In Depth

Fact Check: Is Easter a Christian or pagan festival?

Cadbury's and the National Trust have been accused of 'airbrushing faith' out of an egg hunt, but is the Church right to be so angry?

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Last year, Cadbury's and the National Trust found themselves in hot water after accusations that they removed the word "Easter" from their annual egg hunt.

Church leaders say the two organisations were "airbrushing faith" out of the festival.

But some argue that Easter is actually a pagan holiday and owes its name to the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre.

So what are the origins of Easter?

What is Easter?

Christians celebrate Easter as the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion. It is the oldest Christian holiday and the most important day of the church year, with the religion being based on the events of the crucifixion and resurrection.

Celebrations differ around the world. In the US, they give painted eggs and baskets of sweets, while British children go on hunts for chocolate eggs left by the Easter bunny and the Greeks eat a traditional baked bread called tsoureki with red-dyed eggs.

Where did the name "Easter" come from?

No one is quite sure.  The Venerable Bede, in the seventh century, claimed it is derived from the name of the pagan goddess Eostre, who is associated with spring and fertility. However, according to Christianity Today, Ronald Hutton, professor of medieval history at Oxford, argues this interpretation is not to be trusted. "It falls into a category of interpretations which Bede admitted to be his own, rather than generally agreed or proven fact," he says.

Other medieval scholars have also thrown doubt on Bede's claims, noting that in most other European languages, the festival has names derived from the Greek word "pascha", from "pesach", the Hebrew word for Passover. Easter is therefore now commonly thought of as the Christian Passover festival.

So does it have any Pagan roots?

Many of the traditions and symbols we now associate with Easter, such as eggs and rabbits, do have their origins in pre-Christian pagan rituals.

The Encyclopedia of Religion says: "The egg symbolizes new life breaking through the apparent death (hardness) of the eggshell."

As for the rabbit, it was "known as an extraordinarily fertile creature, and hence it symbolized the coming of spring".

Philippe Walter, professor of medieval French literature at the University of Grenoble III, says in his book Christian Mythology that "in the process of the Christianization of pagan religions", it was easy to associate the pagan festival that celebrated "the passage from the death of winter to the life of springtime" with Jesus's resurrection.

It was a key step in introducing "Christian commemorations" to the pagan calendar, he says, smoothing the way to mass conversion.

What about egg hunts such as the National Trust's?

According to History.com, German immigrants moving to Pennsylvania in the 1700s had the tradition of an egg-laying hare called "Osterhase" or "Oschter Haws". Their children also made nests in which this creature could lay its coloured eggs.

Eventually, says the website, the custom spread across the US and to the UK, where the fabled rabbit's deliveries expanded to include chocolate, sweets and gifts, while decorated baskets replaced nests.

Easter bunnies are first mentioned in the 1682 book De Ovis Paschalibus (About Easter Eggs), by Georg Franck von Franckenau, which told of the German tradition of a hare bringing Easter eggs for the children.

So who's right?

Most Christians agree that much of today's Easter iconography does not have its roots in the religion.

"Yes, much of the history and symbols of Easter didn't get their roots in the resurrection, which is what we celebrate each Easter," says Christian blog Thought Company, but "that doesn't mean they don't remind us of why we celebrate the holiday".

Easter can mean many things to many people, says Heather McDougall in The Guardian:"Today, we see secular cultures celebrating the spring equinox, whilst religious culture celebrates the resurrection."

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