The origins of Easter are obscure. It is often assumed that the name Easter comes from a pagan figure called Eastre (or Eostre) who was celebrated as the goddess of spring by the Saxons of Northern Europe. Eastre was the “goddess of the east (from where the sun rises),” her symbol was the hare (a symbol of fertility), and a festival called Eastre was held during the spring equinox by the Saxons to honor her.
The problem with associating the origin of Easter with the pagan goddess Eastre/Eostre is that there is no hard evidence that such a goddess was ever worshiped by anyone, anywhere. The only mention of Eastre comes from a passing reference in the writings of the Venerable Bede, an eighth-century monk and historian. Bede wrote, “Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated as ‘Paschal month,’ and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honor feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate the Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance” (De Temporum Ratione). And that’s it.
Eostre is not mentioned in any other ancient writing; no shrines, no altars, nothing to document the worship of Eastre. It is possible that Bede simply extrapolated the name of the goddess from the name of the month. In the nineteenth century, the German folklorist Jakob Grimm researched the origins of the German name for Easter, Ostern, which in Old High German was Ostarâ. Both words are related to the German word for “east,” ost. Grimm, while admitting that he could find no solid link between Easter and pagan celebrations, made the assumption that Ostara was probably the name of a German goddess. Like Eastre, the goddess Ostara was based entirely on supposition and conjecture; before Grimm’s Deustche Mythologie (1835), there was no mention of the goddess in any writings. The word Easter comes from an old word for “east” or the name of a springtime month. Assertions that Easter is pagan or that Christians have appropriated a goddess-holiday are untenable. Today, however, Easter has been almost completely commercialized—the world’s focus is on Easter eggs, Easter candy, and the Easter bunny.
Christians celebrate Easter as the resurrection of Christ on the third day after His crucifixion. It is the oldest Christian holiday and the most important day of the church year because of the significance of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the events upon which Christianity is based (1 Corinthians 15:14). In some Christian traditions, Easter Sunday is preceded by the season of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting and repentance culminating in Holy Week and followed by a 50-day Easter season that stretches from Easter to Pentecost.
Because of the commercialization and possible pagan origins of Easter, many churches prefer to call it “Resurrection Sunday.” The rationale is that, the more we focus on Christ and His work on our behalf, the better. Paul says that without the resurrection of Christ our faith is futile (1 Corinthians 15:17). Whether we call it “Easter” or “Resurrection Sunday,” what is important is the reason for our celebration, which is that Christ is alive, making it possible for us to have eternal life (Romans 6:4)!
The legend of the Easter bunny bringing eggs was brought to the United States by settlers from Germany. The German tradition of the Easter bunny (or Oschter Haws) migrated to America in the 1700s, accompanying German immigrants, many of whom settled in Pennsylvania. Over the past 200 years, the Easter bunny has become the most commercially recognized symbol of Easter in the United States. Other countries use other animals as the symbol of Easter, such as the cuckoo (in Switzerland).
In legend, the Easter bunny, also called the Easter hare and the spring bunny, brings baskets filled with colored eggs, candy, and sometimes toys to the homes of children on the night before Easter, in much the same way as Santa Claus is said to deliver presents on Christmas Eve. The Easter Bunny will either put the baskets in a designated place or hide them somewhere in the house or garden for the children to find when they wake up in the morning, giving rise to the tradition of the Easter egg hunt. Obviously, none of this comes from the Bible.
Should Christian parents allow their children to participate in traditional activities that refer to the Easter bunny? This is a question both parents and church leaders struggle with. There is nothing essentially evil about the Easter bunny. What is important is our focus. If our focus is on Christ and not the Easter bunny, our children will understand that, like Santa Claus, the Easter bunny is merely a symbol. Easter should be a time to reflect upon and celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of conscience (Romans 14:5). There is nothing essentially evil about painting and hiding eggs and having children search for them. What is important is our focus. If our focus is on Christ, our children can be taught to understand that the eggs are just a fun game. Children should know the true meaning of the day, and parents and the church have a responsibility to teach the true meaning. In the end, participation in Easter egg hunts and other secular traditions must be left up to the discretion of parents.