Origin of Easter
Audrey Chan—Leicester, UK
For many Christians, Easter is a
season to commemorate the death, but especially the resurrection, of Christ. In
the UK, there is little danger of anyone forgetting this holiday. Each year, at
least a month ahead, high street stores and supermarkets remind consumers by
displaying a veritable assortment of chocolate eggs and rabbits, greeting
cards, and other Easter products.
As Christians in the True Jesus
Church, we do not celebrate Easter. But just how much do we know about this
festival? Could we confidently explain to others the reasons for our
non-observance? Our friends from other churches may well wonder why we
seemingly overlook what they view as the most important festival in the
Christian calendar. Do we know what to share with our children, to redress some
of the messages that they receive in school about Easter?
HISTORICAL ORIGINS OF EASTER
The name “Easter” is linked to the
Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, known variously as Eostre,1 Ostara,2
or Eastre.3 The Saxon people in Northern Europe dedicated an annual
festival to her to give thanks for newness of life after the winter. In the
ancient Near East, people used to worship female deities with similar sounding
names and who, again, were linked to spring and fertility rites. They include
Ishtar in Babylon and Astarte (Ashtaroth) in Phoenicia. It is possible that
they were worshipping the same deity, albeit by different names.
History also tells us that when
the early missionaries started evangelizing in Northern Europe, they allowed
the Anglo-Saxon people to retain their pagan practices to limit any adverse
reactions to the Christian message, and to make their conversion easier.4
The missionaries won their converts, and by the eighth century, the Anglo-Saxon
Christians began commemorating the resurrection of Christ with the festival
they called Eastra, later changed to Easter.5
Leading up to this development was
the deviation of the post-apostolic church from the biblical truth. Step by
step, it altered the original message of Jesus and the apostles. The changes
included replacing the Saturday Sabbath with observance of the first day of the
week (Sunday) as a weekly celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, known as the
“Lord’s Day.”6 This was followed closely by the institution of an
annual Christian Passover, the Pascha,7 to commemorate the
resurrection of Jesus, most likely in the second century.8
At the First Council of Nicaea in
AD 325, it was decreed that all churches should observe the Christian Pascha on
the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. Today,
Christian churches in the West continue the practice decreed at Nicaea and
celebrate Easter on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25.
The legacy of early missionaries
accommodating the pagan customs of the Northern European converts remains to
this day—Easter is full of customs linked to spring and fertility rites. In
addition, over the centuries, Christians have added numerous other local
The Easter rabbit came from the tradition that
the goddess Eostre’s favorite animal was the hare. In pagan culture, the hare
represents love, growth, and fertility—all of which have obvious associations
Exchanging eggs symbolizes rebirth. In pagan
cultures, they are linked to the rising or birth of the new sun. The
reappearance of spring after winter was a cause for great celebration.
Anglo-Saxon mythology says that Eostre’s hare laid brightly colored eggs for
the children. Later on, eggs were associated with the rebirth or resurrection
of Christ, perhaps because it was associated with the rock tomb from which He
emerged. Many rituals were developed during the medieval period, including
decorating, throwing, rolling, or hiding eggs for children to find. The term “Easter
egg” entered the English language around 1825, and the first chocolate eggs
were introduced around 1880.
In England, the making of hot cross buns on Good
Friday9 came from Tudor times when they were called “cross buns.”
They were made with yeast, currants, and spices and marked with the symbol of
the cross. These probably started off as wheat cakes made during pagan spring
festivals. In the Bible, we come across the people of Judah preparing such
cakes for the “queen of heaven” (Ashtaroth) in the time of Prophet Jeremiah
(cf. Jer 7:18).
Other customs include:
Wearing a new hat and clothes on Easter Sunday
to symbolize rebirth.
Eating fish on Good Friday, and all Fridays, by
Christians who decreed a day of fasting (or at least refraining from meat) to mark
the day that Christ was crucified.
Eating lamb, which has been associated with
Easter, because Christ was the Paschal Lamb.
IS EASTER BIBLICAL?
Nowhere in the Bible can we find
the teaching to observe an annual Christian Pascha or Easter. So, the simple
answer to “Is Easter biblical?” is “No.” The origins of Easter reveal that it
is actually the product of an evolving early church, religious politics, and
acquiescence to pagan culture. It illustrates how significantly the teachings
and practices of the church altered shortly after the apostles died.
The Greek church historian
Socrates of Constantinople (born in 380) wrote that it most likely evolved from
local practice in some churches. He acknowledged that neither Jesus nor the
apostles instructed believers to observe this feast:
…each individual in every place, according to
his own pleasure, has by a prevalent custom
celebrated the memory of the saving passion. The Saviour and his apostles have
enjoined us by no law to keep this feast…the feast of Easter came to be
observed in each place according to the individual peculiarities of the peoples
inasmuch as none of the apostles legislated on the matter.10
Returning to the Teachings of the Bible
The Bible does not teach us to
observe Easter; what it does tell us is that Jesus instituted a sacrament for
believers to keep. During the final Passover meal with His disciples, Jesus
broke unleavened bread, telling them that it was His body, and then passed
round the cup of the fruit of the vine, indicating that it was His blood (Lk
22:19, 20; Mt 26:29; 1 Cor 5:8, 10:17). In doing this, He gave the meal a whole
new significance and methodology.
Jesus particularly instructed,
“Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for
you; do this in remembrance of Me….This cup is the new covenant in My blood.
This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (1 Cor 11:24, 25)
The apostle Paul later wrote,
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink
this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.” (1 Cor 11:26)
In other words, Jesus wanted us
to keep this sacrament (the Holy Communion, cf. 1 Cor 10:16) to commemorate His
death—to remember that He offered up His body for our sake and shed His blood
Importantly, we note that Jesus gave
no instructions or instituted any practices for us to follow in relation to the
the frequency of holding the Holy Communion
the need for an annual feast to commemorate
either His death or His resurrection
the designation of any or all Sundays as days of
special significance in light of His resurrection.
Jesus’ words and Paul’s words are
“as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup,” indicating that we are
simply to hold the Holy Communion on a regular basis. And each time we do, we
have the opportunity to remember the sacrifice and grace of salvation given to
us by our Lord Jesus Christ. Any other requirement falls outside of the truth,
as set out in the Bible.
Worshipping the True God
As Christians, we worship the one
true God—a jealous God who detests idols (Ex 20:3-5). This accounts for why the
Bible repeatedly tells Christians to avoid all things connected with idols
(Acts 15:20; 1 Cor 10:14-22; Gal 5:16-21; 1 Jn 5:21). But while no God-fearing
Christian would wittingly commit outright idolatry, the fact is, customs
long-associated with paganism, including those associated with Easter, have
become intermingled with Christian culture. The problem is that it has been all
so insidious that most Christians either have not noticed or do not understand
The actions of the post-apostolic
church remind us of the warning given by God to the people of Israel concerning
the need not to emulate the Canaanites:
“Take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared
to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not
inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I
will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way”… (Deut
The Israelites did not heed the
warning and became influenced by the surrounding nations, such that they
brought idolatrous practices into their worship of God. In doing so, they
provoked God’s wrath time and time again.
DEALING WITH EASTER CELEBRATIONS
We know that God wants us, as
believers, to remain within the boundary of the truth, which is His word (Jn
19:17). We should not add to it nor deviate from it. Therefore, with regards to
Easter, which we know to be unbiblical, the obvious course of action is not to
celebrate it and to carry on with life as normal. But this approach is probably
more straightforward for some of us than others. For those of us with children,
for example, there are issues such as school activities, Easter parades,
invitations to egg hunts, and Easter gifts to negotiate. So many of the
activities during this particular season seem to focus on youngsters. What can
Firstly, concerning seasonal
products, we will do well to bypass them in the shops. There is really no need
to buy chocolate Easter eggs or bunnies when there are plenty of other
alternatives to satisfy a sweet tooth. And, by explaining to our children the
reasons for not celebrating Easter, they will learn not to ask for them.
Some people may argue that
chocolate Easter eggs are just confectionary, nothing more. But if we
deliberately sought them out and bought them, we would be giving our children
mixed messages, setting a poor example to the brothers and sisters around us,
and be actively supporting the Easter trade.
However, there are also issues of
proportionality and common sense. This means that, should friends give us or
our children Easter eggs, there is no need to over-react! We need to be mindful
that, in the majority of cases, people give Easter eggs out of seasonal habit
rather than because they actually celebrate Easter in a religious way.
So, in the case of those friends
we know well enough, we may feel we can decline their gifts graciously while
explaining why. In other cases, a polite thanks followed by a brief explanation
about why we cannot reciprocate will suffice. It does not need to be a big
issue. Hopefully, they will understand and not repeat the gesture the following
year. In a multi-cultural society, most people are very accepting of different
beliefs. Moreover, it is a good opportunity to start a conversation about
Easter and to share our faith. And who knows where it will lead?
With regards to school and
community activities, if we have young children, we can explain to the teacher
or relevant person about our faith and what we wish or do not wish our children
to participate in. If we have older children, they can explain to the teacher
themselves but may need help from us in preparing what to say. Nowadays,
schools and other organizations are culturally aware and accommodating and
would not force any child to do anything that is against his faith.
There are some obvious activities
that you may wish to consider withdrawing your children from—these include
church services, egg hunts, or Easter parades. But with regards to school
plays, some parents may not mind their children taking part when they involve
straightforward re-enactments of Bible stories, or if the event is not
celebratory in nature.
State schools in the UK seem to
have adopted quite a balanced approach in terms of how to deal with religious
festivals—they tend to organize activities in such a way as to inform, rather
than to promote or celebrate. But if this is not the case where your children
are educated, or if you do not feel comfortable with your children taking part
in the activities, then you can always exercise your right to withdraw them
from those activities.
From personal experience, I think
that children who go to church schools will face greater challenges during the
festive seasons because they work to a religious ethos, and parents need to
factor this in when selecting a school for their children.
The best approach of all is to
equip our children with the correct information about festivals such as Easter.
They need to be aware of what the Bible teaches and what are simply human
traditions and add-ons.
The church has an obvious role to
play in addressing the issue of festivals as part of the Religious Education
curriculum, as do parents. This will serve to counter-balance any erroneous
information that they might receive in school and elsewhere and will help them
to be able to share their faith to others. Having said this, as parents we also
need to equip ourselves with the right knowledge if we are to guide our
children and set good examples.
Looking into the history of
Easter, we find that it evolved from practices within the post-apostolic
church, which had strayed from the truth. It is not a festival that was either
instituted or taught by Jesus or the apostles. We also see that, over the
centuries, people have incorporated pagan practices that are now part and
parcel of the way the festival is celebrated.
It is therefore with good reason
that the True Jesus Church does not observe Easter. But we need to address
practical issues, including how to deal with the social elements of the holiday
season and how to guide our children to stay within the truth.
May God grant us His wisdom so
that we can do what is pleasing in His sight and glorify Him in our lives.