Turris Fortis Catholic Apologetics

Is Easter a Pagan Festival?

by Matthew A. C. Newsome

Recently, someone posted a message to a historic re-enactment list I am on, asking for resources regarding the early Catholic Church adopting pagan holy sites and pagan celebrations.  I responded briefly that it may be easier to document where a church was built near or over a former pagan site of worship, but as for adopting pagan celebrations and holidays, that evidence for this was scarce.  It simply didn't happen.  Someone else responded to this statement of mine declaring that "Easter is still extremely pagan."  Following is the letter and my response.

Well . . . Easter is still extremely pagan.  Not only is its name taken from a Celtic goddess of fertility, Oestre (and  hence oestrus ... ask your local female), but bunnies and eggs continue to be as important as any superimposed Christian practices.  It is a truly ancient  fertility holiday.

Not necessarily.  The evidence for this is scant, at best, and is being called into question by modern scholars.

Ronald Hutton is the author of The Triumph of the Moon (1999).  He is a professor at the University of Bristol (England) and is an expert on pagan British religion.  In this book he points out the lack of evidence that the Celts, or any other pagan culture, celebrated feasts on the equinoxes.  He is quoted by Charlotte Allen in "The Scholars and the Goddess" (The Atlantic, Jan 2001) as saying, "The equinoxes seem to have no native pagan festivals behind them and became significant only to occultists in the nineteenth century.  There is still no proven pagan feast that stood as ancestor to Easter."

In fact, most of what we would consider to be "timeless fertility rites" like Maypole dances, he can trace no farther back than the Middle Ages, or the eighteenth century in some cases!

The only historic source of the name for Easter being taken from a pagan goddess is the Venerable Bede, who relates the name to "Estre," a Tuetonic (not Celtic) goddess of spring.  However, this goddess is otherwise unknown, not appearing in the Edda.  The term seems to have been used as a general name for the season.  In Anglo-Saxon it was "e{a^}ster," Old High German "{o^}stra," and German "ostern."  The entire month of April was "easter-monadh."  So when the feast of the resurrection of Christ came to be called Easter, there is no reason to assume that it was in recognition of any pagan goddess, but rather as a general reference to the time of year that the feast occurs in.  In fact, the 40 days preceding Easter is called "Lent" which also comes from an Anglo-Saxon term referring to the spring season.

Note that only in some cultures is this feast even called Easter.  In Greek and Latin, it is "Pascha", in Italian "Pasqua," in Spanish "Pascua," Dutch "Paschen," and even in some parts of Germany it is "Paisken" not "Ostern."  Even in Scots Gaelic, where one would expect the most to see a reference to the Celtic past, the name is "Pask."  All of these names refer to the Passover, not a fertility goddess.

As for eggs and bunnies, I would have to ask, "Is there any evidence for colored eggs and bunnies being used in any ancient pagan festivals?"  Not that I have seen.  Their use as spring time symbols may or may not date from pre-Christian times, but their religious significance is questionable.

The custom of Eastern Eggs is found in both the Western and Eastern churches.  According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the use of eggs at one time was forbidden during Lent.  So, in celebration they were served on Easter, colored red to symbolize joy.  The CE says that the custom "may have its origin in paganism" but the only reason suggested is because "many pagan cultures celebrate the return of spring."

However, I would have to add that a custom such as this is not the same as a religious rite, and also that if it did stem from a pagan custom it would be extremely remarkable that you would find it being observed in both the East and West, throughout Europe, as there was no unified pagan culture that spanned that far.  But there was a unified Christian church, which points to this practice being of Christian origin.

As for rabbits, the CE again suggests that they are a pagan symbol of fertility.  I would offer that they are a Christian and modern symbol of fertility as well.  After all, we still use the phrase, "breed like rabbits."  But again, the use of this symbol during spring, at a time of fertility and rebirth, is a custom and not a religious rite.

As an example of what I am talking about, I think that we will all agree that colored leaves are symbols of autumn.  America is a (more or less) Christian country.  Now, let's imagine that tomorrow aliens from Alpha-Centauri land and over the next hundred years, we are all eventually converted to their religion.  And still, when autumn rolls around, I bet you will still see store fronts decorated with colored leaves.  A cultural symbol is not necessarily a religious symbol.

The Catholic Church, when an area was converted, never set out to do away with all customs of that people. Just because a pagan people had a particular custom does not ipso facto make that custom a "pagan rite."

You will find it repeated as fact in many books today that Easter is really an old pagan feast for a fertility goddess.  Modern scholarship, however, is discovering that this is more than likely not true.

webbed 2/26/02

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