The Origin of Easter: From Paganism to Christianity, and 19th Century Commercialisation

06 / Mar / 2018
the history of easter

Have you ever wondered why we celebrate Easter? Most people recognise it as a Christian holiday marking the resurrection of Christ, but this tradition has roots that were planted long before the emergence of Christianity and has since taken on a very different form.


Here, we look at the history of Easter, tracing it from its roots as a celebration of the spring equinox to its Christian beginnings, and finally, 21st-century celebrations that are strongly rooted in the 19th-century concept of commercialisation.


Celebrating the Pagan Festival


Since the time of our earliest human ancestors, people have celebrated the equinoxes and solstices as sacred times. During the time we celebrate Easter, our ancestors were actually celebrating the beginning of spring in the Northern hemisphere.


The spring equinox is marked by the ending of winter, and typically falls on the day where the amount of dark and daylight is equal – when the seasons have fallen into a harmonious balance.


The Shift From Paganism to Christianity


Since spring festivals revolved around the theme of new life and the relief that came when the cold season drew to an end, it’s believed people have connected the pagan celebration of the spring equinox with Jesus’ resurrection, as he conquered the death and uncertainty that was forced upon him during his crucifixion.


In the first few centuries after Jesus’ ascension, the Christian church combined their feast days with the old pagan festivals. It wasn’t until 325AD when the Council of Nicaea (the first major church council) decided to give Easter its own date. They decided that Easter would be held on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox – a ruling that has remained constant across history.


This means that Easter can fall anywhere between March 25 and April 25, with the exact date being determined by the movement of the planets and the sun. As such, Easter festivities are often referred to as “moveable feasts”.


Interestingly enough, in many western parts of the world, the word ‘Easter’ is still derived from its Pagan roots, and doesn’t actually have any Christian meaning. For instance, in most European countries, the word ‘Easter’ is derived from the Jewish festival of Passover.


In English speaking countries, and in Germany, the word comes from a pagan goddess from Anglo-Saxon England. Eostre, as she was described by an eighth-century English monk, was the goddess of spring or renewal, which is why her feast was, and still is, attached to the vernal equinox. In Germany, the goddess’ name was Ostara, so the traditional German festival is known as Ostern.


The Easter Bunny, Chocolate Eggs and the Increasing Commercialisation of Easter


But how do rabbits and chocolate eggs come into this? Well, many of the pagan customs associated with the beginning of spring were eventually absorbed as a symbol of Jesus’ resurrection. Therefore, eggs, which are representative of new life, became a natural part of how Christian believers explained the miracle of Christ.


In the Middle Ages, this took form as people decorating eggs and eating them as a treat following mass on Easter Sunday, after they fasted through Lent. This is something that still happens today, especially in countries in eastern Europe, like Poland. It’s still common for people to decorate hard-boiled or blown eggs.


Rabbits and hares have also become a large part of Easter celebrations, as they are associated with fertility and were symbols of the goddess, Eostre. Rabbits were first linked with Easter in a book that was written by a German professor back in 1722, where he made mention to the “Easter hare”. In his book, the author, Georg Franck von Franckenau, speaks about folklore where hares would hide colourful eggs ready for children to go searching for. As such, it’s believed our modern-day concept of Easter egg hunts actually dates as far back as the 18th century.


By the 19th century, as commercialisation took off around most of the world, greeting card companies like Hallmark started to take advantage of increased efficiencies with the postal system by introducing cards with cute images of rabbits and Easter eggs on them. The first edible Easter eggs were also made during this time, over in Germany, and were originally made from sugared pastry. Not long after, chocolate-manufacturing companies like Cadbury started creating chocolate eggs that, unlike earlier forms of chocolate, were sweetened and transformed into a confectionary treat.


While Easter in Australia, and much of the southern hemisphere is actually celebrated in autumn, we have adopted the same customs as our British counterparts. So come the end of March, Australians will relax over the long Easter weekend, indulging in chocolate, and for religious individuals, attending special church services.


Want to celebrate in style? Talk to us about our Easter flags.