From Resurrection Sunday to Easter: How Ancient German and Christian Celebrations Merged at Easter

Originally posted March 27th, 2012

 

From Resurrection Sunday to Easter: How Ancient German and Christian Celebrations Merged at Easter

Easter Sunday-for Christians around the world Easter is arguably the most important holiday in the Christian calendar. The message of Jesus’ act of self sacrifice by allowing himself to be crucified by the Romans as a zealous rebel to Roman authority, his preaching against the legalistic status quos of the time, and the literal or metaphorical resurrection of Jesus just days after his execution is all central to Christian belief. And yet American Christians refer to the commemorating festival associated with all of this by the name of the German goddess of spring and the dawn, Easter, also known as Ostara in High German.

Christians decorate eggs, hold sunrise services, wear new and typically pastel-colored clothing, decorate with spring flowers, and embrace Easter’s egg-laying messenger hare, all of which are part of how Germans have honored Easter/Ostara in the centuries and millennia before the Common Era. American Christians even use the German goddess’ name to refer to their holiday rather than referring to it by its proper nomer, Resurrection Sunday.

So how did this happen?

Diverse sources indicate that changes in the Church began in the 5th century Common Era (the same era as King Arthur in Britain and Bishop Patrick in England/Ireland) when Germanic tribes such as the Vandals, Visigoths, and others, in search of Roman prosperity, moved south and east into Roman lands, often seizing these territories from Roman control. The same Germanic warrior culture that produced the epic poem “Beowulf” infused these lands-just as previously the Germans and Celts had sought to adopt Roman culture and values in the centuries before. As Rome collapsed under these pressures, and the social pressures created by the oppressive policies of the elite over the vast majority of residents in the empire (seehttp://ancienthistory.about.com/cs/romefallarticles/a/fallofrome_2.htm for more on the 5th century Roman Empire), the Church found itself needing to change with the times. In “Christianizing the Germans, Militarizing the Church” athttp://atheism.about.com/b/2006/11/04/christianizing-the-germans-militarizing-the-church-book-notes-fighting-for-christendom.htm, Austin Cline explains how Christian leaders were forced to convey Christianity using native German values. Jesus became “The Lord of Victories,” and a “generous mead-giver.” Heaven was described as being similar to Valhalla, and so on. These are not terms that probably any of us have heard in modern churches, but those familiar with early English and German literature are certain to recognize the flavor of these declarations. Using these descriptions, Jesus ceases to be a part of his native Jewish culture and becomes a fellow German, someone members of each German tribe on either side of the Rhine could relate to.

But the process of Christianizing hardly came overnight. The German travel guide athttp://www.germany.co.za/christianisation.html details how slow and gradual this process was. Chlodwig (Clovis) of the Franks was the first German king baptized in 498 CE; his Catholic wife, princess Chrodechildis of Burgundy is believed to be largely behind his “conversion.” Later, in the 8th century CE, Karl der Grosse (Charlemagne) used Christianity as part of his visions of a united German empire. He first conquered Bavaria and Lombardy, and then attacked the Saxons of the north. In 800, Pope Leo III crowned him emperor, creating what became known was the Holy Roman Empire. Christianity was now the official religion of Karl’s empire.

In the three centuries between Chlodwig and Karl der Grosse, the Church adapted itself to native German culture, evolving and integrating German ideas and customs-just as the Church in Celtic societies needed to integrate Celtic culture. It is easy to see, in the light of this history, how the Church came to refer to its Resurrection Sunday by the name of the German goddess of spring. At first the German church, more likely than not, dovetailed Resurrection Sunday observances to the existing festivals for Ostara/Eastre celebrating spring, simply tacking on Christian elements to those services and rituals. This probably meant celebrating the festival when the Germans celebrated it-on or close to the vernal equinox. Later, as the Christian elements became more accepted, the celebration was moved to its “proper” date as required by the Council of Nicaea (325 CE): the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox (seehttp://catholicism.about.com/od/holydaysandholidays/f/Calculate_Date.htm), until finally the old references to Eastre/Ostara as a German goddess faded from memory. The two very distinct holidays and theologies became inseparable. Today, most Christians are fully unaware that most of observances for “Easter” they practice come from a far older German religious tradition. Easter/Ostara is evoked merely as the name of the holiday-without recognition for the goddess whose name is evoked each time.

Only recently have we come to recognize how these very different religious traditions merged. Christianity assimilated the Old Religion and, in true irony, therefore preserved it. Academic honesty requires us to recognize this history of religious joining and honor every choice-Christian or Old Religion-each individual makes for her/his own life. Likewise, it is my hope that Christians will honor the role that Jewish culture played in the early Christian church and strive to understand the beauty of Jewish society-independent of religious bias. Only by respectful learning of diverse cultures and traditions may we attain true harmony, respecting all and hating none for being different.

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