Has anyone ever told you that Easter is a “heathen” holiday? Maybe you’ve seen posts on Facebook warning that Easter originated as a festival devoted to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. Perhaps you’ve even heard preachers declare from the pulpit that you shouldn’t observe Easter because of its supposedly pagan past.

Well, don’t believe everything you read on the internet or hear from a pulpit! It’s time to set the record straight.

The truth of matter is that Christians have observed “Easter” since the first century. Only they didn’t call it that. They referred to it as Pascha, a Greek form of the Hebrew word for Passover (Pesach). In fact, millions of Christians still refer to Easter by some form of this ancient name. In Spanish-speaking countries it’s called Pascua, in Italian Pasqua, in French Pâques, and in Portuguese Pascoa. All these names simply mean “Passover.”

Passover is anything but a pagan holiday. Its celebration traces back to the exodus, at least 1,200 years before the birth of Christ. Passover commemorated Israel’s last night in Egyptian bondage, when the destroying angel “passed over” those homes covered in the blood of a sacrificial lamb. The Israelites remembered this night by partaking of a special meal consisting of roasted lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs.

According to the Gospel writers, the last supper Jesus ate with his disciples before his death was the Passover (Luke 22:15). It was on this occasion that he instituted what we know as the Lord’s Supper or Communion. The unleavened bread and fruit of the vine were originally part of the Passover meal. But what about the lamb? Did Jesus forget the main entrée? No. The Lamb was present! As John’s Gospel reminds us, Jesus was just hours away from offering himself as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Like the lamb slaughtered on the eve of Passover, Jesus’ body remained intact: not a bone was broken (John 19:36). The work of our redemption was complete!

Did the disciples stop celebrating Passover once Jesus had made the perfect sacrifice? Not exactly. While the New Testament writers forbade passing judgment on the observance of festivals (Colossians 2:16; cf. Galatians 4:10), believers were free to celebrate or abstain provided they did so “unto the Lord” (Romans 14:6). We know from Acts that many of Jesus’ followers continued to keep the major feasts, such as Pentecost (Acts 2:1; 20:16). This was true also of Passover, but with a twist. Instead of commemorating the exodus from Egypt, Passover became a time to remember an even greater deliverance–the deliverance from sin and death achieved by “Christ, our Passover lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7). “Let us therefore celebrate the festival,” Paul writes, “not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8).

So widespread was the church’s celebration of Passover that by the middle of the next century a major controversy erupted over its dating. Christians in Asia Minor continued to keep the holiday at the close of Nisan 14. That was the day specified on the Hebrew calendar, which happened to be a lunar calendar. For this reason, the feast could land on any day of the week depending on the year. But the church in Rome insisted that Passover always be celebrated on a Sunday, the day of the Lord’s resurrection. An important figure in the Passover controversy was Polycarp of Smyrna. A disciple of John and one of the last surviving links to the apostles, Polycarp maintained that the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection on Nisan 14 was the practice that he and the churches of Asia had received directly from John! Far from being a pagan invention, this was a tradition handed down from the apostles themselves.

Eventually, however, the Roman custom prevailed. This is why the Christian Passover (i.e., Easter) doesn’t align with the Jewish holiday but always falls on the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox. (The lunar component is a holdover from ancient Judaism.)

Then why do we call this day “Easter” instead of “Passover”? It’s a quirk of our language. Easter derives from the Old English month of Eostre, the first month of spring. This was the season when Anglo-Saxon Christians celebrated their Passover in honor of Christ.

Some allege that Eostre was originally the name of a Germanic spring goddess. While the evidence for this is sparse, let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s true. So what? To this day, the English names for our days of the week all have pagan antecedents. Those who insist that Easter is a pagan holiday need to be consistent. By their logic, every time we gather on Sunday mornings for worship, we’re secretly honoring Sol Invictus, the sun god. And those churches that still have Wednes-Day night services are really offering clandestine tribute to Woden, the supreme god of the Anglo-Saxon pantheon. (Don’t get me started on Moon-Day Night Football!) We must all be pagan idolaters if we follow the convoluted reasoning of those who argue that Easter is a holiday honoring a Germanic fertility goddess! (There’s a name for this logical fallacy. It’s called the “genetic fallacy.” Google it.)

So, if some internet meme has you worried that you might be paying homage to a pagan goddess this Easter, don’t be alarmed. You’re simply doing what Christians have done for the past 2,000 years. You’re celebrating the moment when Christ, our Passover Lamb, conquered sin and death by triumphing over the grave!

Dear Christian, you may celebrate the feast with a clear conscience. Celebrate unto the Lord! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

-Darren Johnson live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and preaches for  the Cedar Rapids Central Church of Christ