Was Easter Originally A Pagan Holiday?

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STRAIGHT ANSWERS

by Father William Saunders

Q: 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

A: 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,  write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.

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Submitted by Doria2

Jim Akin: Easter A Pagan Holiday? Not a chance!

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Q: Isn’t Easter a pagan rather than a Christian holiday, as shown by its very name by the fact that its date is determined by the full moon after the Spring equinox?


A: By Jim Akin – Anyone making this charge shows a total lack of comprehension of global Christianity. In fact, only a person speaking English or German could even possibly make this charge.
First, let’s deal with the date. Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon following March 21 (historically, the Spring equinox).

The reason, however, has nothing to do with paganism. It has everything to do with Judaism and with Christ’s Resurrection.

Christ was resurrected on Sunday — the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1) — thus since the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 all Christians have celebrated his Resurrection on Sunday.

Prior to that, most celebrated it on Sunday, but some, known as Quartodecimians (“Fourteenth-ers”) celebrated it on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, when Passover occurred.

At First Nicaea all Christians agreed to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ on first Sunday after 14 Nisan because that
was the day Christ was Resurrected in the first century — the Sunday after Passover.

Because first century Jews used a lunar calendar, every month was twenty-eight days long, beginning with the new moon and having the full moon on the 14th of the month. Nisan, being the month in which the Spring equinox occurred, always had Passover — the 14th of Nisan — falling on the first full moon on or after the Spring equinox.

Thus since Passover was always on or after the first full moon after the Spring equinox, and since the Resurrection was the first Sunday after Passover, Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 21 (historically, the Spring equinox).

There is nothing about a pagan lunar celebration in here. It has nothing to do with paganism, but everything to do with the Resurrection of Christ in its Jewish-Passover context.

Now let us deal with the name of Easter.

The fact is that there are only two languages in which the name has any pagan associations whatsoever
— English and German.

This, of course, is a problem for King James Only-ites, since the term “Easter” appears in the King James Version in
Acts 12:4 as a translation for the Jewish holiday of Passover. In English, of course, the name is “Easter” and in German “Ostern.”

These are related in name to a pagan spring festival, whose name, if you check a dictionary, was derived from the prehistoric West Germanic word akin to the Old English term east, which means, simply enough, “east,” the direction of the rising sun.

It has nothing to do, contrary to what you will hear from some anti-Easter-ites, with the goddess Ishtar.

But in virtually every language except English and German, the name of Easter is derived from the Jewish word Pesach or “Passover.”

Thus in Greek the term for Easter is Pascha, in Latin the term is also Pascha.

From there it passed into the Romance languages, and so in Spanish it is Pascua, in Italian it is Pasqua, in French it is Paques, and in Portugese it is Pascoa.

It also passed into the non-Romance languages, such as the Germanic languages Dutch, where it is Pasen and Danish,
where it is Paaske.

Thus only in the highly Protestant countries of Germany (where the Reformation started) and England (where the intense persecution and martyrdom of Catholics was the harshest), does the term “Easter” have any pagan associations at all.

So perhaps in these two Protestant countries paganism was not sufficiently stamped out to use the Judeo-Christian term
for the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection that was used everywhere else in Europe.

Submitted by Doria2