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Easter

Modern-day Easter is derived from two ancient traditions: one Judeo-Christian and the other Pagan. Both Christians and Pagans have celebrated death and resurrection themes on or after the Spring Equinox for millennia. Most religious historians believe that many elements of the Christian observance of Easter were derived from earlier Pagan celebrations.

The equinox occurs each year on March 20, 21 or 22. Both Neopagans and Christians continue to celebration religious rituals in the present day. Wiccans and other Neopagans usually hold their celebrations on the day or eve of the equinox. Christians wait until after the next full moon.

Origins of the name "Easter":

The name "Easter" originated with the names of an ancient Goddess and God. The Venerable Bede, (672-735 CE.) a Christian scholar, first asserted in his book De Ratione Temporum that Easter was named after Eostre (a.k.a. Eastre). She was the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe. Similar "Teutonic dawn goddess of fertility [were] known variously as Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur, Eastra, Eastur, Austron and Ausos." 5 Her name was derived from the ancient word for spring: "eastre." Similar Goddesses were known by other names in ancient cultures around the Mediterranean, and were celebrated in the springtime. Some were:

Aphrodite from Cyprus

Astarte, from Phoenicia

Demeter, from Mycenae

Hathor from Egypt

Ishtar from Assyria

Kali, from India

Ostara, a Norse Goddess of fertility.

An alternate explanation has been suggested. The name given by the Frankish church to Jesus' resurrection festival included the Latin word "alba" which means "white." (This was a reference to the white robes that were worn during the festival.) "Alba" also has a second meaning: "sunrise." When the name of the festival was translated into German, the "sunrise" meaning was selected in error. This became "ostern" in German. Ostern has been proposed as the origin of the word "Easter". 2

Sunday is named after a Pagan sun god, Solis.

Scholars, however, accepting the derivation proposed by the 8th-century English scholar St. Bede, believe it probably comes from Eastre, the Anglo-Saxon name of a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility, to whom was dedicated a month corresponding to April. Her festival was celebrated on the day of the vernal equinox; traditions associated with the festival survive in the Easter rabbit, a symbol of fertility, and in colored easter eggs, originally painted with bright colors to represent the sunlight of spring, and used in Easter-egg rolling contests or given as gifts.

Such festivals, and the stories and legends that explain their origin, were common in ancient religions. A Greek legend tells of the return of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of the earth, from the underworld to the light of day; her return symbolized to the ancient Greeks the resurrection of life in the spring after the desolation of winter. Many ancient peoples shared similar legends. The Phrygians believed that their omnipotent deity went to sleep at the time of the winter solstice, and they performed ceremonies with music and dancing at the spring equinox to awaken him. The Christian festival of Easter probably embodies a number of converging traditions; most scholars emphasize the original relation of Easter to the Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach, from which is derived Pasch, another name for Easter. The early Christians, many of whom were of Jewish origin, were brought up in the Hebrew tradition and regarded Easter as a new feature of the Passover festival, a commemoration of the advent of the Messiah as foretold by the prophets.

Pagan origins of Easter:

Many, perhaps most, Pagan religions in the Mediterranean area had a major seasonal day of religious celebration at or following the Spring Equinox. Cybele, the Phrygian fertility goddess, had a fictional consort who was believed to have been born via a virgin birth. He was Attis, who was believed to have died and been resurrected each year during the period MAR-22 to MAR-25. "About 200 B.C. mystery cults began to appear in Rome just as they had earlier in Greece. Most notable was the Cybele cult centered on Vatican hill ...Associated with the Cybele cult was that of her lover, Attis ([the older Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, or Orpheus under a new name). He was a god of ever-reviving vegetation. Born of a virgin, he died and was reborn annually. The festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday and culminated after three days in a day of rejoicing over the resurrection." 15

Wherever Christian worship of Jesus and Pagan worship of Attis were active in the same geographical area in ancient times, Christians "used to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus on the same date; and pagans and Christians used to quarrel bitterly about which of their gods was the true prototype and which the imitation."

Many religious historians believe that the death and resurrection legends were first associated with Attis, many centuries before the birth of Jesus. They were simply grafted onto stories of Jesus' life in order to make Christian theology more acceptable to Pagans. Ancient Christians had an alternate explanation; they claimed that Satan had created counterfeit deities in advance of the coming of Christ in order to confuse humanity. 11 Modern-day Christians generally regard the Attis legend as being a Pagan myth of little value. They regard Jesus' death and resurrection account as being true, and unrelated to the earlier tradition.

Wiccans and other modern-day Neopagans continue to celebrate the Spring Equinox as one of their 8 yearly Sabbats (holy days of celebration). Near the Mediterranean, this is a time of sprouting of the summer's crop; farther north, it is the time for seeding. Their rituals at the Spring Equinox are related primarily to the fertility of the crops and to the balance of the day and night times. Where Wiccans can safely celebrate the Sabbat out of doors without threat of religious persecution, they often incorporate a bonfire into their rituals, jumping over the dying embers is believed to assure fertility of people and crops.

 

Judeo-Christian origins of Easter:

The Christian celebration of Easter is linked to the Jewish celebration of the Passover. Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were observed by the ancient Israelites early in each new year. (The Jewish people followed the Persian/Babylonian calendar and started each year with the Spring Equinox circa MAR-21) "Equinox" means "equal night;" on that date of the year, the night and day are approximately equal. The name "Passover" was derived from the actions of the angel of death as described in the book of Exodus. The angel "passed over" the homes of the Jews which were marked with the blood obtained from a ritual animal sacrifice. The same angel exterminated the first born son of every family whose doorway was not so marked - one of the greatest acts of mass-murder mentioned in the Bible.

Liberal theologians trace Passover to an ancient pre-Israelite Pagan ritual practiced by wandering Semitic shepherds. The Feast of Unleavened Bread was originally a traditional Canaanite agricultural harvest which was adopted by the Israelites. It marked the start of the barley harvest; barley was the first crop to ripen. Because they occurred at about the same time each year, the two celebrations became merged into a two day observance. The Passover became associated with the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

Conservative theologians generally believe that these observances were originally created by God as described in Leviticus 23:5-14, and recorded by Moses.

Passover was the most important feast of the Jewish calendar, celebrated at the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. (The Equinox typically occurs on March 20, 21 or 22 according to our present calendar.) Most Christians interpret the four Gospels of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) as implying that Jesus Christ was executed and buried just before the beginning of Passover on Friday evening. A minority believe that the execution occurred on a Wednesday or Thursday. Various dates have been suggested:

30-APR-5 CE, a Wednesday

30-APR-6 CE, a Thursday

30-APR-7 CE, a Friday; this is perhaps the most common date

31-APR-26 CE, a Thursday

32-APR-10 CE, a Thursday

33-APR-3 CE, a Friday.

 

 

The Christian Liturgical Calendar:

Until the 4th century CE, Easter and Pentecost were the only two holy days that Christians observed. Easter Sunday was the main day of celebration, formally recognized by the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. Pentecost Sunday was also observed as a less important holy day, 7 weeks/49 days after Easter. Other occasions related to Jesus' execution were gradually added to the church calendar:

Lent: This was a period of spiritual preparation for Easter which typically involves fasting, penance and prayer. It was originally established by various Christian groups as an interval ranging from a few days to several weeks. It was eventually fixed in the 8th century CE at 40 days. (The number 40 is one of many magical numbers with religious significance in the Bible. 40 days recalls the interval that Jesus, Moses and Elias spent in the desert. Other magical numbers were 3, 7, 12, and 70). Among Roman Catholics, Lent lasts for six and a half weeks before Easter, excluding Sundays. Among the Eastern Orthodox churches, it is a full eight weeks, because Saturdays and Sundays are not included.

 

Ash Wednesday: This is held on the first day of Lent, a Wednesday. "Wednesday" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon "Wodnes Daeg"; Woden was the Saxon God of war and victory.

 

Holy Week: the week before Easter Sunday:

 
 

Palm Sunday: This is held on the Sunday before Easter Sunday. It recalls Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem one week before his execution.

 

Holy Monday commemorates Jesus' cleansing of the temple, when he assaulted money changers and overturned their tables. Some believe that this triggered his arrest and crucifixion.

 

Holy Tuesday recalls Jesus' description to his disciples on the Mount of Olives of the destruction of Jerusalem.

 

Holy Wednesday (once called Spy Wednesday) recalls Judas' decision to betray Jesus in exchange for 30 pieces of silver.

 

Maundy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper, Jesus agony in the garden and his arrest. "Maundy" is derived from the Latin "mandatum" (commandment of God in John 13:34-35) For centuries, people in authority have washed the feet of their followers on this day.

 

Good Friday recalls Jesus' death on the cross. The origin of the word "good" has been lost. Some claim that it is a corruption of "God" and that the early Christians called this day "God's Friday." Others claim that "good" refers to the blessings of humanity that Christians believe arose as a result of Jesus' execution.

 

Holy Saturday (a.k.a. Easter Eve) is the final day of Holy Week and of Lent.

 

Easter Sunday commemorates Jesus' resurrection. In the early church, converts were baptized into church membership on this day after a lengthy period of instruction. This tradition continues today in some churches.

Feast of the Ascension (a.k.a Ascension Day) is a celebration of Jesus' ascension up to heaven. This is described in:

 
 

the gospel of John as happening immediately after Jesus' resurrection

 

the gospel of Luke at an undefined number of days after the resurrection

 

the book of Acts at 40 days after the resurrection.

 

The church has accepted the account in Acts; the feast is celebrated on a Thursday, 39 days after Easter Sunday. Although tradition states that it was first celebrated in 68 CE, it did not become formally recognized by the church until the late 3rd century.

 

Pentecost (a.k.a. Whit Sunday) is now celebrated 7 weeks/49 days after Easter Sunday. It recalls the visitation of the Holy Spirit to 120 Christians, both apostles and followers. They spoke in tongues (in foreign languages that they had not previously known) to the assembled crowd. Three thousand were baptized. The day was originally a Jewish festival which was called "Pentecost," because it was observed 50 days after Passover. (The Greek word for 50'th day is "pentecoste.") This is usually regarded as the date of the birth of the Christian church. The feast was mentioned in a 2nd century book, and was formally recognized in the 3rd century CE.

 

 

 

How the date of Easter is determined:

Easter Sunday falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after MAR-20, the nominal date of the Spring Equinox. Many sources incorrectly state that the starting date of the calculation is the actual day of the Equinox rather than the nominal date of Mar-20. Other sources use an incorrect reference date of MAR-21.

Easter Sunday can fall on any date from March 22 to April 25th. The year-to-year sequence is so complicated that it takes 5.7 million years to repeat. Eastern Orthodox churches sometimes celebrate Easter on the same day as the rest of Christendom. However if that date does not follow Passover, then the Orthodox churches delay their Easter - sometimes by over a month.

Some dates related to Easter are celebrated on the following dates by the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches:

Year

Ash Wednesday

Easter Sunday

Ascension Day

Pentecost

1996

Feb-21

Apr-7

May-16

May-26

1997

Feb-12

Mar-30

May-8

May-18

1998

Feb-25

Apr-12

May-21

May-31

1999

Feb-17

Apr-4

May-13

May-23

2000

Mar-8

Apr-23

Jun-1

Jun-11

2001

Feb-28

Apr-15

May-24

Jun-3

2002

Feb-13

Mar-31

May-9

May-19

2003

Mar-5

Apr-20

May-29

Jun-8

2004

Feb-25

Apr-11

May-20

May-30

2005

Feb-9

Mar-27

May-5

May-15

2006

Mar-1

Apr-16

May-25

Jun-4

Although these dates were taken from sources that we believe to be reliable, do not rely on their accuracy. We cannot accept responsibility for any errors.

R.W. Mallem's "Easter Dating Method," shows for methods of calculating the dates of Easter Sunday, both for the Western and Orthodox churches. 13

 

 

Easter Traditions:

These have been derived primarily from Pagan traditions at Easter time:

Hot Cross Buns: At the feast of Eostre, the Saxon fertility Goddess, an ox was sacrificed. The ox's horns became a symbol for the feast. They were carved into the ritual bread. Thus originated "hot cross buns". The word "buns" is derived from the Saxon word "boun" which means "sacred ox." Later, the symbol of a symmetrical cross was used to decorate the buns; the cross represented the moon, the heavenly body associated with the Goddess, and its four quarters.

Easter Rabbit and Eggs: The symbols of the Norse Goddess Ostara were the hare and the egg. Both represented fertility. From these, we have inherited the customs and symbols of the Easter egg and Easter rabbit. Dyed eggs also formed part of the rituals of the Babylonian mystery religions. Eggs "were sacred to many ancient civilizations and formed an integral part of religious ceremonies in Egypt and the Orient. Dyed eggs were hung in Egyptian temples, and the egg was regarded as the emblem of regenerative life proceeding from the mouth of the great Egyptian god." 3

Easter Lilies: "The so-called 'Easter lily' has long been revered by pagans of various lands as a holy symbol associated with the reproductive organs. It was considered a phallic symbol!" 6

 

Easter Sunrise Service: This custom can be traced back to the ancient Pagan custom of welcoming the sun God at the vernal equinox - when daytime is about to exceed the length of the nighttime. It was a time to "celebrate the return of life and reproduction to animal and plant life as well." 4 Worship of the Sun God at sunrise may be the religious ritual condemned by Jehovah as recorded in:

Ezekiel 8:16-18: "...behold, at the door of the temple of Jehovah, between the porch and the altar, were about five and twenty men, with their backs toward the temple of Jehovah, and their faces toward the east; and they were worshipping the sun toward the east. Then he said unto me, Hast thou seen (this), O son of man? Is it a light thing to the house of Judah that they commit the abominations which they commit here? for they have filled the land with violence, and have turned again to provoke me to anger: and, lo, they put the branch to their nose. Therefore will I also deal in wrath; mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity; and though they cry in mine ears with a loud voice, yet will I not hear them." (ASV)

Easter Candles: These are sometimes lit in churches on the eve of Easter Sunday. Some commentators believe that these can be directly linked to the Pagan customs of lighting bonfires at this time of year to welcome the rebirth/resurrection of the sun God.

Where did the Easter Bunny come from?

The Easter Bunny is a cute little rabbit that hides eggs for us to find on Easter. But where did he come from? Well, the origin is not certain. In the rites of spring the rabbit symbolized fertility. In a German book published in 1682, a tale is told of a bunny laying eggs and hiding them in the garden.

 

References:

1. Yisrayl Hawkins,"Ancient Pagan Religious Expression," at: http://yahweh.com/pages/pw3_96/1_396pg1.shtml

2. Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod Q & A Set 15, "Why do we celebrate a festival called Easter?" at: http://www.wels.net/sab/text/qa/qa15.html

3. Anon, "Easter: The Pagan Origins of Common Easter Traditions," at: http://www.multiline.com.au/~gregm/easter.html

4. Arnold Gordon, untitled essay at: http://www.misslink.net/zephyr/bible/bibleah.htm

5. Larry Boemler "Asherah and Easter," Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 18, Number 3, 1992-May/June reprinted at: http://www.worldmissions.org/Clipper/Holidays/EasterAndAsherah.htm

6. A. J. Dager, "Facts and Fallacies of the Resurrection," Page 5. Cited in: R.K. Tardo, "Rabbits, Eggs and Other Easter Errors," at: http://syscdj1.gmu.edu/sermons/base/EASTER.TXT

7. J.G. Walshe & S. Warrier, "Dates and Meanings of Religious & Other Festivals," Foulsham, New York NY (1997)

8. B.G. Walker, "The Woman's Encylopedia of Myths and Secrets," Harper & Row, San Francisco CA, (1983)

9. J.C. Cooper, "The Dictionary of Festivals," Thorsons, London, UK, (1995)

10. C. Panati, "Sacred Origins of Profound Things: The Stories Behind the Rites and Rituals of the World's Religions," Arkana/Penguin, New York, NY (1996)

11. J Farrar & S. Farrar, "Eight Sabbats for Witches," Phoenix, Custer, WA, (1988)

12. G. L. Berry, "Religions of the World" (currently out of print)

13. R.W. Mallem "Easter Dating Method," at: http://www.assa.org.au/edm.html

 

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