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Can non-Christians celebrate Easter?

Can secular families celebrate Easter, or is it strictly a holiday for observant Christians? This question can cause controversy because two central facts about Easter point toward opposite answers: Easter is the most important holy day in the Christian calendar, celebrating the central Christian teaching that Jesus Christ rose from the dead; yet many of our modern Easter celebrations reflect non-Christian traditions.

The biggest clue to Easter's pagan origins is in the name: "Easter" apparently comes from "Eastre" (or "Eostre") , a Saxon goddess of fertility and spring. This pagan origin of the name "Easter" was explained as far back as the eighth century CE by the greatest of Anglo-Saxon scholars, the Venerable Bede. Many scholars trace the name back even further, to the cradle of civilization in Mesopotamia, suggesting that the Saxon goddess Eastre was derived from the goddess Ishtar. Ishtar was the principal god of the Babylonian civilization. Like Eastre, Ishtar was associated with sex, love and fertility.

The festival of the goddess Eastre was celebrated on the day of the spring equinox. The modern Christian Easter is also tied to the vernal equinox, being celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the 20th of March.

The celebration of springtime fertility and new life explains the two most popular Easter traditions: the Easter bunny and Easter eggs.

The Easter bunny was originally a hare, not a rabbit. (Hares are generally larger than rabbits and give birth out in the open, rather than in burrows.) Hares have long been associated with fecundity and spring friskiness. The phrases "hare brained" and "mad as a March hare" comes from the excited behavior of hares during their spring mating season. And, like rabbits, hares are thought of as exceptionally fertile, giving birth to frequent large litters.

Eggs are also an obvious symbol of fecundity and the new life that comes with the arrival of spring. Rituals involving brightly painted eggs appear to have been common in many ancient religions, including the Babylonian worship of Ishtar.

Many cultures marked the spring equinox by celebrating the resurrection of life after the desolation of winter. So, just as with Halloween and Christmas, the Christian Easter may appear to be nothing more than a thin veneer of Christianity placed over a traditional pagan celebration of the changing seasons. But more than Christmas and Halloween, Easter includes a strong Jewish inheritance and its date in the calendar has some Biblical justification.

Most scholars emphasize the original relation of Easter to the Jewish festival of Passover (or "Pesach", from which is derived "Pascha", the Orthodox Christian name for Easter and the root of the word for Easter in most European languages other than English). Based on the New Testament accounts, the Last Supper, shared by Jesus and his disciples before his crucifixion, is thought of as a Passover meal. As well as the common date around the spring equinox, Easter and Passover share some of the springtime symbolism of rebirth as well. Passover celebrates the Biblical tale of the survival of the Jews during their captivity in Egypt, and their rebirth as a people as they escape slavery for a new life in the Promised Land.

So can the non-religious celebrate Easter? Absolutely! While secular families do not belong in an Easter service at church, most of the other festivities around Easter are secular celebrations with ancient pagan or modern commercial origins.

At Easter (at least in the northern hemisphere) we celebrate nature's new year of growth, after the cold, dark days of winter. As the days lengthen and warm, the sap begins to rise, green leaves shoot forth, and animals are mating and giving birth. Long before the Christian Easter, people celebrated a spring festival by rejoicing over the rebirth of life in the fields and forests. There is no reason why we can't continue this traditional secular celebration of the changing season.

Religious or not, you can exchange chocolate eggs, or paint hard-boiled eggs on Saturday and then let your children spend Sunday morning hunting for them all over the house and garden. You can also bake cakes shaped like bunnies, or eat a traditional family roast of ham or lamb.

Or why not create your own festivities celebrating the spring equinox. Some ideas to get you started are available here. If you live in the southern hemisphere, you can celebrate the autumn equinox with these ideas:

--Matt Cherry