Why is it called Easter?

The etymology of Easter is different in English from most other European languages. (Etymology is a fancy way of saying the formation and development of the meaning of a word.)

The Hebrew word Pesach, the Jewish Passover, is the source of the name for the Day of Christ's Resurrection in many languages because the Crucifixion occurred in Israel at the time of the Passover. In Greek (and Latin) Easter Day is called Pascha, in Italian Pasqua, in  French Pâque, in Spanish and Portuguese Pascua, in Norwegian Paskir, in Danish Paaske.

So why do we use such a different word? The English word Easter and the German Ostern come from words in the old Norse languages, Eostur, Eastur, Ostara and Ostar, which meant the season of the rising or growing sun, the season of new birth, springtime. Ost or East was the place where the sun rose and Easter, in Anglo-Saxon Eostre, originally meant the celebration of the spring sun which had its birth in the east and brought new life to the earth. As Christianity spread over the lands, the spring celebrations continued but the symbolism of light and new life was transferred to the new life of the Risen Christ, the eternal and uncreated Light.

In the year 735, the Venerable Bede wrote that the name for the holy day came from an Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre who was celebrated in April as the goddess of spring.

However, no such goddess is known in the mythologies of any Germanic tribe and modern research has made it quite clear that Bede erroneously interpreted the name of the season as that of a supernatural figure. However, this story has persisted. It is even given as the source of the word Easter in the Oxford dictionaries!

So here we are in Australia, in a country that has declared itself secular, in a season that is the opposite of spring, with shops filled with Easter buns and chocolate rabbits, looking forward to celebrating the feast of a non-existent goddess or a religious event which half the population doesn't believe in. It makes a good holiday break before the weather gets too cool for picnics and the beach.

But for Christians, Easter, the celebration of the Living Risen Christ is at the heart of our faith and we will worship with joy on Easter Day.

Norah Norris

© Scots Church Adelaide  Ph. 08 8223 1505