Easter and the Cultural Pagans

It is a well-known element of Christian tradition: early missionaries repurposed or replaced established pagan rituals, artifacts, and places in their effort to convert the local people. There are some very famous instances of this: Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is a beautiful Roman church built upon the ruins of a pagan temple to the goddess of wisdom and war; the church makes a bold statement that Mary is the true seat of wisdom, and that Christendom has replaced pagan Rome. There are countless of other instances of this reality as Christianity spread to the four corners of the world and missionaries sought ways to cement the Truth in the local imagination.

So many people grant that the name “Easter” is a recycled pagan festival of the spring, united with the renewal of the world brought about by Christ’s rising from the dead. To the pious, this connection can seem like a beautiful connection of the natural and the supernatural. To the secular world, however, Easter’s supposed pre-Christian spring ritual roots are an opportunity to make the feast simply about bunnies, spring flowers, and eggs—all signs of spring without any of that obnoxious cross or empty tomb nonsense. If the Christian world added Christ to Easter, then it is a simple enough matter to take Christ back out of Easter and just celebrate the beginning of spring. If Easter was originally a rite of spring, then, with Christ’s resurrection out of the picture, you can still have “a reason for the season.”

Except the idea that Christians added Christ to a pre-existing Easter is standing on incredibly shaky ground. The sole source of a pagan precursor to the Christian holiday is the Venerable Bede, the eighth century monk and chronicler of England. Bede, in his book, De temporum ratione, or, “On the Reckoning of Time,” explains why the months have the names they do in Old English, suggesting that the month we now call April was named after a pagan goddess. Bede points out that, by his time, that goddess and her worship have long been gone. There are exactly no other sources that connect Easter with a Germanic pagan goddess. In Bede’s time, writing as he was in Latin, the month and the festival were more universally referred to as “paschal time,” derived from the Hebrew name for the Passover. Additionally, in the rest of Christendom, “Easter” was not, and is not, the commonly used name: it is rather unique to German and English-speaking peoples. There is no “Easter” in Latin; there is a “Pascha.” If Bede was right, and the Anglo-Saxon people called the Paschal feast by the old, formerly pagan name of Easter, it was simply a coincidence, because the Anglo-Saxon people did not get to pick the month of the Hebrew Passover or the date that the universal Church finally agreed to celebrate the Resurrection.

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The goddess who supposedly originated the name of Easter is so obscure as to be very likely not real, as she was probably guess-work on the part of Bede and can be found nowhere else in the historical record. But, as every Christian knows, there is an obvious, direct link between Easter and Passover, as the first is the fulfillment of the later. Anything else you might have heard—that Christians incorporate fire into our Easter liturgy because the pagans lit bonfires on that feast, that we have images of bunnies because originally the rabbit was sacred to that goddess, etc.—is utter rubbish with no historical backing whatsoever. Bede never mentioned the Easter Bunny.

But why is this important? After all, we Christians are very comfortable with the long-standing tradition of repurposing pagan customs for the glory of God. The problem with granting any credence to the pre-Christian origins of Easter is that it allows the secular world to more easily claim as its own a feast that was never anything other than the celebration of Christ’s victory over death and fulfillment of the typology of the Hebrew Passover. Additionally, connecting Christian festivals to generic pagan precursors is a dangerously anti-religious trope that has been gnawing at belief since at least the nineteenth century.

Bede might have been the first to mention the pagan goddess of Easter, but the first writers to turn her from the briefest of half-forgotten references into a flesh-and-blood figure of her own were the nineteenth century German folklore scholars, and specifically the Grimm brothers. Wild speculations about her cult followed, attempting to connect old Easter traditions to pre-Christian times. For instance, the German Lutherans had invented the Easter Bunny as a counterpart to Saint Nicholas in the seventeenth century; the Brothers Grimm asserted that the Easter Bunny must be an ancient hold-out of pagan practice. It is silly, but significant.

First, by attaching local customs of Christians celebrating a Christian feast to pre-Christian practice, those seeking to strip away Christian influence from culture have a fake but usable non-Christian tradition to promote instead. There are very few neo-pagans trying to actually worship the goddess of the spring, but there are many secularists who are all-too happy to find a non-Christian part of Western civilization to replace a Christian feast.

Second, by uncritically asserting pagan roots for Christian practice, many nineteenth century folklorists and historians managed to suggest that Christian feasts are simply another form of primitive superstitious rituals. If you have ever leafed through Sir James George Frazer’s famous book, The Golden Bough, you would be unnerved by his (rather sloppy) connection of Christ to dozens of pre-Christian death and renewal cults. Frazer’s goal was, in part, to suggest that Christ is not, in the end, more real than the myths that were replaced by Christian feasts. Frazer’s association of pagan rituals with Christian practice is of an entirely different order than the Church’s practice of repurposing local custom for religious significance.

Some Christians attempt to separate Pascha from Easter to preserve the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from pagan or secular connotations. However, rather than do this, I urge you to stand your ground: Easter has always been our Christian feast. We did not add Christ to a pre-existing, non-Judeo-Christian tradition. If the secular world wants to celebrate Easter, we must insist that it encounter Christ.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from a mosaic of Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) in Westminster Cathedral. 

  • Mary Cuff

    Mary Cuff is an independent scholar, wife, and homeschooling mother. She holds a PhD in American literature from the Catholic University of America and has published in the Southern Literary Journal, Five Points, Mississippi Quarterly, and Modern Age. She teaches online high school classical rhetoric courses at Homeschool Connections.

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