What Is the True Meaning of Easter? Why Is it Celebrated?

What is Easter? Learn more about the Christian meaning of Easter, its connection to a pagan spring festival, and why it's celebrated today!

Updated Apr 01, 2024
What Is the True Meaning of Easter? Why Is it Celebrated?

What is Easter? Easter is one of the central holidays, or Holy Days, of Christianity. It honors the Resurrection of Jesus three days after His death by crucifixion. For many Christian churches, Easter is the joyful conclusion to the Lenten season of devoted prayer, fasting, and penitence.

Along with the Nativity of Christ, Easter is one of the most important celebrations in the Christian calendar. It is when Christians glorify and give thanks for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. After His crucifixion, death, and burial, Christ rose from the grave three days later. By this, He conquered death and redeemed us from sin.

This year, Easter will be on March 31st, 2024. Discover the full holiday timeline for Holy Week 2024.

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As we'll explore in this article, the Easter holy day did coincide with some pagan holidays. Because the church didn't celebrate Easter until a certain point, owing to the persecution the church experienced for the first few centuries, the Christian creation of the holiday did happen around the same time as another pagan celebration was in full swing. Nevertheless, we strive to celebrate God's victory over the grave on this holiday. In this article, we'll explore the meaning of the word Easter, pagan associations of the holiday, and what the holiday means for Christians today.

What is the Celebration of Easter?

Easter is a yearly Christian celebration honoring the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is traditionally observed on the first Sunday following the initial full moon after the vernal equinox, with its timing determined by specific tables aligned with the Gregorian calendar in Western churches and the Julian calendar in Orthodox churches. It is also known as Easter Sunday, the day dedicated to commemorating this festival.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia gives biblical references to "Easter," stating,

"The word does not properly occur in Scripture, although the King James Version has it in Acts 12:4 where it stands for Passover, as it is rightly rendered in the Revised Version (British and American). There is no trace of Easter celebration in the New Testament, though some would see an intimation of it in 1 Corinthians 5:7. The Jewish Christians in the early church continued to celebrate the Passover, regarding Christ as the true paschal lamb, and this naturally passed over into a commemoration of the death and resurrection of our Lord or an Easter feast."

Get your free Easter Prayer and Scripture Guide to reflect on the meaning and importance of Jesus' resurrection.

What Does "Easter" Mean and Where Did it Come From?

According to Easton's Bible Dictionary, the name “Easter” was derived from “Eostre,” “originally a Saxon word (Eostre), denoting a goddess of the Saxons, in honor of whom sacrifices were offered about the time of the Passover.”

Another probability is the Norse eostur, eastur, or ostara, which meant “the season of the growing sun” or “the season of new birth.” The word east comes from the same roots. In this case, easter would be linked to the changing of the season.

A more recent and complex explanation comes from the Christian background of Easter rather than the pagan. The early Latin name for the week of Easter was hebdomada alba or “white week,” while the Sunday after Easter day was called Dominica in albis from the white robes of those who had been newly baptized. The word alba is Latin, both for white and dawn.  People speaking Old High German made a mistake in their translation and used a plural word for dawn, ostarun, instead of a plural for white. From ostarun we get the German Ostern and the English Easter.

What Event Happened on Easter?

Easter is celebrated by Christians to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, as described in the New Testament of the Bible. According to Christian beliefs, Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, and three days later, on Easter Sunday, He rose from the dead, symbolizing victory over sin and death.

According to the New Testament accounts, Easter Sunday began with the dawn of a new day, following the sorrowful crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday. As the sun rose, the women who had followed Jesus, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, made their way to the tomb where Jesus had been laid. Upon arrival, they discovered the stone rolled away from the entrance and the tomb empty.

This momentous discovery was accompanied by the appearance of angels who proclaimed the astounding news: "He is not here; he has risen, just as he said" (Matthew 28:6). Overwhelmed with awe and wonder, the women rushed to share the incredible news with the disciples. Meanwhile, Jesus himself appeared to Mary Magdalene near the tomb, and later to other followers, including two disciples on the road to Emmaus and to the gathered disciples in Jerusalem.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday is the cornerstone of the Christian faith, signifying the fulfillment of God's plan for redemption and offering believers the promise of eternal life. It is a day of immense joy and hope, as Christians celebrate the victory of light over darkness, life over death, and the triumph of God's love for humanity. Easter Sunday serves as a profound reminder of the transformative power of faith and the enduring message of hope that resonates throughout the ages.

Easter is considered the most important and joyful celebration in the Christian liturgical calendar. It is a time for Christians to reflect on the significance of Jesus' sacrifice and the promise of eternal life. The resurrection is seen as a central doctrine of Christianity, emphasizing the hope and redemption offered through faith in Jesus Christ.

Why Do Christians Celebrate Easter?

The significance of Easter is Jesus Christ's triumph over death. His resurrection means the eternal life that is granted to all who believe in Him. The purpose of Easter also means the full confirmation of all that Jesus taught and preached during His three-year ministry. If He had not risen from the dead or simply died and not been resurrected, He would have been thought of as just another teacher or prophet. However, His resurrection rebuked all that and provided final and undeniable proof that He was the Son of God and that He had overcome death once and for all.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the core of the Christian gospel. Saint Paul says that if Christ is not raised from the dead, then our preaching and hope are in vain (1 Cor. 15:14). Certainly, without the resurrection, there would be no Christian preaching or faith. The apostles of Christ would have continued as the disheartened group, which the Gospel of John depicts as being in hiding for fear of the Jews. They were in total despair until they met the risen Christ (John 20:19). Then they touched Christ's wounds of the nails and the spear; they ate and drank with Him. The resurrection became the foundation of everything they said and did (Acts 2-4): “...for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39).

The resurrection affirms Jesus of Nazareth as the prophesied Messiah of Israel and the King and Lord of a new Jerusalem: a new heaven and a new earth.

Pagan Origins of 'Easter'

The celebration of Easter does have some connections to pre-Christian, pagan traditions, particularly in the symbolism associated with spring and fertility. The timing of Easter, for example, coincides with the arrival of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Many ancient cultures celebrated the arrival of spring as a time of renewal, growth, and fertility.

One notable pagan festival that shares some similarities with Easter is the festival of Eostre or Ostara. Eostre was a pagan goddess associated with spring and fertility, and her festival was celebrated around the vernal equinox. Some scholars suggest that the name "Easter" may have been derived from Eostre.

Additionally, certain symbols and customs associated with Easter, such as eggs and rabbits, have roots in pagan traditions. Eggs, for example, were often used as symbols of fertility and rebirth in various ancient cultures.

While there are pagan influences on the symbols and timing of Easter, the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ remains the central and primary focus of the holiday for Christians. Over time, as Christianity spread and absorbed local customs, some of these traditions became intertwined with the Easter celebration. It's important to note that the religious significance of Easter for Christians centers on the resurrection narrative from the New Testament.

Easter Bunny's Connection to Christianity

The origin of the Easter Bunny dates back to the 13th century in Germany.  The Germanic folk, known as the Teutons, worshiped pagan gods and goddesses. One such goddess was Eostra (otherwise known as Ostara or Ēostre). She was revered as the goddess of fertility and spring. The word “Easter” finds its etymology from the goddess’s name.

Due to its prolific breeding tendencies, the rabbit became a symbol for Eostra. In AD 595, Pope Gregory sent Roman monks to convert the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons, like German forefathers, celebrated Eostra. When converted, they accepted the celebration of Jesus Christ's resurrection at Easter while still continuing the celebration of spring renewal and the rabbit's symbolism. 

(excerpt from The Meaning and Origin of the Easter Bunny)

Symbolism of the Color Purple at Easter

To understand why the color purple became the color of Lent and Easter, we must first look at the color’s significance in ancient society. Purple dye was a prized commodity in antiquity because it was difficult to obtain. In particular, purple dye was obtained from harvesting certain marine snails.

In light of how labor-intensive it was to produce purple dye, purple apparel was very expensive and often only worn by kings, other royal members, or those with high-ranking authority. As such, the color purple became known as a mark of royalty and sovereignty.

The Roman soldiers who tortured Jesus during His Passion would’ve been well aware of the imperial symbolism behind the color purple. This is why, in mocking Jesus before His crucifixion, the soldiers dressed Jesus in a purple robe and put a crown of thorns on His head, proceeding to beat Him and yell, “Hail, king of the Jews!” (John 19:2-3).

In a further attempt to humiliate Jesus after the soldiers had removed the purple robe from Him, Pilate had a sign affixed to Jesus’ cross inscribed with the words, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19). This inscription is memorialized on today’s crucifixes by the letters INRI, which are the initials for “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in Latin — Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum.

In remembrance of the purple robe the Roman soldiers put on Jesus in mockery, churches display the color purple during Lent to mourn the emotional and physical anguish that Jesus underwent during His Passion and also to proclaim Him as the true King of Kings. In some churches, the clergy wear purple vestments, drape lecterns with purple cloths, and cover the front of altars with purple frontals.

(excerpt from Why is the Color Purple Associated With Easter?)

Easter Celebrations and Meaning Today

For Christians worldwide, the importance of Easter is praising and acknowledging Jesus Christ's resurrection from the dead and His glorious assurances of eternal life for all who believe in Him. While there are plenty of non-religious traditions, such as the easter bunny, baskets of candy, and Easter egg hunts, there are also meaningful traditions for Christians today. Some include:

  • Sunrise services - many churches meet at a special sunrise service time to celebrate the risen savior

  • Resurrection rolls are a cute way to teach children about the empty tomb of Jesus. Resurrection rolls are baked with a large marshmallow inside that disappears while baking, symbolizing the empty tomb of Jesus!

  • Easter Lilies can be found decorating churches and homes as a reminder of the purity of Jesus' sacrifice and the new life we have through his resurrection

Bible Verses about Easter and the Resurrection of Jesus

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead - 1 Peter 1:3 ESV

We celebrate Easter because this holiday recognizes that we can die to our old way of living and resurrect into our new life with Christ. Christianity does require a death to self. But the resurrection we experience in a spiritual sense and the resurrection of the body we have yet to experience give us ample cause for celebration.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, - John 11:25 ESV

We have full confidence that no matter what happens to us on this Earth, we can experience eternal joy with God in heaven. No wonder many brothers and sisters continue praising Jesus even when they experience persecution and martyrdom. Because we have a greater hope and promise than earthly life.

Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. - Romans 10:9

It is integral to our faith that we believe in the Resurrection. Our faith has no foundation if we don't believe Jesus rose again on that Easter Sunday.

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. - Romans 8:11

Because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” - Acts 17:31

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. - Romans 6:4

The Christian faith has many symbols. We often replicate the process Jesus underwent on the cross in a symbolic sense. We die to our old selves. We also are "buried" through the sacrament of baptism and experience a resurrection and new life in Christ. Christ gives us a new life holistically. We experience some of that new life during our time on Earth and look forward to experiencing the rest of the resurrection in Heaven.

For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. - Romans 14:9

We celebrate Easter because God lived the life we should've lived and died the death we deserved to die so that we could live. What a wonderful cause for celebration. That we can experience the resurrection with Him!

Read more: Easter Bible Verses and Scriptures to Celebrate the Resurrection of Christ

Easter Prayer

Almighty God, who through thine only-begotten Son Jesus Christ has overcome death and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s Resurrection may be raised from the death of sin by thy life-giving Spirit; through the same Jesus Christ, Our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen. - Book of Common Prayer

Christ is Risen: The world below lies desolate
Christ is Risen: The spirits of evil are fallen
Christ is Risen: The angels of God are rejoicing
Christ is Risen: The tombs of the dead are empty

Christ is Risen indeed from the dead,
Glory and power are His forever and ever.
- St. Hippolytus of Rome

Find more prayers for Easter Sunday to give thanks to God on this Holy day.

5 Ways to Say Happy Easter

  1. "May the joy of Easter fill your heart with renewed faith and happiness."
  2. "Christ is risen! Wishing you a blessed Easter filled with the light of His presence and the warmth of His love."
  3. "Hallelujah! May the miracle of Easter renew your spirit and guide you in faith, hope, and love.
  4. "As we celebrate the resurrection of our Savior, may His love and grace shine brightly in your life this Easter and always.
  5. "Wishing you a blessed Easter filled with the joy of knowing Christ's victory over sin and death."

Related Resource: Walk through the Easter Season with Us on Your Daily Bible Verse

Today’s Bible Verse: "Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover." (Luke 22:7-8)

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Easter - Crosswalk.com
HOLY PASCHA - oca.org

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