The Co-option Theory of How Holidays Develop

Why Easter is neither Pagan nor Christian anymore

This morning my kids were asking me why we hide eggs at Easter. The answer isn’t really interesting to a six-year old, partly because there are different levels to it. But the answer is pretty interesting to those of us who are older, partly because there are different levels to it.

First, why do we call them “Easter” eggs? In Greek and Latin, the Christian celebration is called Πάσχα, or Pascha, a derivative word referring to Passover. The Christian holiday commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus, an event that took place a little more than two-thousand years ago in Jerusalem, at the time of the Passover holiday.

The Passover was a Jewish feast. It celebrated God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. The book of Exodus recounts that God inflicted ten plagues on Egypt, the last being the death of all the first-born children in the land. The Israelites in Egypt were spared by following the instruction to spread the blood of a slaughtered lamb over their doorposts. The blood served as a sign to the angel of death to pass over those houses and spare the child inside.

The fact that Jesus died and rose during Passover week is not without theological significance. The gospel of John and later the apostle Paul saw Jesus as the ultimate Passover lamb, who was sacrificed to spare believers from ultimate death. Here is a helpful brief overview of this idea.

Okay, but back to Easter.

You might have noticed that the word “Easter” is quite a bit different from the word “Passover” or Pasach (or Πάσχα for that matter). That’s because it comes from an entirely different source.

The Venerable St. Bede Translates John — J.D. Penrose, 1902

As far as I can tell, the most widely accepted etymology of the word “Easter” is this: In the late 600s and early 700s there lived an English monk known by the name Bede. He was not just any monk. He was a historian who later became known as “The Father of English History.” In one of Bede’s writings, The Reckoning of Time, he explains the origins of the English months. He wrote that the month of April corresponded to the old English “Month of Ēostre,” which was named after an English pagan goddess who was called Ēostre.

Bede’s book is the only historical source that there was a goddess Ēostre. For this reason, some doubt whether people actually worshiped her. But given Bede’s careful recording of other history, most people accept this story as reliable. According to Bede, the reason we celebrate the resurrection with the word “Easter” is that the church co-opted the name of the pagan holiday and gave it new meaning by celebrating the resurrection.

Okay, but what about Easter Eggs?

Some speculate that Ēostre liked eggs and hares, hence easter eggs and Easter bunnies. But there’s not much support for this idea. A more likely reason relates to the Christian practice of Lenten fasting. For centuries, Orthodox Christians in Mesopotamia had been dying eggs red as a symbol of Christ’s death around Easter. The church also began a practice of abstaining from eating eggs during Lent. At Easter, Christians were allowed to eat eggs again, so the practice of giving and hiding decorated eggs became a way of celebration and feasting.

And the bunny? The Easter Bunny may have had some relationship to Ēostre, but no one is sure about that either. The more commonly accepted history is that German Lutherans invented the tradition of the rabbit at easter, originally describing the bunny as a judge who hid eggs for well-behaved children. They brought the tradition to the U.S. when they emigrated in the 1700s.

Easter Eggs and the Easter Bunny and chocolate eggs have since become the domain of consumer marketing. I’m not surprised that my kids couldn’t figure out the link between these things and going to church on Easter Sunday.. I was surprised that I had so little understanding of them. Now that I’ve looked into it though, I’m not that surprised. The symbolism is pretty esoteric.

Reflecting on this history, I’m toying with a theory of how religious holidays develop through time. I’m not saying it’s original, but it clicked for me this weekend.

The Co-option Theory of How Religious Holidays Develop

The history of Easter is about a holiday that grows and morphs through radical co-option. One tradition is co-opted and replaced by an entiredly different tradition. Maybe the best way to describe what I’m thinking is in pictures. So I’m going to steal a page from the Wait But Why playbook and draw them by hand.

IN THE BEGINNING: If you roll back the clock a a millennia and a half, there were just some ancient folks hanging out in northern Europe.

STEP ONE: After hanging out for a while, one of them has an idea — “Maybe we should worship a goddess to improve our agricultural yields. We’ll call her Ēostre.”

STEP TWO — Christian Co-option: Christians, who already had success co-opting Passover, decide to take over the pagan feast for Ēostre.

STEP THREE: Secular consumerism c0-option. Cadbury’s and others de-emphasize the religious symbolism of Easter in favor of selling chocolate eggs and those disgusting marshmallow “Peeps.”

STEP FOUR: My kids are confused about why we eat candy and dye eggs to celebrate the most controversial event in the history of the world. I’m confused as to why anyone voluntarily eats Peeps.

This is the holiday co-option pattern:

Nothing → 1. Pagan holiday→ 2. Christians co-opt the holiday→ 3. Secular consumerism co-opts the Christian Holiday

In other words:

Nothing → 1. Ēostre → 2. Easter → 3. Peeps

It works for Christmas too:

Nothing → 1. Saturnalia → 2. Christmas → 3. Santa

If you buy this over-simplified theory of history (like I do), then there are two interesting questions. First, is step 3 the final co-option, or will there be a step 4? In other words, is secular commercialism the “end of history” and the final destination of all religious holidays? Or will we see another step? And if we do, is it a step forward or a step in reverse?

Maybe it’s a return to step 2. That’s the idea behind those campaigns to “put Christ back in Christmas.”

Or maybe it we’ll see a pagan return to Step 1.

Or maybe it will be something else entirely.

Nothing → 1. Ēostre → 2. Easter → 3. Peeps →4. ?

The second question is whether we’ll see this pattern of holiday development in new holidays? Where might this occur? How about Burning Man?

Nothing → 1. Pagan → 2. Christian co-option→ 3.Commercialism co-option

Nothing → 1. Burning Man→ 2. Burning Bush?

It’s kind of a joke but it’s kind of serious, too. Couldn’t you kind of imagine it? In the beginning there’s nothing, then we saw the creation of this bacchanalian festival in the desert, Burning Man. It’s not necessarily religious, but it’s certainly religious-ish. Burning Man has it’s own alternate economy, a different culture of sex, different clothing, and a stepping away from other conventions of culture.

I could imagine some church promoting an alternate festival on site that co-opts a lot of the Burning Man imagery and replaces it with a Christian celebration. The one that makes the most sense would be to celebrate the hierophany of God appearing to Moses in the burning bush.

On the other hand, I could imagine our modern society skipping the Christian co-option and jump from step 1 to step 3. In this scenario, Burning Man moves from being a fringe counter-culture to a a completely branded and commercialized endeavor. I’ve read more than a handful of articles about that happening already.


Maybe this historical theory of holiday development is true. Maybe it isn’t. It’s just a thought experiment, after all. But it plays off of some in-depth scholarship, like the books reviewed by Tim Keller in his recent piece “Why Does Anyone Become a Christian?” He addresses this idea of how this small oriental cult became the world’s largest religion, despite being persecuted for very different views on sexuality, money, and exclusivity.

The earliest church was seen as too exclusive and a threat to the social order because it would not honor all deities; today Christians are again being seen exclusive and a threat to the social order because it will not honor all identities. Yet the early church thrived in that situation. Why?
One reason was that Christians were ridiculed as too exclusive and different. And yet many were drawn to Christianity because it was different. If a religion is not different from the surrounding culture, if it does not critique and offer an alternative to it, it dies because it is seen as unnecessary. If Christians today were also famous for and marked by social chastity, generosity and justice, multi-ethnicity, and peace making — would it not be compelling to many? Ironically, Christians were “out of step” with the culture on sex to begin with, and it was not the church but the culture that eventually changed.

My own belief is that Christianity overtook paganism and pagan holidays because the behaviors and beliefs Keller points out were so attractive to the people of the day. The church conquered the Roman empire not with a sword but with generous justice.

You see strains of this today, like the news about the Pope offering free laundry for the homeless in Rome. But the reason secular commercialism has successfully c0-opted Christian holidays is the result of a combination of three factors: 1. a growing distrust of “faith” in favor of science, 2. the power of materialism’s promise to satisfy deep human urges, and 3. the failure of the church to continue living in such a way that most people would find attractive.

The fourth stage of holiday co-option isn’t determined yet. It will be what we make it. We will make it what it will be by how we decide to spend our money, attention, and energy. This Passover, and this Easter, the question is how will you co-opt the time set aside for the holiday?

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Happy Easter.

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