The Timeline of Easter Traditions -
Easter is one of the two times a year when the secular and spiritual world collide - what began as the holiest of Christian holy days is now nearly as well known for things like candy and rabbits and new clothes as it is for its spiritual meanings. To me, the spiritual aspect of Easter has always been the most important, but I never saw a problem with the eggs and rabbits or the other "secular" aspects and icons of Easter, even after well-meaning people told me that many of them were co-opted from ancient pre-Christian cultures. After all, you could say the same thing about some of our Christmas traditions, and no one to my knowledge has gone to Hell for bringing evergreens into their home in December.
by Paul Race, from Family Christmas Online™
When I started my research into Easter traditions, I thought it would be like documenting the history of traditions associated with Christmas or Thanksgiving or Valentine's Day or Groundhog Day. The one thing I didn't expect was to find so much obvious misinformation about the history of Easter celebrations, not just on Wikipedia and other supposedly authoritative web pages, but even in century-old reference works that I would trust under most circumstances.
So a task that should be relatively simple, like discovering when and where the Easter Bunny first appeared, turned out to require a "History Detective" approach. Fortunately, as a former history textbook writer and editor, I have some experience with this sort of thing. For example, I know the value of source documents and fact-checking, as well as the danger of "urban legends" - "facts" that "everyone knows," but which are actually untrue.
One huge problem is that the so-called reference works all say the same things, but few of them refer to any source material to substantiate their assertions. When one does list a source document, the source often says the exact opposite of what the reference work says it does. It's almost as if someone in the chain once said "This document proves such-and-such," and everyone else repeated the reference without bothering to check it out for themselves.
In fact, the so-called reference works are so consistent, even in their mistakes, that I can only suppose that they're all copying from each other, with no more attempt at scholarship than changing the sentence structure so they can't be accused of direct plagiarism. When you try to get at the evidence behind these "common knowledge" assertions, you quickly learn that what "everybody knows" on most of these subjects is either unsupported by evidence, improbable, or flat-out wrong.
So the references might claim that such and such a practice goes back to "the Dark Ages," but the earliest historical reference anyone cites only take it back to the 1600s. Or that such-and-such a pagan mythology goes back before the time of Christ, but no historical document exists that would place it any earlier than 1835, or - in one case - 1987.
Please understand, I would have no trouble, say, recognizing the pagan origins of some Easter practice if historical records supported it. I do that - and more - in my articles on Christmas. But once you get past the "vicious cycle" of writers copying inaccurate material from each other so much that it becomes accepted as fact, there is no historical evidence that ties any current mode of Easter celebration to any pre-Christian religion or culture.
To the best of my knowledge, the timeline below represents, not what "everybody knows" about Easter traditions, but what the historical record, especially source documents, actually support.
On the other hand, the dates on some things are still "fuzzy," meaning there's enough evidence to have a general idea of when some practice started but it's hard to pinpoint the year, or sometimes even the decade.
In the timeline below, when I say "by" such and such a date, that means that I have reason to believe a practice started earlier - perhaps centuries earlier - but I used the earliest date I could safely guarantee, based on historical records and reasonable conclusions. For example, we know Christianity reached Britain by 300 AD, because Patricius was raised in a Christian home. So I say "by 300AD," even though most historians relate that Christianity "probably" first reached Britain by 100AD.
In some cases, I say, "about" such and such a date to place an event in the most likely decade, with a possibility of error of maybe two decades in either direction. That doesn't mean I haven't done my research, only that the historical evidence I could find was incomplete or contradictory, so I've reconciled it as well as I could.
You Can Help
Once you get into the timeline, you may decide that it's wrong, because you will likely encounter some amazingly late dates for some events that you have been told happened centuries earlier. If this timeline is wrong, I'm sincerely hoping you will help me fix it. My goal is to push every date as far back in time as the historical record justifies. So, if you have or know of historical evidence that pushes the date of anything on this page earlier, I want to know about it. Please contact
Here's a hint, though - a modern reference work that provides an earlier date for any of these events without providing any evidence or sources doesn't count. There are hundreds of those - don't ask me how I know.
- 27-30 AD: Jesus' crucifixion, during Passover week. This is followed by reports of His resurrection, and - several weeks later - the founding of a rapidly growing church in Jerusalem.
Although almost all of the early Christians are Jewish, they soon begin meeting to worship on Sunday, in honor of the Resurrection.
- 30-90AD: Led by believers who believe that Jesus is God, and who claim to have seen Him after his resurrection, the church spreads into North Africa, Central Europe, and Western Asia.
- By about 180 AD (probably decades earlier): The church is celebrating Jesus' resurrection each year, trying to follow the Lunar calendar by which the date of Passover is calculated by the Jews. They call this celebration "Pasch," after the Passover feast they are attempting to sync up with.
New members in Eastern Europe and Western Asia take their first communion on or within a week of Pasch, wearing all white - a tradition that Roman Catholic girls still follow today (although some claim that this practice was "borrowed" from Western European pagan cultures which do not even appear in history until centuries later).
- By 300 AD: Christianity has spread to the Britons - the Celtic people of Britain before and during the Roman occupation. For a time the British church retains close ties to the continental chuch. It's probably safe to assume that their celebrations of the Resurrection mirror those on the continent.
- About 430 AD: The church spreads to Ireland, where we know the Irish celebrated the Resurrection. Both the British and Irish Christians would have called that holy day something like "Pasch," with only regional language differences. The name "Easter" doesn't arrive in the British Isles until the "Saxon invasion," centuries after the Resurrection was first celebrated there.
- About 450-600 AD: After the Roman Legions are withdrawn, Teutonic invaders, including Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, overwhelm and somewhat displace the Celtic Britons.
Soon after the "Saxon invasion" of Britain has begun, continental and Irish Christians begin evangelizing the invaders.
In the meantime, though, the Irish church is somewhat cut off from the continental church. The Irish church calendar gets out of sync with the Roman church calendar. So they are soon celebrating Pasch according to a different schedule than the Roman church.
- 601 AD: Pope Gregory writes to a missionary trying to reach the Saxons who had settled in Britain. Nowhere does the letter urge the Christians to usurp pagan practices and festival dates, as many claim it does. (For the text of the letter, click here).
- By 600 AD: The Roman church's regulations for Lent include avoiding eggs for 40 days before Pasch. Gregory wrote this about the Lenten "fast" some time before his death in 604AD.
We abstain from flesh meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.
Christians begin hard-boiling eggs that are laid during the last week of Lent to preserve them until the feast day.
At some point, Christians in the Eastern reaches of the church begin dyeing the hardboiled eggs that were going to be eaten on Easter sunday. (Unfortunately, I can not find definitive proof of an early date for this, but it is apparent that the tradition of colored eggs spread across Europe from the Eastern church, where it still flourishes.)
- 697 AD: The Irish church rejoined the Roman-led continental church. One of the points they had to compromise on was when to celebrate the Resurrection.
- 725 AD: The Saxon priest Bede mentioned that the Saxon name for April, Eosturmonath, came from an ancient Saxon goddess Eostre. He goes on to explain that the Saxons
. . . designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.
By "new rite," Bede is referring to Christianity and its celebration of the Resurrection, which is new to the recently-converted Saxons, but which actually reached the British Isles centuries before the Saxons did.
Though Bede establishes Eostre's name and implies that she was worshipped in the spring, no other historical evidence that the Saxons ever worshipped such a deity has ever come to light. In fact, lack of substantiating evidence causes Bede's statement on the topic to be mistrusted by historians for over a thousand years.
- 1066 AD: French-speaking invaders conquer England. For some time after, both "Pasques" (the old French term) and "Easter" (the Saxon term) are applied to celebrations of the Resurrection. In addition, both terms occasionally referred to an 8- to 10-day period surrounding the holy day itself - what Bede has earlier called the "Paschal season."
- By mid-1600s: German Lutherans are hiding colored eggs for their children to find, telling their children that hares bring (or lay) the eggs. (This is as far back as I can trace the "Osterhase," the ancestor of our "Easter Bunny." Pasch egg rolls may have begun before this, but I have trouble documenting an early date for them. There is no historical record that either the "Pasch Hare" or "Pasch egg rolls" appeared before the Reformation either on the continent, or in the British Isles.
- About 1610: Pope Paul V gives his blessing to eating eggs as a commemoration of the Resurrection:
Bless, O Lord! we beseech thee, this thy creature of eggs, that it may become a wholesome sustenance to thy faithful servants, eating it in thankfulness to thee on account of the resurrection of the Lord.
It is probable that he is giving his blessing to what was already a widespread practice, because the Lenten prohibition of eggs came about a thousand years earlier, and by 1610, eating hardboiled eggs on Easter had become a longstanding Christian tradition.
- By 1800: Massive migrations of Germans to North America have brought along many German holiday customs, including the Christmas tree, Groundhog Day, and the Osterhase (Easter Hare).
Because cottontail rabbits far outnumber hares in North America, the "Easter Hare" soon becomes the "Easter Bunny."
- 1835: Fairy tale compiler Jacob Grimm reexamines Bede's comment about Eostre. Based on comparisons between Saxon and other Teutonic languages, Grimm invents a German equivalent of Eostre and names her Ostara.
Grimm also proposes that Eostre and Ostara were probably goddesses of spring. Then he goes on to propose that most of the ways Christians celebrate the Resurrection were actually borrowed from ancient, pre-Christian cultures. (Unfortunately for Grimm's hypothesis, no historical support for such claims has ever been found, though a great deal has been fabricated.)
- 1835-1920: Many other writers report Grimm's unsupported suppositions as fact. Eventually Eostre, Ostara, and their presumed "backstories" find their way into "serious" reference books. Unfortunately, this includes Grimm's unsupported claims that most European celebrations of the Resurrection were really stolen from early pagan celebrations.
- Before 1900: Chocolate bunnies are being made and consumed in large quantities in Germany. A mid-1800s attempt by Whitman chocolate to market them in North America falters. After 1900, chocolate bunnies grow in popularity in North America as well.
- 1902: Beatrix Potter's storybook Peter Rabbit is published by Frederick Warne & Co., giving it a much wider circulation than Potter's independent printing of the same book in 1901. Peter Rabbit is not an Easter story, but it attaches the name "Peter" to rabbits in popular culture.
The book was not initially copyrighted in North America, allowing hundreds of printings and spinoffs.
- About 1941: Chocolate bunnies in the United States become hollow, due to cocoa rationing. After the war, they stay that way, because they're cheaper to make and the adults who buy most of them for their children don't really care if the kids get all that extra fat and sugar or not.
- 1949: Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins write the song "Here Comes Peter Cottontail," which was soon recorded by singing cowboy actor Gene Autry. The song title combines two character names from Peter Rabbit (Cottontail and Peter), causing many people to connect Potter's storybook character with "Easter Bunnies" in general. Eventually the marketeers of chocolate bunnies begin labeling their products "Peter Rabbit," in defiance of any potential copyright or trademark issues, but since the product lines come and go so fast, no one at Warnke's ever seems to notice.
- 1950-1990: Taking the reference books' articles on Eostre and Ostara at face value, North American Neo-Pagans, and other "New Age" groups adopt Eostre into their pantheon. Activists within the group begin publishing articles claiming that Easter is really a pagan holiday whose themes, dates, and practices were usurped by Christians.
Leaders of certain hyperlegalist churches come across the (mistaken) claims that Easter eggs and Easter Bunnies have pagan origins. They condemn both, not only for being "pagan," but also for detracting from the "true meaning of Easter" (which some attempt to rename "Resurrection Sunday." (See our article on "Why Our Culture Needs Santa Claus (and the Easter Bunny)" for our thoughts on how "secular iconography" actually protects the spiritual meanings of both Christmas and Easter.)
- 1987-1990: Writer Sarah Ban Breathnach makes the totally fictitious claims that "Easter . . . originates from an ancient pagan festival that the Saxons observed (long before the birth of Christ)" and that ancient Saxon housewives invented coloring and rolling Easter eggs. Ban Breathnach also publishes the first documented appearance of the Eostre bird-bunny story. (Supposedly Eostre got mad at bird and changed it into a rabbit, but it could still lay eggs.)
- 2002: Children's story author Jean-Andrew Dickmann retells Breathnach's bird-bunny story in Cricket Magazine. In Dickmann's version, Eostre changes the bird into a rabbit as an act of compassion. From there, the "bird-bunny" myth works its way into many other anthologies and publications, all of which claim that it is centuries, if not millennia, old.
- Since 2002: Some Neo-Pagans and New-Agers adopt the bird-bunny myth into their canon.
The Internet overflows each spring with Neo-Pagan articles claiming that "Easter is Not a Christian Holiday." Many of these articles are published on pseudo-news sites that never fact-check their contributors, like the Huffington Post.
Hyperlegalistic churches continue to condemn Easter eggs and Easter Bunnies as "pagan" (or - to use their catch-all name for anything they don't see the value in - "satanic").
Most mainstream churches forego or abandon attempts to replace the term "Easter" with "Resurrection Sunday," realizing that adding new terminology to prove an inconsequential (and possibly misinformed) point just confuses people.
The majority of churches - even theologically conservative churches - go back to focusing their attention on celebrating the Resurrection and viewing the "less sacred" trappings of the holiday as relatively harmless fun.
This outline has gone through dozens of revisions, as I find more sources supporting or disproving various points. I am trying to track down more actual source documents (as opposed to reference works that quote other reference works that quote other reference works without ever identifying historical sources for their "information"). I would like especially like to see source documents that establish earlier dates than I've presented for:
- Hard boiled eggs eaten on Pasch/Easter
- Colored eggs being hidden or given as gifts as part of any springtime ritual or festival in Europe
- Any facts about Eostre-worship recorded within a thousand years of when it is presumed to have occurred.
- Any evidence of hares or rabbits reportedly bringing, hiding, or laying eggs in any culture before 1600.
- Any existence of Ostara before 1835
- Any appearance of the "bird-bunny" myth before 1987.
If you've read my Christmas articles, you know I'm not shy about admitting that the church deliberately timed Christmas to synch up with pagan winter solstice festivals. Or that ancient Celts brought evergreens into their homes long before Christians did. If you have evidence to dispute anything in these articles, I would be very glad to see it. I would rather have to go back and rewrite every article in this section than start another round of "urban legends" just as false as the ones I'm trying to dispel.
In other words, if you have any corrections, additions, recommendations, etc., I'll be very glad to see them.
May God bless you and your loved ones with grace and protection this season.
- Paul Race
For more information about Easter, Easter traditions, and related subjects:
- Introduction to Easter - A brief introduction and links to our other articles.
- Easter: Frequently Asked Questions - Want to know why Holy Week wanders around the calendar? What the Stations of the Cross are? Why we call Easter "Easter" when almost every other culture calls it "Pasch"? And many more.
- The Timeline of the Resurrection - If you read the gospel accounts one at a time, they can be confusing. This shows the timeline, as most people see it.
- Why Easter is Sacred to Me
- The Myth of the Myth of the Easter Bunny - Where did the Easter Bunny really come from and how did it get attached to so many urban legends?
- Timeline of Easter Traditions - how far back in time do Easter Eggs, or the Easter Bunny go? Did the church really start celebrating the Resurrection as late as the fourth century AD, as certain writers would have you believe? Was the ancient Teutonic deity some folk claim was the original source of all of our doctrine and celebrations of the Resurrection really - for all intents and purposes - invented eighteen centuries after Jesus' crucifixion?
- Eostre: Frequently Asked Questions - Why do we "know" so much about Jacob Grimm's hypothetical ancient Germanic goddess today when all we have is a single allusion ancient writings, and research has turned up no new facts since 725AD?
- Bede's Statement about the Saxon Name for Pasch (Easter) - A brief look at the only mention of anyone named anything like Eostre or Ostara in anywhere before 1835.
- Jacob Grimm - A brief look at Grimm's research and why this fairy-tale collector and linguist invented a hypothetical "ancient" Germanic goddess in 1935 and dubbed her Ostara (the German equivalent of the Saxon "Eostra").
- Pope Gregory's Letter to Mellitus - a look Pope Gregory's 601AD letter to a missionary trying to reach the Saxons in Britain. We list it here only because so many writers misrepresent its contents.
- To My Pagan Friends at Easter - A side note to folks who need to believe in something.
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