For many of us today, Easter is an opportunity to visit family, exchange gifts and fill up on Easter ham and chocolate bunnies. For nearly 2,000 years, Easter has been the central holiday of the Christian faith. But the origins of Easter are still not completely understood, and its history involves both the Christian world and the pagan world.
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ
In the early first century, the Messiah walked the earth and experienced life as man. He praised the poor, healed the sinners, condemned the proud and lived every word of the Law, confirming prophecies that had been written centuries before. In His thirty-fourth year, Jesus Christ was crucified, and three days after His crucifixion, He rose from the dead. After revealing Himself to the apostles of the earth, He joined the Father in heaven. This pivotal event confirmed the Messiah’s promise: A path to salvation will be extended to those who recognize that Jesus is the Son of God.
Celebrations in the Early Christian Communities
Early groups of Christians designated various days in the spring on which to celebrate the Resurrection. The celebration was commonly held on a Sunday during Passover, since that was the day of the Resurrection. However, some Christians did not like the fact that their holiday depended on the Jewish calendar.
Celebrations in the Pagan Communities
Meanwhile, pagan communities continued to hold feasts throughout the year in honor of pagan gods and goddesses. These celebrations can be traced back several millennia. Sunday feasts were commonly held in honor of the sun god Sol Invictus, and spring feasts were commonly held in honor of the goddess Ēostre.
The Day Decided
In AD 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine convened over three hundred Christian bishops at Nicaea (in modern-day Turkey). Their goal was to gain a consensus on a number of issues facing the Christian world. At this council, it was decided that the holiday celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ would take place on a Sunday in spring unrelated to the Jewish calendar. Since Sunday was already recognized as a day of holy significance by both Christians (in honor of Jesus Christ) and pagans (in honor of Sol Invictus), the holiday was a convenient celebration day for many in the Roman world. The holiday became known as Easter, a name which many scholars attribute to the pagan goddess Ēostre. As Christianity spread and many of the pagan feasts died out, Easter gradually became more celebrated.
The history of Easter is confusingly tied to both Christianity and paganism, and its origins are still debated today. However, the meaning of the day is a bit clearer. Easter is a reminder to us all of the Messiah’s resurrection and of His promise: Those who, by the grace of God, find faith in Jesus Christ will be forgiven of their sins and raised to eternal life.