EASTER is a festival and holiday celebrated by millions of people around the world who honour the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, described in the New Testament as having occurred three days after his crucifixion at Calvary.
Easter is a ‘movable feast’, chosen to correspond with the first Sunday following the full moon after the March equinox, and occurs on different dates around the world since Western churches use the Gregorian calendar, while Eastern churches use the Julian calendar.
But was Easter hijacked from the pagan celebration of the Spring Equinox?
As with Christmas, Easter’s religious significance has a strong commercial element.
Over the centuries, various folk customs and traditions, including Easter eggs, bunnies, baskets and candy, have become a standard component of this ‘holy day’.
Most etymological dictionaries recognise that Easter finds its initial dating with the advent of the Middle English ester, coming from the Old English ēastre, cognate with the German Ostern, used for the direction East, but its origin harkens to the name of a goddess Eostre and her festival, the Rite of Spring and its Equinox.
It was cannibalised and transmogrified by Christianity to define the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In English ‘Easter’ is also termed by the words for ‘Passover’, and in the older English versions of the Bible the term ‘Easter’ was the term used to translate Passover.
In Italian, French and Spanish, Easter is known as Pasqua, Paques and Pascua respectively; derived from the Greek and Latin Pascha or Pasch meaning Passover, eventually Pascha came to mean Easter.
So where did this ‘movable feast’ begin, and what are the origins of the traditions and customs celebrated around the world?
Easter has been interwoven in most Western cultures and has become as much a part of Christianity as the Nativity.
However, the earliest Easter record does not appear until around the 10th Century.
Even then it reflected back on pagan gods and goddess known more for their sexuality, virility and fecundity than spirituality.
It was first celebrated in 325 CE under Imperial command at the First Council of Nicaea, as the Imperial celebration of the goddess Ishtar and rejuvenation, resurrection of dreams centred around the family and homes, and occurred during the Spring Equinox.
Epiphanius of Salamis wrote in the mid-4th Century: “The emperor … convened a council of 318 bishops … in the city of Nicea … They passed certain ecclesiastical canons at the council besides, and at the same time decreed in regard to the Passover that there must be one unanimous concord on the celebration of God’s holy and supremely excellent day.
For it was variously observed by people ..(Epiphanius, Adversus Haereses, Heresy 69, 11,1.)
Relatively newer elements such as the ‘Easter bunny’, ‘Easter eggs’ and ‘Easter egg hunts’ have become part of modern celebrations, aspects that are celebrated by many Christians and non-Christians alike, although some Christian denominations do not celebrate Easter.
In general, many families observe the religious aspects of Easter Sunday by attending church services in the morning, (usually Sunday Mass), followed by a traditional Easter Sunday lunch.
It is also the day that children excitedly wait for the Easter bunny to arrive and deliver their treats of Easter eggs.
Throughout the Christian world, many Easter traditions are similar with only minor differences, including the baking and consumption of Easter breads and cakes to celebrate the end of lent.
In Zimbabwe we are familiar with the colonial tradition of spiced hot-crossed buns, crossed on top, as a symbol the crucifix, traditionally associated with Good Friday, but today are often consumed before and after.
The original pagan Easter goes back thousands, and even tens of thousands of years.
It was a ribald revelry of rich sexual and sensual escapades of wanton seduction by consensual adults and their servants, much like the original marriage feasts to ensure stability of a family holding or other tangible assets.
The monk, Bede of England was among the many who attempted to debate the date and reality of Easter.
He used computes (the science of calculation), in an effort to bring an end to the dispute between the churches, after the Emperor Constantine’s council abandoned the Jewish calendar and its dating for Passover – the date when Jews ‘put away the leaven’ from their bread indicating Passover – it was the 14th day of the lunar month of Nissan.
The break of Christianity from its roots to and within Judaism gave rise to yet another calendar that pushed Easter onto the Sunday following the full moon that appears after the Northern Spring Equinox, originally known as the Paschal Full Moon, and brought into Christianity the goddess Eostre/Ostara or god Estre, sometimes combined as Easter.
The Easter bunny and eggs representing fecundity, rebirth and celebration.
The art of dying Easter eggs was neither late in Christian history nor was it within the initial domain of Christianity.
Old Persian records show that the original tradition of colouring eggs began in ancient Persia around 3000 BCE.
Various eggs from various birds were gathered up and dyed with natural materials to celebrate the first day of spring and the revelry of the gods and goddess, beginning with Nowruz and the goddess Anahita, reaching its zenith during spring, thus, predating Constantine’s Christianity as attested by Bede in his religious literature.
Anahita, known as ‘Queen of the Heavens’ was often portrayed as a virgin wearing a golden cloak and a diamond tiara, styled as ‘the Immaculate One’.
Acclaimed as a Mother of God; the fruit from her loins was considered to be a child of divinity–a concept that Christians are said to have plagiarised and put into their own mariology.
Both the egg and the bunny (originally a hare), were important symbols of spring, new life and the on-going cycle of re-birth and re-generation.
The egg was seen by Christians as a symbol of resurrection; while being dormant, it contains new life within its shell.
The hard shell, symbolic of the sealed tomb, the breaking of which symbolises Christ’s resurrection.
In Bede’s 8th Century work De temporumratione – The Reckoning of Time, written in Latin, he includes an introduction to the ancient traditional and medieval view of the cosmos, including an explanation of how the spherical earth influenced the changing length of daylight, how the seasonal motion of the sun and moon influenced the changing appearance of the new moon at evening twilight, and a quantitative relation between the changes of the tides at a given place and the daily motion of the moon.
He also describes a variety of ancient calendars, including the Anglo-Saxon calendar and the Julian calendar that continued their hold over the faithful.
The focus of De temporumratione was the calculation of the date of Easter, considered critical to the faithful who attended services celebrating the resurrection of Jesus’ corporal body from the tomb of Nicodemus.
In De temporumratione, Bede makes several calculations and gives instructions for calculating the date of the Easter full moon that was especially sacred to Venus who remained significant throughout European development, for calculating the motion of the sun and moon through the zodiac (pagan gods and apostles), and many other calculations related to the calendar.
Bede based his reasoning for the dates on the Hebrew Bible, complete with errors not yet corrected and states that during Ēosturmōnaþ (equivalent to the month of April), feasts were held in Eostre’s honour among the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Writing in 889 CE, when the word first appeared, he stated: “Eosturmonath as a name which is now translated ‘Paschal month’, and which was once called after a Germanic goddess named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated during that month.
Paschal season is now designate by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.”
Many believe that Ostara/Eostre was Freyja/Freya,the Norse goddess of abundance, desire, love, fertility and springlinked with rabbits, hares and bunnies.
Each a distinct part of the spring festival she gathered to her serpentine arms that coil as the circle of life, regeneration and resurrection believing bunnies carried eggs to women to inform them of their fertility and conception.
To consume an egg was considered a supplication for fertility and conception, and heralded as the door to eternal life.
These rituals had counterparts in ancient Canaan and Rome at the same time, which also promised plurality and profit for those who cultivated the lands.
Some argue Ostara/Eostre and Estre signify ‘dawn’ or rebirth, regeneration and prosperity.
Easter’s celebration was one month long and given to rejoicing over a new year’s birth.
This was later merged in with the resurrection story that incorporated hopes and fecundity.
It was neither recognised nor celebrated in the early Christian communities that proclaimed themselves to follow a crucified Jesus.
There is no scriptural reference to Easter.
Easter was commercial long before the modern age.
Still there was a problem with the celebration of Ester as the vernal equinox was fixed to fall on the 21st day of March, while the ecclesiastical moon was fixed at 14 days after the beginning of the ecclesiastical lunar month with Easter falling on the Sunday after the ecclesiastical full moon.
Even this was a problem for the pagan Roman Catholic community who saw the Jewish dating as being unorthodox with Emperor Constantine’s wishes to create an ‘imperial religion for the empire’, demanding that Easter be in the spring time.
The problem of dating Easter lasted for centuries.
Churches and religious leaders quarrelled in private and in public with open attacks on opponents’ credentials and credibility.
When it appeared for certain that the Roman Catholic Calendar of Pope Gregory would win, it gave credence to many that others would follow.
But the Orthodox community, especially in Russia and Greece, declared against it and stood with the Julian calendar and its many errors.
After the 16th Century, this resulted in differences between the Eastern and Western churches, with the Roman Catholic Church adopting the Gregorian calendar, and the Eastern Orthodox churches adopting the Julian calendar.
According to ancient pagan beliefs, fertility symbolism was centred around the innocent and innocuous egg and the initial study of life was focused on the egg, of which there were drawings, sketches and celebrations in honour of the rebirth of learning – Easter, which by the 8th Century the Anglo–Saxons had adopted the name to designate the celebration of JesusChrist’s resurrection.
When all is said and done, is Easter a Christian right or a pagan festival?
Is Easter relevant to Zimbabwean people?
And, is Easter approved by God – Mwari?
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD, and a DBA in heritage studies. For views and comments, email: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com