Is Easter Really a Pagan Holiday?
- 2005 24 Mar
The celebration of Easter is rich with symbols and traditions and can vary from family to family. A typical Easter Sunday may include bunnies, decorated eggs, egg hunts, lilies, new clothes and sunrise services at church. While it may never cross the mind of some, many Christian families question the appropriate way to celebrate Easter. Has Easter become too commercialized? Or, aren’t some of these celebrations pagan at their root?
Crosswalk.com interviewed two authors to learn more about Easter and its history. After working in Christian retail for 13 years, Susan Richardson wrote “Holidays and Holy Days” to help answer similar questions posed by her customers. Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute International and host of the Bible Answer Man radio program, also speaks to the issue.
The resurrection of our Lord and Savior has been celebrated since the discovery of the empty tomb. However, the “official” holiday was declared in 325 A.D. when Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea. At that time it was determined that the church would celebrate Easter on the first Sunday that occurs after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. This is why the actual date of Easter varies from late March to early April every year due to the variances in the timing of the full moon.
Richardson explains that dating based on the moon was a nod toward the Jewish celebration of Passover, which was also determined by the moon. Many secularists today argue that Christians were attempting to circumvent the pagan celebrations of the day. However, Hanegraaff explains that instead, “Christians were saying ‘this is the real celebration.’ ”
From the timing, vernal (meaning spring) equinox (relative to the sun), to the name Easter, taken from the pre-Germanic word eostre (the direction from which the sun rises), both Hanegraaff and Richardson see early Christians as redeeming early pagan symbolism.
As Richardson says, “the new Christian might look at a familiar symbol and see it with new meaning.” For example, the hare, which has evolved into the modern day bunny, was seen as a symbol of fertility and spring. A Christian could view the hare’s coming out of the burrow, as representative of the burial and resurrection and a completely different form of “new life.”
As the early church began to expand into new lands, there were diverging opinions on how to handle local customs. One school of thought was to require converts to abandon their cultural traditions in order to embrace Christianity. Another tactic was to maintain local customs as much as possible but to give Christian meaning to them.
Richardson explains that the second strategy “was not an attempt to mislead, but more a cultural sensitivity to the people that were there.” She says that this is much like the missionaries today who try to take the gospel and put it into context that is meaningful to people within their frame of reference.
Hanegraaff also outlines the intentionality of establishing a rival holiday. “For instance in the case of Christmas, people don’t remember the name of the pagan god that was originally worshipped on December 25th.” Instead this holiday has been supplanted by the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior.
So is it ok to bring on the baskets, chocolate bunnies, and colored eggs? “Absolutely,” says Hanegraaff. "These basic symbols are springboards to talking about what is truly important... the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He urges that children be taught the representation of the symbols within a Christian context.
The resurrection is “the central event to the Christian faith. As he rose, we too shall rise. This is the apex of Christianity, anything that points to new life is pointing to the resurrection,” says Hanegraaff.
Richardson sites the example of Paul in 1 Corinthians 8, discussing the eating of meat that has been sacrificed to idols. “(Each person) should take the question before the lord individually to determine what he would have you do,” she says. Explaining, that if a particular custom is a stumbling block, then “it is right to remove that barrier and not participate in that custom.”
“The last thing I want to do is to cause more division within the body of Christ. We are going to disagree on some things, but as long as we are not disagreeing on the essentials - the birth, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ then it is unimportant,” says Richardson.
Richardson herself quotes Hanegraaff regarding debate within the body of Christ, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things charity.”