Easter is the most holy time for Christians. But if you search the Bible, you will not find that word. So why do some call Easter, Easter?
Easter is quite similar to other major holidays like Christmas and Halloween, which have evolved over the last 200 years or so. In all these holidays, Christian and non-Christian (pagan) elements have continued to blend together.
The naming of the celebration as “Easter” seems to go back to the name of a pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon goddess of springtime, Ostara – commonly referred to as Eostre or Eastre. The goddess lent her name to the month of Easter almost two thousand years ago.
The only reference to this goddess comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede, a British monk who lived in the late seventh and early eighth century. As religious studies scholar Bruce Forbes summarizes:
“Bede wrote that the month in which English Christians were celebrating the resurrection of Jesus had been called Eosturmonath in Old English, referring to a goddess named Eostre. And even though Christians had begun affirming the Christian meaning of the celebration, they continued to use the name of the goddess to designate the season.”
Bede was so influential for later Christians that the name stuck, and hence Easter remains the name by which the English, Germans and Americans refer to the festival of Jesus’ resurrection.
Do not mistake Bede to mean that Easter is based on the worship of a pagan goddess. The month is merely named after the goddess, just as January is named after Janus and March is named after Mars.
The month in which Christians celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus happened to take place in that month and the celebration took on the name of the month. And even though Christians had begun affirming the Christian meaning of the celebration, they continued to use the name of the goddess to designate the season.
It is important to point out that while the name “Easter” is used in the English-speaking world, (German has the similar Ostern), many more cultures refer to it by terms best translated as “Passover” (for instance, “Pascha” in Greek) – a reference, indeed, to the Jewish festival of Passover. Pagan Anglo-Saxons held feasts and celebrations in Eastre’s name before the 8th century, by which time the tradition had died out and been replaced by the Christian Paschal month, that we still follow today. Most languages use some variation of the Greek Pascha.
So, our modern Easter is named after the goddess Eostre, not in terms of worship, but in terms of timing and the old name of that month.
Eastre’s symbol was the bunny or hare, which later became a symbol of the Christian Easter.
Why Does the Date of Easter Change?
The date of Easter, when the resurrection of Jesus is said to have taken place, changes from year to year.
Some early Christians chose to celebrate the resurrection of Christ on the same date as the Jewish Passover, which fell around day 14 of the month of Nisan, in March or April. These Christians were known as Quartodecimans (the name means “Fourteeners”).
By choosing this date, they put the focus on when Jesus died and emphasized continuity with Judaism out of which Christianity emerged. Some others preferred to hold the festival on a Sunday, since that was when Jesus’ empty tomb was believed to have been found.
In A.D. 325, the Emperor Constantine, who favored Christianity, convened a meeting of Christian leaders to resolve important disputes at the Council of Nicaea. The most fateful of its decisions was about the nature of Christ, whom the council recognized as “fully human and fully divine.” This council also resolved that Easter / Pascha should be fixed on a Sunday, not on day 14 of Nisan. As a result, Easter is now celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring equinox, which can fall on a different date each year.
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