Easter and Paganism
As the early church expanded, it had to deal with three major threats: persecution, heresy and paganism. In some ways the threat from paganism was the most subtle.
When Gentiles converted to Christianity, they brought with them ideas, habits and customs which were pagan in origin. Sometimes Christians failed to think critically about unbiblical beliefs and practices which were taken for granted in the culture of their day, and pagan thinking filtered through into Christianity. (Corinth, for example, was plagued with sexual libertarianism which was due, largely, to the pagan practices of that city.)
In some instances the Church consciously 'reclaimed' pagan practices for Christianity, redeeming non-Christian activities by giving them new meaning. For example, painted eggs were given and received each spring by pagans, as a symbol of the birth of the new season. Christians continued this pagan practice, but invested the ancient tradition with new meaning - a commemoration of the new life found in the Resurrection.
In many communities the pagan origin was forgotten and any pagan meaning was completely supplanted by Christian symbolism. In Greece Easter eggs were (and are) often painted red, to symbolise the blood of Christ. In Russia many Easter eggs are painted with icons of Christ.
Some Christian writers and thinkers also sought to express the Gospel in terms which pagans would understand - and in some instances created a synthesis of biblical and pagan thinking. Sometimes this was an effective way of winning pagans to faith in Christ. At other times it compromised the Gospel and ensnared believers in a paganised faith.
There are also examples of some leaders, more pagan than Christian, who deliberately introduced pagan ideas into the Church because of their own divided loyalties. Some have argued that the Emperor Constantine publicly professed to be a Christian, but was a secret worshipper of the sun god. He allegedly introduced the practice of celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th, near the Winter Equinox - the Roman festival for the birth of the sun god.
The date on which Jesus' death and resurrection was celebrated was also changed - after much controversy. Jesus, of course, had been executed during the Jewish festival of Passover, but at some point Christians - probably Gentile Christians with a background in paganism - began celebrating this around the time of the vernal equinox (the date in spring when night and day are the same length - normally around March 21).
This date was associated with a pagan goddess who was linked to the rebirth of Spring. In ancient England she was worshipped as 'Eostre', the name from which the word 'Easter' is apparently derived.
The practice of holding an Easter Sunday service at dawn has its origins in pagan celebrations which welcomed the arrival of the goddess at the vernal equinox.
The Easter bunny probably also has its origins in paganism. The rabbit is a symbol of fertility (hence, "they breed like rabbits") and therefore became an appropriate symbol of spring and new life.
While some pagan practices associated with Christmas and Easter became Christianised, some Christian customs slowly lost their religious meaning. Santa Claus is of course a secularised Saint Nicholas, yet the image of Santa Claus owes more to early 20th century Coca Cola advertisements than to Christian history. The now secular tradition of the Easter basket filled with eggs and chocolates has its origin in the Christian practice of bringing baskets with bread, cheese and ham to mass on Easter Sunday morning to be blessed. After weeks of austerity and abstinence during Lent, Easter Sunday was a joyful celebration with special treats and goodies.
Some Christian groups reject any thing with a pagan or non-biblical origin. More extreme groups not only denounce Father Christmas and the Easter bunny, but also believe that any celebration of Easter and Christmas is a Satanic plot. (One such writer on the Internet declared eating hot cross buns, Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies to be "Antichrist activities" which Satan has devised to turn Christians into idolaters!) At the other end of the spectrum are Christians who think, simply, that it's "all good fun". (At this extreme would be Christian parents who are happy for their children to go trick and treating at Halloween.)
Between the two extremes is an approach which seeks to discern what is biblical, what has legitimately been redeemed from paganism and is an acceptable part of Christian tradition, and what is anti-Christian and to be rejected. Is the Easter bunny a tool of the devil, a symbol of the new life we achieve through the Resurrection, or an excuse to have another chocolate?
In the end, the origin of a thing does not necessarily determine what it means today. The fact that Easter eggs (or the word 'Easter' itself) have their origin in paganism does not mean that eating chocolate eggs today is a pagan activity. It may be completely secular, or (for Christians) may be imbued with Christian significance.
And rather than worrying about how third century Christians adopted pagan ideas and practices, we may be better off thinking about how the Church today does the same thing, and how easily we uncritically accept the 'pagan' ideas of our own culture and society. Today's 'gods' of success, prosperity and consumerism may pose more of a threat to modern day Christianity than hot cross buns, Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs ever did.
Jeff Simmonds gained his PhD in Religious Studies from Victoria University. He has lectured at the Salvation Army Training College and at the Wellington branch of Bible College of New Zealand.