Easter: A Christian holiday with a pagan name dated with a Jewish calendar? There aren’t many holidays in which the date needs to be calculated. Moreover, minor variations in the criteria for these calculations has resulted in different Christian groups, specifically the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, celebrating Easter on different dates. In 1928, the British Parliament made a suggestion to the Holy See to alter the dating method of Easter, not because of any great insight into theological issues, but merely to simplify the date to make the scheduling of secular affairs around Easter easier. The Holy See accepted the proposal.
The name of the holiday, “Easter”, is taken from the Anglo-Saxon goddess, Ēastre and the spring celebration that was held in her honor in ancient Germania. The actual worship of Ēastre appears to have faded away by the time a Christian presence entered Germany around the seventh century, but the name survived and was eventually used to describe the Christian holiday.
The celebration of Easter, otherwise known as Pascha , is tied to the Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach, by both the date and the symbolism and it may have started as a Christian variation of the celebration. Passover is traditionally attributed to the tenth plague in the Exodus story of the Bible, but modern archeology, with its use of infra-red scanning techniques, have been unable to recover any signs that a mass exodus as described in the Bible occurred, leaving historians to ponder the origins of the Exodus legend (the modern picture we have of ancient Israel seems to indicate that the story may be an abstract memory of the Egyptian control of Canaan in the 13th century BCE). This strips away much of the mythical baggage from Passover, leaving it as a spring festival.
The fact of the matter is, many cultures around the world have a festival to celebrate the coming of the Vernal Equinox. The ability to use the heavens to calculate the seasons was a significant piece of knowledge to many ancient cultures and the Israelites were no different. From Stonehenge to the Alberta Sun Temple, ancient cultures have left behind clues as to their fascination with the night sky. In the Ach Valley in Germany a piece of stone with an ancient star map depicting the constellation of Orion has been carbon dated to 32,500 years old, indicating that ancient man did indeed pay close attention to the heavens and made acute significance of astronomical events. On the reverse of the stone, a depiction of a hunter, with one leg shorter than the other as in the constellation, showed that they related to these celestial images by personifying them as legendary hero figures. And recently, the work of archaeologist Curtis Marean, has pushed the date that man has been tracking the stars back even further, perhaps to 160,000 BCE.
Easter is a true mixed bag of beliefs, some ancient, some relatively new, borrowing from many cultures. It is still evolving today, and it is celebrated in both religious and secular ways. In Finland, children plant grass seeds to mark the beginning of the growing season, and candy and egg hunts are popular all over the world. I plan on marking the day by blogging about the celestial nature of the holiday. But, that’s a Freethinker for you.
This article is also available on the MN Atheist web page.