Have you ever stopped and wondered why we celebrate Easter when we do? Why is Easter not on a set date like Christmas? How come Easter follows the spring or vernal equinox in March? Why do we even call it Easter in the first place? The answers to these questions and more may just surprise you.
In my article Why is Christmas on December 25, I discuss the mission of the Roman emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea with regards to the pagans. If you have not read that article, please do so because you will read more details about all of the above. Nonetheless to keep it short, Constantine and the Council of Nicaea sought to merge the religion of the Pagans with the religion of the Christians.
The mission sought out was to convert the Pagans to Christianity but in a way as not to shock them and completely turn them away. Constantine and Council of Nicaea came to the conclusion that if they were able to get the Christians and Pagans to celebrate similar holidays on the same day, then conversion would go more smoothly.
What were the early Christians Celebrating?
So what celebrations were the early Christians observing at the same time of the year as the pagans? The Christians were celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ just as we do today. You may be asking yourself what about the death of Jesus on the cross, wasn’t that of equal importance to them? The death of Jesus on Good Friday is a time of remembrance. It is a time when the Christians reflect upon the burden that Jesus bore when died upon the cross for our sins.
However the true celebration is and always has been Easter Sunday. Why? The message of the Christian Easter is that Jesus Christ conquered the grave and gave his believers the gift of eternal life. If you turn your bible to the book of John, chapter 3 verse 16 states, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”. In addition to that, Paul cements the meaning of Easter in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith”. For the Christians then and now, we celebrate Easter for the new life that God gave us when Jesus rose from the dead.
What were the Pagans Celebrating?
To understand the Pagans, you need to remember that the Pagans were nature worshippers. To them, the sun, the moon and Earth provided the very things that they required to survive. The sun gives the people and Earth its warmth and its light. The Earth therefore gives birth to crops and fruit for the people and animals to eat and live upon. The Pagans also closely followed the star patterns and more importantly, the cycles of the moon. You will see this importance later when we discuss the date of Easter.
Nonetheless during this time of the year, the Pagans would celebrate their Goddess Oestre/Eastre. Today, this goddess is more lovingly known to us all as “Mother Nature”. As you can see, it is not too hard to understand where we have adopted the expression Easter from. To the Pagans, the Goddess Oestre or Eastre represented fertility and new life. Remember at this time of the year, the people were coming out of winter, which was a time of sickness and death.
The warmth of the spring air and growing of the plants around them was a huge time of celebration. Animals were coming out of hibernation and the Earth was producing food and resources that the people desperately needed.
Passover and the Jewish Lunar Calendar
The bible and the history books tells us that Jesus was crucified at the time of the Jewish Passover. They also tell us that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, this day is better known to us as Good Friday. However only the bible tells us that Jesus rose from the dead and conquered the grave Sunday morning.
While it is our faith that has us believe that Jesus rose from the dead Sunday morning, the point of the matter is that we still use that Sunday as our observance of Easter. Therefore the Jewish lunar calendar becomes important to us in understanding why the pagans and Christians were celebrating that time of the year.
Passover takes place in the first month (Nisan) of the Jewish New Year. Due to the fact that the Jewish calendar follows the cycle of the moon, the date of Passover can change a bit. However Jewish law commands that the Passover be celebrated in spring. Therefore the Jewish people would use the spring equinox as their guide to set Passover.
As such, early Christians who still celebrated Jewish Passover would then celebrate Easter on the Sunday after Passover ends. Therefore the early Christians were celebrating Easter on the first Sunday after the Spring Equinox.
Lunar Calendar to a Solar Calendar
Today, our calendar is set according to a solar cycle. However before that, our ancestors followed the lunar cycle. Because the lunar cycle is 28 days, over time the months would not correlate to the seasons. This required a group of specialists to decide when days should be added or removed to keep the calendar on track with the seasons which are marked by the equinoxes and solstices. For that reason, it was Roman Emperor Julius Caesar in 45 BCE who officially changed the way we see our calendar today.
To make the months correlate to the seasons, Julius Caesar worked with Sosigenes, an Alexandrian astronomer and officially issued a decree setting our calendar on a solar cycle. In essence, it was a calendar based entirely on the Earth’s movement around the Sun. This is important to understand for Easter because now the spring equinox will always occur in March on the 21st.
Now let us tie this all up nice and neatly. You have the Pagans celebrating fertility at the spring equinox which is now always in March around the 21st. You have the Christians celebrating Jesus conquering the grave and giving eternal life on the first Sunday at the end of Passover after the spring equinox.
Close your eyes and take a few minutes to picture yourself as the Emperor Constantine overseeing the Council of Nicaea. The goal that you have before you is to have the pagans and the Christians celebrating similar events at the same time. On one hand, you have the Pagans celebrating fertility and Mother Nature giving them new life. On the other hand, you have the Christians celebrating Jesus conquering the grave and giving us everlasting life.
As I am sure you can understand, it was not a stretch for Roman Emperor Constantine and Council of Nicaea to set the official date of Easter and combine the holiday celebrations of the Pagans and the Christians.
Showing the History of Easter to our Loved Ones
As many of you know, I never like to end an article without giving the reader a way to use our Christian traditions to teach our family and friends about God's love. Easter is a time of remembrance and great celebration. On Good Friday we remember Jesus giving up his life to bear our sins upon the cross. However Easter morning is a great celebration because Jesus conquered the grave giving all of use believers ever lasting life with him in heaven.
Although Easter has its deep connections to the Pagans, the Pagans in essence were celebrating fertility and the renewal of life conquering the deathly winter. Jesus Christ died for our sins and conquered the grave giving us everlasting life. So as you sit around your Easter table and see all the pretty flowers and colorful eggs, use them to show your family and friends the true message of Easter.