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Is “Easter” a pagan word?


The English word has a multifaceted history.

In most Western languages, the name for the Solemnity of the Resurrection of the Lord takes its form from the word Pasch, or Passover (from which we get the name of the Paschal mystery, the Paschal Triduum, the Paschal candle). English-speaking Christians around the world, on the other hand, call the principal feast of the liturgical year “Easter Sunday.”

Why is that? What does the word “Easter” mean?

Many historians point to the following passage from St. Bede’s De ratione temporum, where he relates some traditions from Britain in the 8th century.

In olden time the English people — for it did not seem fitting to me that I should speak of other people’s observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation’s — calculated their months according to the course of the moon. 

The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath … Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month,” and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.

According to this account it is clear that the English word for the resurrection of Christ was borrowed from the former pagan observances during that month to a goddess named Eostre. She is usually depicted as a goddess of dawn and light and affiliated with fertility.

With this in mind, Christians recognized how Jesus was the “new dawn” and through his death, brought forth new life.

However, other historians see more of a connection with the German word Ostern, which connects it to the rising of the sun. According to Nick Sayers, “The English word Easter is of German/Saxon origin … The German equivalent is Oster. Oster (Ostern being the modern day equivalent) is related to Ost which means the rising of the sun, or simply in English, east.”

In Christian symbolism, Jesus’ resurrection is frequently tied to the rising of the sun as his body was not found in the tomb when some of his disciples went there at dawn.

Whatever the exact origins are, English-speaking Christians “baptized” the word Easter and filled it with the primary meaning of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was clear to them what the word referred to and it subsequently filled them with the joy of the Gospel.

Read more: The surprisingly secular meaning of the word “Lent”

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