“Why do you celebrate Easter? You’re not Christian.”
Have you encountered this delicious question? It usually comes with a side helping of “raised eyebrow” and lightly coated in a smug “I-gotcha-there” sauce. At first glance it seems like a logical complaint- why are we celebrating a Christian Holiday if we are not Christian? The answer is Easter has roots that go deeper than Christianity, and it also has chocolate bunnies… Mmm how I like a good chocolate bunny.
Easter isn’t Christian?
The short answer is modern Easter is a Christian holiday. It is a long established celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. However, before Christianity became dominant there was other cultures and religions celebrating the renewal of life in the spring. In fact, Christianity has even adopted some of the practices from the religions that they assimilated. Have you pondered where the Easter bunny came from? Or why we decorate eggs? Those practices have their own origin stories and I think you’ll find them as interesting as I have.
When exactly is Easter?
Many ancient and current cultures love to celebrate the equinoxes, also known as the two times a year when the day and night are equal in length. This happens in spring and in fall, usually around March 20th and September 22nd(4). Easter is roughly the first Sunday after the full moon following the equinox. I say “roughly” because Eastern and Western Christians reportedly use different calendars (7). It seems odd that a day that is specifically reserved to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus changes every year. I mean… that’s what I appreciate about MLK day; it’s mobility in the calendar.
There is a Death then a Resurrection… let’s celebrate!
Hopefully I didn’t give away the plot too quickly. If I didn’t, hold on. Many Christians are quick to say that Easter is a time to celebrate the “death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who died on the cross for…” but they aren’t the only religion to establish a life/death and/or resurrection theme occurring around the same season. Have you heard of the epic myth of “The Descent of Inanna”? Inanna is the Sumerian goddess of fertility who travels into the underworld and is trapped. Fertility on earth ceases while she is trapped below and hung from a hook. Luckily, a servant of hers is able to convince one of three other Gods that this is indeed a problem. She is released via a ritual involving water, plants, and a deal that someone must come and take her place. When she learns that her husband did not mourn her death she offers him up to the demons that escorted her out. Her husband’s sister is upset by this and offers to take his place. They end up splitting the time, each doing 6 months at a time then switching. Interestingly enough when Inanna’s husband is out, there is a boon in fertility as Inanna still loves him greatly. There are a couple different versions of this story. There are other Gods from different regions suffering fates of death only to be brought back to life. Dionysus was killed and resurrected, Horus was killed and resurrected (8). Point is, there are a lot of similarities between many of these stories and new life or “resurrection” is celebrated across a lot of cultures throughout time.
Spring was a time of celebration for many ancient cultures. Many religions across various regions of the world worshiped different gods and goddesses (mostly focused around life and fertility) around this time. Among those worshiped were Aphrodite, Ishtar, Demeter, Kali, and Eostre (Eastre). Eostre was “The Great Mother Goddess” for the Saxon people of Ancient Northern Europe. It is possible that she is who our current day of celebration is named after (2). There is lore that she would travel with a rabbit companion who was once a dying bird that she turned into a hare to save. The story goes that the rabbit, having been a bird once, could now lay eggs and did so in plenty out of gratitude (7). According to one source, the Easter bunny made its way to the United States in the 1700s via German immigrants who would have their children set up nests for the fabled rabbit to leave eggs (9).
What’s with the Eggs?
Cultures that assimilate others usually end up adopting practices of the assimilated but with just a different spin. Take for example the Easter egg. Eggs (a symbol of fertility and life) were given as springtime gifts long before Christianity adopted the practice. The earliest decorated eggs found were in Africa from 60,000 years ago. In ancient Egypt, eggs were prized and considered to represent the Sun. Even the ancient Persians would give gifts of decorated eggs, and Pagan celebrations of Eostre included eggs, as well. Early Christians continued this practice but would dye the eggs red to represent the blood of Christ (6).
So this brings us back to the beginning. “Why do you celebrate Easter if you’re not Christian?”
You could tell them about the pagan rituals and celebrations that occurred around that time long before Christianity took hold. You could tell them of the gods of past who also were killed and resurrected. You could even counter by asking them why they celebrate with an Easter Bunny who delivers eggs. Or you could smile and say, “Seriously? Because chocolate bunnies are delicious and my kids like it when I hide eggs for them to find.” This is best said as you walk away shaking your head and laughing incredulously.
The honest to God truth (see what I did there?) is that a lot of the practices that are part of our Easter holiday have historical ties to a variety of other religious and cultural practices. Heck, there are even some Christians who want to remove what they recognize as pagan practices from their celebration (http://www.enduring.org/article/origins-of-easter).
The great news is that ALL of these cultures ultimately seemed to want to worship one thing: winter is over and spring is starting. It is not a strictly Christian holiday and your secular family is free to celebrate however you want! In fact… if you’re looking for ideas, you should stay tuned for PART 2 of our series: Ideas for a Secular Easter!
- “Egg Cetera #6: Hunting for the world’s oldest decorated eggs | University of Cambridge”.
- Donahoe’s Magazine, Volume 5.