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Rarely a year goes by when I do not get a question about the pagan origins of Easter. This year was no different. A young man in my church came up to me and this interaction proceeded. 

Young man: “What is the deal with Jehovah’s Witnesses and not celebrating holidays? 

Me: “Why do you ask?” 

Young man: “My buddy, who is a Jehovah’s Witness, told me Easter is a pagan holiday.” 

Me: “Oh, got it.” 

Our conversation was cut off for reasons unnecessary to share, but I thought I would answer his question in this post. 

This discussion is not original to me, but in my humble opinion, there are two issues, its origin and the reason for the date. 

The pagan origin of Easter (allegedly) 

This is a good summary of this position.

“The feast day of Easter was first a pagan holiday of renewal and rebirth. Honored in the early spring, it praised the pagan goddess of fertility and spring known as ‘Ostara’, ‘Eastre’ or ‘Eostre’. The word “Easter” finds its etymology from the goddess’s name.” 

Okay. I will bite. So what is the evidence for this conclusion?

Venerable Bede 

This guy lived from 672–735 AD and was a well-known Roman Catholic historian. Technically, he was called Saint Bede the Venerable. Pretty impressive name. Anyways, he wrote this book The Reckoning of Time, and in it, he wrote this about the origin of Easter. 

“Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated ‘‘Paschal month’’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.” (p. 54, The Reckoning of Time)

In other words, the Germanic or Anglo-Saxon people called the month of April, Eosturmonath, which is named after their goddess Eostre. The existence of the Germanic people pre-dates the Christian tradition, therefore, Christians embrace Easter, which had pagan roots. 

The problem with this conclusion is 1) Bede gives no evidence (i.e. no primary sources) on where he draws this information from. 2) No other historical document mentions the goddess Eostre. 

Dr. Beth Barr, Ph.D., associate professor of history at Baylor University, states, 

“However, there is no mention of this goddess in any other literature from the time outside of Bede's work. Therefore, we are unable to confirm the existence of such a pagan deity. The lack of evidence makes it unlikely that any kind of celebration in the goddess' honor existed.” 


She continues to say,

"Easter was clearly being celebrated by Mediterranean Christians during the second century, and probably in the first century as well," Barr said. "As such, there is no way that it is derived from a Nordic or Germanic pagan festival that, if it historically existed, postdates the Christian celebration. By the second century, we have clear evidence that the Christian community was celebrating an annual commemoration of Christ's Resurrection: Easter. Indeed, because of the quarrel over exactly when the precise date for this celebration should be, known as the Quartodecimanism controversy, it is clear that celebrating Easter was already a long-established custom by early Christians."


Even those sympathetic to the pagan origin of Easter say this, 

“Returning to the topic of Eostre, the evidence for her as an actual goddess people worshipped is a bit uncertain. She’s mentioned in the writings of an 8th century monk known as Venerable Bede, who reported that pagan Anglo-Saxons in medieval Northumbria held festivals in her honor during the month of April. Other than this text, we don’t have much information about how she was honored by the Pagans. Whether Eostre was really worshipped as a goddess or not, by the 19th century she had become an important part of German culture and she was added into German literature, paintings, and folklore.” 


So basically, Bede gave no evidence of his sources and no other historical document in  human history even mentions the worship of Eostre. Got it. 

Jakob Grimm

You mean the guy that wrote the legendary fairy tales. Yep, that guy. He wrote this in his work, Deutsche Mythologies, in 1835. 

“Ostara/Eástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the Christian’s God.” 

He continues, 

“This Ostarâ, like the [Anglo-Saxon] Eástre, must in heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted, that the Christian teachers tolerated the name, and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries.”

Even if we grant that Grimm drew these conclusions from Bede (nothing else in history leads to any other conclusion), we still need to figure out why Grimm claims Ostara is the same goddess as Eostre. 

The first mention of Ostara is in the work of Eginhard, Vita Karoli Magni (the Life of Charlemagne), who wrote this in Latin around 800 AD. 

“He gave the months names in his own tongue, for before his time they were called by the Franks partly by Latin and partly by barbarous names. He also gave names to the twelve winds, whereas before not more than four, and perhaps not so many, had names of their own. Of the months, he called January Winter-month (Wintarmanoth), February Mud-month (Hornung), March Spring-month (Lentzinmanoth), April Easter-month (Ostarmanoth), May Joy-month (Winnemanoth), June Plough-month (Brachmanoth), July Hay-month (Hewimanoth), August Harvest-month (Aranmanoth), September Wind-month (Witumanoth), October Vintage-month (Windumemanoth), November Autumn-month (Herbistmanoth), December Holy-month (Heiligmanoth).” 


Grimm is obviously connecting the dots from Bede to Eginhard. Yet if the logic stands that Bede wrote first and Eginhard second (725 AD to 800 AD) and it is suspect where Bede received his information, then trusting the conclusions of Eginhard is fragile at best. 

You might say, “Fine. I get it. But if Bede is wrong, where did we get the word Easter from?” 

Good question. This is the other theory. 

“Another theory is that the English word Easter comes from an older German word for east, which comes from an even older Latin word for dawn. In spring, dawns mark the beginning of days that will outlast the nights, and those dawns erupt in the east. So that tale is tidy, too. As Merriam-Webster Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski sums it up in an email, “The basic logic seems to have been: ‘Spring > sun > dawn > east.'”


Finally, Akin is helpful here. He states, 

“But in virtually every language except English and German, the name of Easter is derived from the Jewish word Pesach or “Passover.” Thus in Greek the term for Easter is Pascha, in Latin the term is also Pascha. From there it passed into the Romance languages, and so in Spanish it is Pascua, in Italian it is Pasqua, in French it is Paques, and in Portugese it is Pascoa. It also passed into the non-Romance languages, such as the Germanic languages Dutch, where it is Pasen and Danish, where it is Paaske.”


The pagan reason for the date of Easter (allegedly)

Again Akin is very helpful here. 

“Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon following March 21 (historically, the Spring equinox). The reason, however, has nothing to do with paganism. It has everything to do with Judaism and with Christ’s Resurrection.

What happened was this: At the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, the council decided that since Passover was always on or after the first full moon after the Spring equinox, and since the Resurrection was the first Sunday after Passover, Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 21 (historically, the Spring equinox). There is nothing about a pagan lunar celebration in here. It has nothing to do with paganism, but everything to do with the Resurrection of Christ in its Jewish-Passover context.” 


Hopefully, this post has been helpful. On a personal note, I am fine using the term Easter, but I also understand why many Christians would rather say Resurrection Sunday.

Oh—what about the whole Jehovah’s Witness not celebrating holidays thing? 

Well, as I told this young man, the bigger issue is what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe about Jesus and the Holy Spirit. 

Jehovah’s Witnesses (hereafter JWs) consider themselves to be Christians but not Protestants,  even though they reject the doctrine of the Trinity. JWs claim that Jesus was not divine and that the Holy Spirit is an “active force” and not a person. JWs believe that Jesus is God’s only direct creation, “the firstborn of all creation” and therefore rightly entitled to be called the “son of God.” However, they believe that as a created being “he is not part of a Trinity”. 

This is why JW’s are not Christians. Focusing on their view of Jesus and not their view of holidays/birthdays is way more important, eternally speaking.