Is Easter a Christian or Pagan Holiday?

American culture has secularized this holiday much like Christmas

Multi-ethnic girls searching for Easter eggs
Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

Easter is the oldest Christian holiday, but how much of the most public and common celebrations of Easter today remain Christian in nature? Many people go to church -- far more than go the rest of the year -- but what else? Easter candy isn’t Christian, the Easter bunny to isn’t Christian, and Easter eggs aren’t Christian. Most of what people commonly associate with Easter is pagan in origin; the rest is commercial. Just as American culture secularized Christmas, Easter has become secular.

Spring Equinox

Pagan roots of Easter lie in celebrating the spring equinox, for millennia an important holiday in many religions. Celebrating the beginning of spring may be among the oldest holidays in human culture. Occurring every year on March 20, 21, or 22, the spring equinox is the end of winter and beginning of spring. Biologically and culturally, it represents for northern climates the end of a “dead” season and the rebirth of life, as well as the importance of fertility and reproduction.

Easter and Zoroastrianism

The earliest reference we have to a similar holiday comes to us from Babylon, 2400 BCE. The city of Ur apparently had a celebration dedicated to the moon and the spring equinox which was held sometime during our months of March or April. On the spring equinox, Zoroastrians continue to celebrate “No Ruz,” the new day or New Year. This date is commemorated by the last remaining Zoroastrians and probably constitutes the oldest celebration in the history of the world.

Easter and Judaism

It is believed that the Jews derived their spring equinox celebrations, the Feast of Weeks and Passover, in part from this Babylonian holiday during the period when so many Jews were held captive by the Babylonian empire. It is likely that the Babylonians were the first, or at least among the first, civilizations to use the equinoxes as important turning points in the year. Today Passover is a central feature of Judaism and Jewish faith in God.

Fertility and Rebirth in the Spring

Most cultures around the Mediterranean are believed to have had their own spring festivals: whereas in the north the vernal equinox is a time for planting, around the Mediterranean the vernal equinox is a time when the summer crops begin to sprout. This is an important sign of why it has always been a celebration of new life and a triumph of life over death.

Gods Dying and Being Reborn

A focus of spring religious festivals was a god whose own death and rebirth symbolized the death and rebirth of life during this time of the year. Many pagan religions had gods who were depicted as dying and being reborn. In some legends, this god even descends into the underworld to challenge the forces there. Attis, consort of the Phrygian fertility goddess Cybele, was more popular than most. In other cultures, he acquired different names, including Osiris, Orpheus, Dionysus, and Tammuz.

Cybele in Ancient Rome

Worship of Cybele started in Rome around 200 BCE, and a cult dedicated to her was even located in Rome on what is today Vatican Hill. It appears that when such pagans and early Christians lived in close proximity, they usually celebrated their spring festivals at the same time -- pagans honoring Attis and Christians honoring Jesus. Of course, both were inclined to argue that only theirs was the true God, a debate which hasn’t even been settled to this day.

Ostara, Eostre, and Easter

Currently, modern Wiccans and neo-pagans celebrate “Ostara,” a lesser Sabbat on the vernal equinox. Other names for this celebration include Eostre and Oestara and they are derived from the Anglo-Saxon lunar Goddess, Eostre. Some believe that this name is ultimately a variation on the names of other prominent goddesses, like Ishtar, Astarte, and Isis, usually a consort of the gods Osiris or Dionysus, who are depicted as dying and being reborn.

Pagan Elements of Modern Easter Celebrations

As you might be able to tell, the name “Easter” was likely derived from Eostre, the name of the Anglo-Saxon lunar goddess, as was the name for the female hormone estrogen. Eostre’s feast day was held on the first full moon following the vernal equinox -- a similar calculation as is used for Easter among Western Christians. On this date the goddess Eostre is believed by her followers to mate with the solar god, conceiving a child who would be born 9 months later on Yule, the winter solstice which falls on December 21st.

Two of Eostre’s most important symbols were the hare (both because of its fertility and because ancient people saw a hare in the full moon) and the egg, which symbolized the growing possibility of new life. Each of these symbols continues to play an important role in modern celebrations of Easter. Curiously, they are also symbols which Christianity has not fully incorporated into its own mythology. Other symbols from other holidays have been given new Christian meanings, but attempts to do the same here have failed.

American Christians continue to generally celebrate Easter as a religious holiday, but public references to Easter almost never include any religious elements. Christians and non-Christians alike celebrate Easter in decidedly non-Christian ways: with chocolate and other forms of Easter candy, Easter eggs, Easter egg hunts, the Easter bunny, and so forth. Most cultural references to Easter include these elements, most of which are pagan in origin and all of which have become commercialized.

Because these aspects of Easter are shared by both Christians and non-Christians, they constitute the common cultural recognition of Easter -- the specifically religious celebrations of Christians belong to them alone and are not part of the wider culture. The shift of religious elements away from the general culture and into Christians churches has been occurring over many decades and isn’t quite complete.

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Is Easter a Christian or Pagan Holiday?" Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, Cline, Austin. (2023, April 5). Is Easter a Christian or Pagan Holiday? Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Is Easter a Christian or Pagan Holiday?" Learn Religions. (accessed June 5, 2023).