Why is Easter called ‘Easter’?

Our recent Christian holiday has its roots in the Jewish Passover (Hebrew, ‘Pesach’), both thematically and historically. In most languages, it is still referred to in relation to that, for instance Greek (‘Pascha’), Spanish (‘Pascua’), French (‘Paques’), and Russian (‘Paskha’). So, why does German call it ‘Ostern’ and English call it ‘Easter’?

By around 150 CE, Christians around the Mediterranean were commonly celebrating a meal in remembrance of Jesus’ resurrection. Many of those churches celebrated on different dates, so in 325 at the Council of Nicea, alongside establishing the Nicene Creed, the Church created a rubric for when to hold this holiday, based on spring full moons. They weren’t as clear as they could have been, so controversies continued, and got even more complicated after the Great Schism and the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar, but suffice to say, this feast and its associated rituals were a normal part of the early Christian world, even early on.

Zoom into what is now Britain. In about 450, many Germanic tribes, called Anglo-Saxons, began to inhabit those islands. Apparently they brought along a spring festival in the honor of their pagan goddess ‘Eostre’, and even named a spring month ‘Eostur’. Certainly the former inhabitants, many of them being other kinds of earth-centered pagans, had spring festivals and goddesses of their own; but the Germanic ‘Eostre’ and her associated holiday took over. There is no evidence for precisely when the main celebration was held, but it likely landed with a full moon, the same as Nicea designated for the remembrance of Jesus’ resurrection, the same as Jews had been celebrating Passover for many, many centuries before.

By the 8th century, however, that ‘Eostre’ holiday was no longer being celebrated. Instead, most of the Anglo-Saxons had become Christian by this time, and they celebrated the Latin ‘Paschal’ rite, along with Christians from France to China. The Venerable Bede (a contemporary monk and historian) tells us this: “Now they [Anglo-Saxons] designate that Paschal season by her name [Eostre], calling the joys of the new rite [Paschal] by the time-honoured name of the old observance.” Let’s translate that: ‘Now the Anglo-Saxons designate the Paschal season by the name of Eostre, calling the joys of the Christian rituals by the time-honored name of Easter.’

Notice here, the Christians were not stealing another holiday, as modern media likes to assert. More so, if you believe Bede, and this is the only old literature we have about the connection of Eostre and Easter, Christians were so respectful of their ancestors’ faith, that they maintained their ancient holiday’s name, for their own modern expression of faith. In other words, because they did not want to dishonor the long-gone pagans, they kept the name ‘Easter’.

Fast forward to the 15th century, when English was finally an independent language—a mix of old Germanic and Latin, with some influence from the Norman French and Norse, both of which entered the fray when their people conquered parts of Britain. By that time, ‘Easter’ was the normal way for the English people to refer to the Paschal feast, as it has continued for English-speakers today. The bunny and eggs? Absolutely, those got latched onto the Christian holiday, from pagan themes. The name ‘Easter’? I like to think of that as a linguistic accident, that allows us to share the same word, for different purposes.

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