts.

  • j0eschm0e

    It must be a celebration of spring, and Christians eventually put their claim on it. I’m sure that the enjoyment and elation of spring was celebrated longggggg before Christianity. Yet Christianity is so forced down our throats for so long, it is believed to be the gospel truth.

  • http://www.bewilderingstories.com/bios/thomas_r_bio.html Thomas R

    It’s often not that close to the equinox even if it relates to it. And even if the word “Easter” were pagan in many languages the holiday is called variants of “Pascha.” The timing relates to Passover and pretty directly so in Eastern Orthodoxy.

    If you want to say Passover is a spring festival that predates Judaism I guess you can though. If that’s something you just really feel the need to do for whatever reason.

  • Jeffrey A Jones

    Passover is a Jewish & Christian observance. The Bible is very clear when the observance was commanded and has nothing to do with paganism. it is held the evening of Nisan 14, not controlled by the Gregorian calendar. Easter on the other hand IS an easily proven pagan celebration predating the death of Christ by centuries, with a few Christian sounding additions. It is held on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the winter solstice by decree of the Catholic Church at the Council of Nicaea, 325AD. It has ZERO to do with the Biblical record.

  • Beth Allison Barr

    This is the comment I posted in response to John below. It answers many of the following responses: John, I would be happy to give you my sources since my article is based on historical evidence. First, I recommend Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun as well as his recent book on Pagan Britain. Hutton is an excellent and established historian. You may disagree with him, but his arguments are based on historical evidence. Second, as per my discussion of Bede (which has caused most of the controversy in the comments), I can recommend several sources. Hutton, of course, provides the argument that I still tend to favor (although as all good historians, I am willing to see it differently if the evidence convinces me). An article by Carole Cusack, The Goddess Eostre: Bede’s Text and Contemporary Pagan Traditions, in The Pomegranate: A Journal of Pagan Studies (9.1.: 2007, 22-40), contains a good overview of Bede’s Eostre. As you will see in the article, a great deal of scholarly disagreement revolves around Bede’s Eostre. Although Bede is certainly a very reputable historian, as I stated in the article, this doesn’t mean that he is always right. Historical debate about Eostre demonstrates that many scholars do disagree with Bede’s interpretations. For example, R.I. Page in an article in Pagans and Christians (1995) argues that “Eostre too has long been shrewdly called into question. Again there is no confirmation of it as the name of a pagan goddess. A related word Ostern occurs in certain German dialects from the spring festival…A goddess has no place in this naming; and Eostre is an etymological fancy on Bede’s part.” Several years earlier, E.G. Stanley came to similar conclusions about the reality of ‘paganism’ in Christian texts in his The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism, 1975. Please note that all of these sources I have provided are by reputable and esteemed academics. I hope this is helpful!

  • https://manwiththemuckrake.wordpress.com Denis E.
  • Joseph A Bouley

    Did you actually read the article you lync’d on christiananswers.net–it refutes everything you stated.

  • Beth Allison Barr

    Check the sources to that article. The main source cited, by Ralph Woodrow, has actually been recanted by the author. See: http://www.ralphwoodrow.org/books/pages/babylon-mystery.html.

  • Richard Pierard

    Thanks, Beth, for disabusing me of some long-held myths.

  • Doug

    Easter is pagan and there is no amount of twisting history that can change that.

    Jesus (Yeshua) was crucified on Passover (not Good Friday) and risen on the Feast of First Fruits (not Easter).

    The Easter stuff came from pagan Rome.

  • Lady Mandevilla

    Interesting, but really, what difference does the history make? The point is, the early Christians celebrated the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of every week, and in time they began giving it an extra celebration in the spring, the season of new life. For me, that is enough.

  • Dean Haskins

    If you’re interested in knowing Yah’s perspective concerning this pagan practice, read Ezekiel 8 and 9. There, you will find some priests celebrating Easter, and what Yah’s response was.

  • Dragic Cvjetinovic

    I’m sorry anglophone atheists, but in my country we call Eastern “Vaksrs”, which has absolutely no linguistic connection to either Ishtar or Eostre, or “Eastern” for that matter – and still we dye eggs and give them as gifts.

    Maybe taking your asses out of your narrow cultural paradigm would help a bit?

    Nice article btw, Beth! God bless!


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