On her way to Saudi Arabia last week, Theresa May was asked about Easter eggs – specifically, about the National Trust dropping the word “Easter” from the annual “Egg hunts” which they co-sponsor with Cadbury. The decision was “absolutely ridiculous”, the Prime Minister said. A spokesman for the Church of England said the decision exposed “the folly in airbrushing faith from Easter”.

The row, which to many observers – Christians included – seemed wildly disproportionate, then escalated. The National Trust and Cadbury protested that much of their promotional material still used the word “Easter”. Commentators asked whether May was pursuing a vendetta against the head of the National Trust, Helen Ghosh – in other words, the Easter egg might have become a political football.

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems leader Tim Farron released a statement composed almost entirely of egg puns, while Jeremy Corbyn argued that Cadbury’s commercialisation of Easter was the real scandal. Nigel Farage declared: “We must defend our Judaeo-Christian culture and that means Easter.”

Apparently, a rapidly secularising culture just cannot help having a big, and mildly unhinged, argument about the meaning of its Christian festivals. But if nothing else, the row is a chance to examine the question of Easter’s origins. For that was the other point that came up: whether Easter egg hunts can be de-Christianised, since Easter – it is said – isn’t really a Christian festival in the first place.

In the Guardian, Peter Ormerod adopted a familiar theme: Easter was named after “a pagan goddess”, he wrote, and the festival’s combination of Christianity and folklore made it “a bit of a mess”. Likewise, Cadbury’s own website assures readers that “The worship of Eostre, the goddess of dawn, was deeply rooted in Germany and was brought to England by the Saxons.” Various pagan websites elaborate on Eostre’s story: her consort was a hare (hence the Easter bunny), or in some versions a bird-rabbit who lays eggs.

This story is grist to a certain kind of atheist’s mill. How absurd for Christians to get excited about Easter, they say, when the festival is just an update on a previous delusion.

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