What is Easter? Easter is one of the central holidays, or Holy Days, of Christianity. It honors the Resurrection of Jesus three days after His death by crucifixion. For many Christian churches, Easter is the joyful conclusion to the Lenten season of devoted prayer, fasting and penitence.
Along with the Nativity of Christ, Easter is one of the most important celebrations in the Christian calendar. It is when Christians glorify and give thanks for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. After His crucifixion, death, and burial, Christ rose from the grave three days later. By this, He conquered death and redeemed us from sin.
As we’ll explore in this article, the Easter holy day did coincide with some pagan holidays. Because the church didn’t celebrate Easter until a certain point, owing to the persecution the church experienced for the first few centuries, the Christian creation of the holiday did happen around the same time as another pagan celebration was in full swing. Nevertheless, we strive to celebrate God’s victory over the grave on this holiday. In this article, we’ll explore the meaning of the word Easter, pagan associations of the holiday, and what the holiday means for Christians today.
Definition of Easter
According to dictionary.com, Easter is “an annual Christian festival in commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, as calculated according to tables based in Western churches on the Gregorian calendar and in Orthodox churches on the Julian calendar. Also called Easter Sunday. the day on which this festival is celebrated.”
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia gives biblical references of “Easter,” stating,
“The word does not properly occur in Scripture, although the King James Version has it in Acts 12:4 where it stands for Passover, as it is rightly rendered in the Revised Version (British and American). There is no trace of Easter celebration in the New Testament, though some would see an intimation of it in 1 Corinthians 5:7. The Jewish Christians in the early church continued to celebrate the Passover, regarding Christ as the true paschal lamb, and this naturally passed over into a commemoration of the death and resurrection of our Lord or an Easter feast.”
The Etymology and Origin of Easter
According to our Bible dictionary, the name “Easter” was derived from “Eostre,” “originally a Saxon word (Eostre), denoting a goddess of the Saxons, in honor of whom sacrifices were offered about the time of the Passover.”
Another probability is the Norse eostur, eastur, or ostara, which meant “the season of the growing sun” or “the season of new birth.” The word east comes from the same roots. In this case, easter would be linked to the changing of the season.
A more recent and complex explanation comes from the Christian background of Easter rather than the pagan. The early Latin name for the week of Easter was hebdomada alba or “white week,” while the Sunday after Easter day was called Dominica in albis from the white robes of those who had been newly baptized. The word alba is Latin both for white and dawn. People speaking Old High German made a mistake in their translation and used a plural word for dawn, ostarun, instead of a plural for white. From ostarun we get the German Ostern and the English Easter.
Christian Meaning of Easter
The significance of Easter is Jesus Christ’s triumph over death. His resurrection means the eternal life that is granted to all who believe in Him. The purpose of Easter also means the full confirmation of all that Jesus taught and preached during His three-year ministry. If He had not risen from the dead or simply died and not been resurrected, He would have been thought just another teacher or prophet. However, His resurrection rebuked all that and provided final and undeniable proof that He was the Son of God and that He had overcome death once and for all.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the core of the Christian gospel. Saint Paul says that if Christ is not raised from the dead, then our preaching and hope are in vain (1 Cor. 15:14). Certainly, without the resurrection, there would be no Christian preaching or faith. The apostles of Christ would have continued as the disheartened group which the Gospel of John depicts being in hiding for fear of the Jews. They were in total despair until they met the risen Christ (John 20:19). Then they touched Christ’s wounds of the nails and the spear; they ate and drank with Him. The resurrection became the foundation of everything they said and did (Acts 2-4): “…for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39).
The resurrection affirms Jesus of Nazareth as the prophesied Messiah of Israel and the King and Lord of a new Jerusalem: a new heaven and a new earth.
Pagan Origin of ‘Easter’
Nevertheless, Easter did not always signify Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and Easter’s purpose was considerably different than what Christians observe today. The feast day of Easter was first a pagan holiday of renewal and rebirth. Honored in the early spring, it praised the pagan Saxon goddess Eastre. When early Christian missionaries saved the Saxons to Christianity, the spring holiday, because it occurred near the same season as the traditional memorial of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, was joined with the pagan festival, and became known as Easter. The meaning of Easter was also changed to honor its new Christian significance.
Easter Bunny’s Connection to Christianity
The following is an excerpt from The Meaning and Origin of the Easter Bunny:
The origin of the Easter Bunny can be dated back to the 13th century in Germany. The Germanic folk, known as the Teutons, worshiped pagan gods and goddesses. One such goddess was Eostra (otherwise known as Ostara or Ēostre). She was revered as the goddess of fertility and spring. The word “Easter” finds its etymology from the goddess’s name.
Due to its prolific breeding tendencies, the rabbit became a symbol for Eostra. In AD 595, Pope Gregory sent Roman monks to convert the Anglo Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons, like German forefathers, celebrated Eostra. When converted, they accepted the celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection at Easter while still continuing the celebration of spring renewal and the rabbit’s symbolism.
The Color Purple at Easter
The following is an excerpt from Why is the Color Purple Associated With Easter?:
To understand why the color purple became the color of Lent and Easter, we must first look at the color’s significance in ancient society. Purple dye was a prized commodity in antiquity because it was difficult to obtain. In particular, purple dye was obtained from harvesting certain marine snails.
In light of how labor-intensive it was to produce purple dye, purple apparel was very expensive and often only worn by kings, other royal members, or those with high-ranking authority. As such, the color purple became known as a mark of royalty and sovereignty.
The Roman soldiers who tortured Jesus during His Passion would’ve been well-aware of the imperial symbolism behind the color purple. This is why, in mocking Jesus before His crucifixion, the soldiers dressed Jesus in a purple robe and put a crown of thorns on His head, proceeding to then beat Him and yell, “Hail, king of the Jews!” (John 19:2-3).
In a further attempt to humiliate Jesus after the soldiers had removed the purple robe from Him, Pilate had a sign affixed to Jesus’ cross inscribed with the words, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19). This inscription is memorialized on today’s crucifixes by the letters INRI, which are the initials for “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in Latin — Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum.
In remembrance of the purple robe the Roman soldiers put on Jesus in mockery, churches display the color purple during Lent to mourn the emotional and physical anguish that Jesus underwent during His Passion, and also to proclaim Him as the true King of Kings. In some churches, the clergy wear purple vestments, drape lecterns with purple cloths, and cover the front of altars with purple frontals.
Easter Meaning Today
For Christians worldwide, the importance of Easter is praising and acknowledging Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and His glorious assurances of eternal life for all who believe in Him. While there are plenty of non-religious traditions, such as the easter bunny, baskets of candy, and Easter egg hunts, there are also meaningful traditions for Christians today. Some include
- Sunrise services – many churches meet at a special sunrise service time to celebrate the risen savior
- Resurrection rolls – these are a cute way to teach children about the empty tomb of Jesus. Resurrection rolls are baked with a large marshmallow inside that disappears while baking, symbolizing the empty tomb of Jesus!
- Easter Lilies can be found decorating churches and homes as a reminder of the purity of Jesus’ sacrifice and the new life we have through his resurrection
Bible Verses about Easter and Resurrection of Jesus
- Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead – 1 Peter 1:3 ESV
We celebrate Easter because this holiday recognizes that we can die to our old way of living and resurrect into our new life with Christ. Christianity does require a death to self. But the resurrection we experience in a spiritual sense and the resurrection of the body we have yet to experience give us ample cause for celebration.
- Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, – John 11:25 ESV
We have full confidence that no matter what happens to us on this Earth, we can experience eternal joy with God in heaven. No wonder many brothers and sisters continue praising Jesus even when they experience persecution and martyrdom. Because we have a greater hope and promise than earthly life.
- Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. – Romans 10:9
It is integral to our faith that we believe in the Resurrection. Our faith has no foundation if we don’t believe Jesus rose again on that Easter Sunday.
- If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. – Romans 8:11
- Because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” – Acts 17:31
- We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. – Romans 6:4
The Christian faith has many symbols. We often replicate the process Jesus underwent on the cross in a symbolic sense. We die to our old selves. We also are “buried” through the sacrament of baptism and experience a resurrection and new life in Christ. Christ gives us a new life holistically. We experience some of that new life during our time on Earth and look forward to experiencing the rest of the resurrection in Heaven.
- For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. – Romans 14:9
We celebrate Easter because God lived the life we should’ve lived, and died the death we deserved to die so that we could live. What a wonderful cause for celebration. That we can experience the resurrection with Him!