The Joyce Hill Column

April 2021

Why do we call it Easter?

Why do English speakers use the word ‘Easter’ for the feast-day of the Resurrection and the celebratory season that follows? In French, for example it’s Pȃques, Pasqua in Italian, Pascua in Spanish, Pask in Dutch and Påsk in Swedish, each derived from Latin Pascha, the official term throughout Western Christendom before the Reformation, when Latin was the universal language of the church. Pascha comes from Hebrew Pesach (Passover) the Jewish festival celebrating the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. The Christian festival of Easter had the same name as Passover from earliest times because the Crucifixion and Resurrection took place, as the gospels relate, at the time of the Passover. It’s a festival whose date is determined by the lunar calendar, and so, within certain limits, the date varies from year to year when mapped onto the familiar solar calendar with its fixed dates. This is why the Christian festival likewise has varying dates within certain limits, being similarly bound by the lunar calendar, although the Christian way of making the calculation came to differ from the Jewish method, and so their dates soon diverged. So where does our ‘Easter’ come from?

The church always used Pascha for feast of the Resurrection in official liturgical contexts, just as they used the Latin terms for all other feast-days. But the ordinary people in Anglo-Saxon England often created their own names for festivals that played an important part in their lives. For example, what made a big impression on the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (as it was officially called, though in Latin, of course) was the extraordinary illumination of the church when all the village held lit candles, and so they gave this feast the name of Candelmæsse, giving us ‘Candlemas’. Similarly, the Nativity of the Lord (in Latin) was called Cristes mæsse, ‘ Christ’s mass’, giving us ‘Christmas’. And because, on Rogation Days, people ceased their labours in the fields and went in procession around the parish carrying local relics and interceding for a good harvest, they called these days ‘Going About Days’, or ‘Procession Days’ (Gangdagas), rather than the official Letaniae (Latin, from the Greek for ‘supplication’, or ‘petition’). Another popular way of ‘owning’ a striking element in the liturgical year was simply to apply to it a name taken from daily or even pre-Christian life: a reapplication of a term that was deeply embedded in the collective psyche. So, for example, instead of calling the forty-day fast  by its Latin name of Quadregesima or something derived from it (as in French Carême, or Italian Quaresima), the Anglo-Saxons simply called it by their name for Spring: Lencten, i.e. the season of lengthening (of the days), hence modern ‘Lent’.

The naming of Easter is the most extreme instance of this popular naming habit. According to Bede in his Latin treatise on the ordering of time, the ordinary people used Easter instead of Pascha, and he explained that in doing so they were re-applying to this central Christian feast the name of a goddess whose festival had always been celebrated in the springtime. Yet it will quickly have lost any sense of its pagan origin: within a few generations people will have been no more conscious of where the term came from than we are. And although ecclesiastics of course continued to use the Latin term in official contexts, we see from surviving manuscripts that they freely used ‘Easter’ in English contexts in a perfectly natural way.

Joyce Hill