STRAIGHT ANSWERS
Father William Saunders
Was Easter Originally A Pagan Holiday?

Recently a Moslem co-worker made the comment that Easter was originally a pagan holiday. Where would he get such a notion?—A reader in Alexandria

I think your Moslem co-worker is confused to say the least. In accord with the gospels, Easter is unequivocally the solemn feast celebrating the resurrection of Christ. In the Western tradition of the Church, Easter has been celebrated on the first Sunday following the new full moon which occurs on or immediately after the vernal or Spring equinox. This dating was established by the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. As such, the dates for Easter may range from March 22 to April 25. (The Orthodox Churches follow a different dating system and will thereby celebrate Easter one, four, or five weeks later).

The confusion in the mind of the co-worker lies in the etymology of the word itself. In the original language of the gospels, the Greek word <pascha> is used for the Aramaic form of the Hebrew word <pesach>, which means Passover. During the first three centuries of the Church, <Pasch> referred specifically to the celebration of Christ's passion and death; by the end of the fourth century, it also included the Easter Vigil; and by the end of the fifth century, it referred to Easter itself. In all, the term signified Christ as the new Passover Lamb. Together, the mystery of the Last Supper, the sacrifice of Good Friday and the resurrection of Easter form the new Passover - the new Pasch.

Latin used the Greek-Hebrew root for its word <Pascha> and other derivatives to signify Easter or the Easter mysteries: for instance, the Easter Vigil in Latin is <Sabbato Sancto de Vigilia Paschali> and in the First Preface of Easter, the priest prays, <"...Cum Pascha nostrum immolatus est Christus"> ("When Christ our Pasch was sacrificed"). The Romance languages later used the Hebrew-Greek-Latin root for their words denoting Easter: Italian, <Pasqua>; Spanish, <Pascua> and French, <Paques>. Even some non-Romance languages employ the Hebrew-Greek-Latin root: Scotch, <Pask>; Dutch, <Paschen>; Swedish, <Pask> and the German dialect along the lower Rhine, <Paisken>.

However, according to St. Bede (d. 735), the great historian of the Middle Ages, the title Easter seems to originate in English around the eighth century A.D. The word Easter is derived from the word <Eoster>, the name of the Teutonic goddess of the rising light of day and Spring, and the annual sacrifices associated with her. If this is the origin of our word Easter, then the Church "baptized" the name, using it to denote that first Easter Sunday morning when Christ, our Light, rose from the grave and when the women found the tomb empty just as dawn was breaking.

Another possibility which arises from more recent research suggests the early Church referred to Easter week as <hebdomada alba> ("white week"), from the white garments worn by the newly baptized. Some mistranslated the word to mean "the shining light of day" or "the shining dawn," and therefore used the Teutonic root <eostarun>, the Old German plural for "dawn", as the basis for the German <Ostern> and for the English equivalent "Easter". In early English translations of the Bible made by Tyndale and Coverdale, the word "Easter" was substituted for the word "Passover," in some verses.

Even though the etymological root of "Easter" may be linked to the name of a pagan goddess or pagan ceremonies, the feast which the word describes is Christian without question. Exactly why the English language did not utilize to the Hebrew-Greek-Latin root is a mystery. Unlike Christmas which was set on December 25 and "baptized" the former Roman pagan Feast of the Sun, Easter is a unique celebration. Any confusion, therefore, rests with etymology, not theology.

Fr. Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and associate pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.


This article appeared in the April 27, 1995 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.


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