So Christians in ancient Anglo-Saxon and Germanic areas called their Passover holiday what they did—doubtless colloquially at first—simply because it occurred around the time of Eosturmonath/Ostarmanoth. A contemporary analogy can be found in the way Americans sometimes refer to the December period as “the holidays” in connection with Christmas and Hanukkah, or the way people sometimes speak about something happening “around Christmas,” usually referring to the time at the turn of the year. The Christian title “Easter,” then, essentially reflects its general date in the calendar, rather than the Paschal festival having been re-named in honor of a supposed pagan deity.
Anyone encountering anti-Christian polemics will quickly come up against the accusation that a major festival practiced by Christians across the globe—namely, Easter—was actually borrowed or rather usurped from a pagan celebration. I often encounter this idea among Muslims who claim that later Christians compromised with paganism to dilute the original faith of Jesus.
The argument largely rests on the supposed pagan associations of the English and German names for the celebration (Easter in English and Ostern in German). It is important to note, however, that in most other European languages, the name for the Christian celebration is derived from the Greek word Pascha, which comes from pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover. Easter is the Christian Passover festival.
Of course, even if Christians did engage in contextualization—expressing their message and worship in the language or forms of the local people—that in no way implies doctrinalcompromise. Christians around the world have sought to redeem the local culture for Christ while purging it of practices antithetical to biblical norms. After all, Christians speak of “Good Friday,” but they are in no way honoring the worship of the Norse/Germanic queen of the gods Freya by doing so.
But, in fact, in the case of Easter the evidence suggests otherwise: that neither the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection nor its name are derived from paganism.
A celebration with ancient roots
The usual argument for the pagan origins of Easter is based on a comment made by the Venerable Bede (673-735), an English monk who wrote the first history of Christianity in England, and who is one of our main sources of knowledge about early Anglo-Saxon culture. In De temporum ratione (On the Reckoning of Time, c. 730), Bede wrote this:
In olden times the English people—for it did not seem fitting that I should speak of other nations’ observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation’s—calculated their months according to the course of the Moon. Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans, [the months] take their name from the Moon, for the Moon is called mona and the month monath. The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath … 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.
The first question, therefore, is whether the actual Christian celebration of Easter is derived from a pagan festival. This is easily answered. The Nordic/Germanic peoples (including the Anglo-Saxons) were comparative latecomers to Christianity. Pope Gregory I sent a missionary enterprise led by Augustine of Canterbury to the Anglo-Saxons in 596/7. The forcible conversion of the Saxons in Europe began under Charlemagne in 772. Hence, if “Easter” (i.e. the Christian Passover festival) was celebrated prior to those dates, any supposed pagan Anglo-Saxon festival of “Eostre” can have no significance. And there is, in fact, clear evidence that Christians celebrated an Easter/Passover festival by the second century, if not earlier. It follows that the Christian Easter/Passover celebration, which originated in the Mediterranean basin, was not influenced by any Germanic pagan festival.