A Non-Christian Easter

A friend of mine asked me if we as non-Christians should celebrate Easter. They were concerned that celebrating a Christian holiday as a non-Christian was fundamentally hypocritical. But is Easter really as Christian as it seems? According to University of Sydney Professor, Carole Cusack, while it has indeed been observed as a Christian feast for more than a millennium, Easter has its origins in pagan festivals celebrating the spring.

Depending on which source you believe, and likely where you live in the world, Easter may have originated either from the Sumerian legend of Damuzi (Tammuz) and his wife, Inanna (Ishtar), an epic myth called “The Descent of Inanna” found inscribed on cuneiform clay tablets dating back to 2100 BC (Ancient Origins, 2020). Or The festival of Eostre, or Eostrae, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility (History.com, 2020).

Ostara by Johannes Gehrts (1884)

In the English-speaking world, “Easter takes its name from a pagan goddess Eostre, or Eostrae from Anglo-Saxon England at least according to St. Bede the Venerable, the 8th-century author of Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum” (ABC, 2017). It is also from this pagan festival that many of our easter traditions stem. Be it the ubiquitous easter bunny, the Easter eggs, or even the hot-cross buns. All of these non-Christian elements of the holiday stem from the pagan roots of the celebration of spring and fertility.

I was, therefore, able to tell my friend that they could celebrate Easter with a clear conscience. But it got me thinking, how should we who are neither pagans nor Christians celebrate this ancient holiday? To me, just as the Christians co-opted a pagan holiday to express and celebrate their beliefs, so should we.

Importantly to my thinking, Easter marks one of the two annual equinoxes. In the northern hemisphere, Easter marks the start of spring and the return of life, while in the southern hemisphere, it marks the start of autumn and the approach of winter. The second equinox, which takes place around September 23rd, is generally not celebrated and represents the opposite in each hemisphere.

Taken together, they seem to offer a representation of life and death which is illustrative of the human experience. Each one of us is born as our parents’ progress from the summer of their youth to the autumn of their maturity. The winter of their lives coincides with us having children of our own, bringing a figurative spring to their lives. This cycle of life and death is eternal, and its celebration could serve as a reminder of the cylindrical nature of life and death as well as the transience of life itself.

"Easter eggs, Poland" by Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Pol is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

So, this year, celebrate Easter as the celebration of life which it has always been. But perhaps consider tucking away a few eggs for September as well just to remind yourself that life, like the year, has its seasons and to give yourself another reason to stop and spend some quality time with your family.

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ABC. (2017, 5 15). Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-15/the-origins-of-easter-from-pagan-roots-to-chocolate-eggs/8440134

Ancient Origins. (2020, 5 9). Retrieved from Ancient Origins: https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/ancient-pagan-origins-easter-001571

History.com. (2020, 5 9). Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/history-of-easter

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