Growing up in an evangelical church, I would always hear that the Easter celebration, like Christmas, was borrowed from a pagan holiday. This is why ChristianHistory.net’s Anthony McRoy’s article “Was Easter Borrowed from a Pagan Holiday?” stirred my curiosity.
McRoy’s thesis is that Easter, name and celebration, was not pagan in origin. The assertion that the word Easter is of pagan origin is largely based on the English and German names for the celebration: Easter in English and Ostern in German. However, in most of the world, especially in Europe, the name for the Christian celebration is derived from the Greek word Pascha, which comes from pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover.
About 730, The Venerable Bede, an English monk and historian, wrote that the month of April used to be called Eosturmonath named after the fertility goddess Eostre, in whose honor feasts were celebrated in that month. So it was him who first asserted that the Easter celebration during the Eosturmonath was borrowed from pagan feasts in celebration of Eostre.
McRoy says this is an impossible theory because the resurrection of Christ was celebrated as early as the second century A. D., long before the Nordic/Germanic and Anglo-Saxon tribes were evangelized in the 7th-8th centuries. Thus, the Easter/Passover celebration can never have originated from any Germanic pagan festival.
McRoy also cites research which concludes that there is no such goddess named Eostre in Germanic and Anglo-Saxon cultures. In fact, research also shows that there is no such festival in March or April, and that English months were never named after deities.
So where did the name Easter come from? One theory is that the Latin phrase in albis (“in white”), a reference to Easter week, crept into the Germanic language as eostarum, or “dawn.” Another theory suggests that Eosturmonath simply meant “the month of openings,” or “month of beginnings,” which makes sense because it is the month of early spring.
Thus, Christians in ancient Anglo-Saxon and Germanic areas called their Passover holiday Easter because it occurred around the time of Eosturmonath, and not because it was a pagan holiday renamed the Christian Pascha.
So, as Christians, we should not be afraid to greet other Christians “Happy Easter!” since with it we celebrate a most joyous event in redemptive history.