Easter – that holiday one always has to check one’s calendar for, because it is a moveable feast. And how fittingly, given that it is associated with food, typically hidden eggs and massive hams (or turkeys) and maybe some yeasty bread consumed at some family gathering: Easter is a day for eaters. The most common collocation of Easter, after Sunday, is egg or eggs. Then, of course, there is bunny. Then it moves on to Island, morning, weekend, and seals. Down around tenth place is vigil.
Vigil? Oh, yeah, this is some kind of Christian celebration, and some people go to church the night before for a service awaiting the dawn and resurrection. But, well, now, what’s with all the bunnies and eggs and chocolate and candy (flavoured with esters) and stuff? Why, holdovers of a spring fertility celebration that was displaced by Easter – clearly not completely. All those lilies and bonnets and so on…
Oh, and why is it Easter? In most other European languages, it’s called by a word such as Pâques, Pasca, Pascha, Pasqua, derived from Hebrew pesach, “passover”, which is the Jewish feast that Jesus celebrated just before he was crucified; the sabbath of Passover happened the day after crucifixion, and the resurrection is recorded on the day after the sabbath (which is why most Christians have church services on Sunday – the first day, the day of resurrection, the day after the sabbath). So why is it Easter in English and Ostern in German? Does it have to do with looking east?
Well, in fact it does. Because you know who rises again in the east at dawn? That’s right… the goddess of the dawn! (OK, that was a bit of a teaser.) Eostre, or Ostara, was the goddess of the dawn (it’s not a coincidence that her name seems like east), and the vernal equinox was when she was celebrated (why not an association of dawn with fertility? “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun…”). And it’s from Eostre or Ostara that we get English Easter and German Ostern.
Now, co-optation was run of the mill for European Christianity. Saturnalia and similar celebrations were replaced with Christmas (Christ’s mass), though the frenzy of drinking, eating, and getting and giving stuff remains. A fall festival was replaced with All Saint’s Day and All Hallows (whence Hallowe’en). An estival festival was replaced with Corpus Christi (“body of Christ”, which really doesn’t have any presence in the English world now, aside from a city in Texas, but helped foster the development of drama in England in medieval times). But all of these did not keep the pre-Christian names.
Well, Easter did, in English and German. An illustration of the depth of that persistence is in order: I have a German Bible “nach der Übersetzung Martin Luthers.” At Matthäus (Matthew) 26:2, Jesus says, “Ihr wisset, daß nach zwei Tagen Ostern* wird” (“you know that in two days it will be Easter”), and the little footnote on Ostern reads as follows: “Wörtlich: «Passa». Luther hat im Neuen Testament «Passa» mit «Ostern» wiedergegeben.” Which means “Literally: ‘Passover.’ In the New Testament, Luther used ‘Easter’ for ‘Passover.'”
What, use a different word in the New Testament? What’s up with that, eh? Well, English Bibles don’t use Easter there, but there are other names that are changed between Old and New Testament in English and some other languages. My name, for instance: James is the New Testament version of Jacob (Hebrew Ya’akov). And the Old Testament name Joshua (Hebrew Yehoshua) appears in the New Testament as Jesus. You’d almost think there was an effort at some time to distance Christianity from Judaism.
Not that one need think of that at Easter. Those who aren’t Christian may distance themselves – push a reset, treat Christianity as erased, and still have a happy Easter and follow the bunny trail of eggs, at least as long as they speak English or German and have nothing against pagan celebrations. Christians, on the other hand, may be forgiven if they pass over those bits – or forgiven if they do them anyway. Have your cake (or perhaps a nice big Easter loaf) and eat it too!