Keeping in mind that it will still be Easter-tide until the Feast of Pentecost, May 12th this year, it seems appropriate to have an Easter “Stump the Priest” Question. This one comes from unwittingly walking in on a men’s accountability group at a diner one Saturday morning. The men asked, “Where do we get the word ‘Easter’ and what is the deal with the eggs?” Both are very good questions.
The Eastern Orthodox (Greeks, Russians, and various Eastern European Christians) do not celebrate Easter per se. They celebrate Pascha, which is where we get the word “paschal,” as in paschal candle or paschal mysteries. Pascha is a Greek word that is derived from Pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover. That makes sense and seems easy enough to follow, but if that is the case, where does the word “Easter” come in?
The origin is very obscure. The best explanation comes from the writings of a famous British monk known as the Venerable Bede. In his eighth century work De Temporum Ratione (or On the Reckoning of Time), the monk wrote,
“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.” (Translation by Faith Wallis, 1999)
Essentially, what Bede is saying is that, the pre-Christian pagans called a month that corresponded to April “Easturmonath” or “Easter-Month” after their goddess Eostre. Once they became Christian and started celebrating the “Paschal Month” (give or take ten days or so), rather than calling the season something like Paschalmonath, they continued calling it Eosturmonath. As the season was still known as Easter-Monath, eventually the name of the Feast was replaced with the word “Easter,” it was “Easter-Month” after all.
Here is the amazing thing about the goddess Eostre. We know virtually nothing about her. Anthropologists and folklorists believe that she was either a goddess of Spring and fertility or a goddess associated with the sunrise. Aside from that, she is a complete mystery. We know that Christians took over many pagan feasts and renamed them. December 25th was the pagan feast of Saturnalia or Yule. November 1st was the pagan feast of Samhain; it has now become All Saints’ Day. Christians take over these previously pagan festivals, perform a baptism of sorts on them and make Christian religious celebrations out of them. In most cases, we retain the knowledge of what the original festival entailed. That is not so with Easter. The Christian take-over of the pagan festival was so complete that only the name remains.
What about the eggs? Surprisingly, they have nothing to do with the bunnies and do have a Christian origin. There are two legends that involve Easter eggs and both center around St. Mary Magdelene. In one story, St. Mary Magdalene was bringing a basket of eggs to the woman who had gone to the tomb of Jesus to finish His embalming. When the risen Jesus appeared to the saint, the basket of eggs miraculously turned the color of Our Lord’s blood. Similarly, another legend tells that, after the Ascension of Our Lord, St. Mary Magdalene left Jerusalem and went west. On one occasion she found herself dining with the Roman Emperor Tiberius (r. 14AD – 37AD). She greeted the Emperor with the words “Christ is Risen” (a tradition to this day among Eastern Orthodox Christians). The Emperor responded with a jaded, “Jesus could no more rise from the dead than that egg you are holding could turn red.” In response to the Emperor’s taunt, the egg, of course, miraculously turned red. This is why, in many Eastern Christian traditions, the only acceptable color to dye is red and why in many icons St. Mary Magdalene is depicted holding a red egg.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!