How Did Easter Become an Important Celebration
Easter is the most important event in the Christian calendar, as it reflects the resurrection (and thus salvation offered) by Christ for all those who accept him. While this is true to many Christians today, the story of Easter is complex and it is a period of celebration that is very ancient, having origins from pre-Christian periods. As with many other holidays, the early Catholic church often combined pre-Christian traditions and Christian ideals to make it easier for conversion and facilitate the rise of Christianity.
Origins of Easter
While there is no universal agreement, the term Easter may derive from the goddess Eostre, who is the goddess of spring and often associated with fertility. Traditionally, the spring equinox, when darkness and day are the same amount of time, was seen as a holy period that signified the coming time of plenty and the agricultural cycle. It is possible the goddess may connect to the ancient Near East, where the goddess Ishtar also had associations with fertility and was celebrated at about the same time as her significant holiday. Eostre was also associated with rabbits and hares, which seem to be retained as symbols for Easter, where in the pre-Christian tradition rabbits and hares symbolized new life, as these creatures reappeared after winter. Similarly, Christianity used these symbols of life in relation to the life that Jesus gave his followers.
Both in Near Eastern and ancient European traditions, the spring equinox was a time of religious festivals that focused on sexuality and fertility. The ancient Babylonians had a "sacred marriage" ceremony where the king would ritualistically have sex with a female representative of the goddess Ishtar. These rituals were seen as critical in continuing life as they allowed its rejuvenation after winter. Eostre seems to be associated with many Indo-European goddesses and as Indo-Europeans migrated from India and through Anatolia, it is possible the traditions of Eostre mixed or were influenced by or along with traditions of Ishtar.
Interestingly, for other European cultures, the term for Easter derives from Passover. In essence, it was the Northern European Germanic traditions that may have retained their older holiday names, while southern European or Latin and Greek influenced cultures utilized a new name after their conversions. It is also likely that the southern European cultures, which converted earlier than in Northern Europe, had more time to assimilate their older traditions with Christianity.