Note: A great deal of the information concerning the pagan goddess, Eostre, comes from the sight first linked below.
There is today a lot of confusion about Easter. This is the case in America and I am willing to bet it is also the case in most countries where the primary language is Germanic. The confusion is understandable. We live in an age of secularism. Christianity for the most part has been essentially disregarded and ignored. This holds true even for a great many people who identify themselves as Christian because so many Christians listen to the wisdom of the world rather than God. Coupled with this is the problem of the name of the feast itself: Easter.
The word “Easter” comes from the name of a pagan goddess, Eostre, for whom we know very little (see here). The earliest written record of this goddess comes not from a pagan, but from a Christian saint, the Venerable Bede. He does not tell us much about her. He simply says that her month corresponds with April and for this reason it came to be identified with the Paschal season which usually begins in April. He goes on to say that the Anglo-Saxons called “the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.” He does not say whether calling the new rite (Pascha) by the name of the old observance (Easter) was an evangelizing tactic of Christian missionaries or whether it was an organic cultural expression of the Anglo-Saxon people. Both possibilities are plausible and neither has any bearing on our present problem today.
The problem that confronts us today is that many people think the Christian feast of Easter has its origins in the pagan festival of Easter, that Christians stole this feast from pagans and Christianized it for the purpose of proselytizing. In other words, the argument is made that the Christian Easter is a sham and the true pagan feast of Easter needs to be reclaimed. At best this reclamation involves a return to pagan religious practices and beliefs. At worst it is used as an excuse to have sex in honor of a supposed fertility goddess. Superficially, the argument seems to make a lot of sense and is quite persuasive. After all these two religious traditions use the same name for a spring festival and one obviously pre-dates the other. However, for anyone who actually knows the history of the Christian feast of Easter the argument is utter nonsense.
The first thing to be aware of is that the original name of the Christian feast is not Easter; it is Pascha, from the Hebrew pesah meaning Passover. Not only is this the original name for the feast, but it is the name that is still used by the majority of Christians throughout the world who do not speak a Germanic language. With this one little fact of history the supposed connection between Easter/Pascha and the goddess Eostre immediately begins to crumble. The feast was called Pascha by the earliest Christians because the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ was seen by them (and is seen by Christians today) as the fulfillment of the Jewish feast of Passover. This is why we refer to Jesus as the Paschal Lamb and refer to the mystery of His Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension as the Paschal Mystery.
There is also ample evidence that the celebration of Pascha began at least in the 2nd century. Figures from the Church who testify to this include St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Pope St. Victor, and St. Melito of Sardis. Evidence that the feast of Pascha comes from the Jewish Passover and not a pagan fertility festival also comes from the 2nd century. The first controversy surrounding the feast of Pascha was a dispute concerning its date. There were at that time some Christians (called Quartodecimans) who dated the feast of Pascha in accordance with the Jewish dating of Passover. This meant that Pascha was not always celebrated on Sunday, the day our Lord rose from the dead, and sometimes may have even been celebrated before the spring equinox. Why was this a problem for people such as Pope St. Victor? It was (and is) desirable that Christians celebrate such a great solemnity as one, rather than on different dates. However, even more important was the fact that the Quartodecimans where keeping a Christian solemnity in accordance to Jewish tradition. They were looking to the type found in the old Law rather than looking to the actual historical event that Pascha celebrates: the Resurrection of our Lord which happened on a Sunday in the season of spring. This is why Sunday is called the Lord’s Day and why the first day of creation is also the first day of the new creation. This is the essence of Pascha/Easter: it is the Resurrection of our Lord victorious over death in Who we may be raised to new life and Who is the fulfillment of the Jewish Passover. In light of the historical evidence the assertion that the Christian feast of Easter comes from the celebration of a pagan fertility goddess simply as no foundation.
So what are Christians and especially catechists to do? I do not believe it is enough to simply correct people or that it is enough to actually teach our children the true roots and history of the solemnity of solemnities. I propose that we ditch entirely the name “Easter” and return to an exclusive use of Pascha. While the word “Easter” may have meant something to Anglo-Saxons more than 1,000 years ago and served as a legitimate use of inculturation, it means nothing to Americans today. The cultural connection has been lost and is creating grave misunderstanding even among Christians. All of this because of name. Changing the name is the first step in returning to a right understanding of Pascha.