BLOG

The Origin and Meaning of Easter

Posted by Loretto Chapel | 06.07.2018

 

What is Easter?

 

Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb on the third day after his crucifixion. Easter is the fulfilled prophecy of the Messiah who would be persecuted, die for our sins, and rise to heaven on the third day. Remembering the resurrection of Jesus is a way to renew daily hope that we have victory over sin.

 

When Did Easter Start?

 

The early Christians began remembering the Resurrection every Sunday following its occurrence. In A.D. 325, the Council of Nicaea set aside a special day just to celebrate the Resurrection.  The problem with an official day was deciding whether the Resurrection should be celebrated on a weekday or always on a Sunday.

 

Many felt that the date should continue to be based on the timing of the Resurrection during Passover. Once Jewish leaders determined the date of Passover each year, Christian leaders could set the date for Easter by figuring three days after Passover.  Following this schedule would have meant that Easter would be a different day of the week each year, only falling on a Sunday once in awhile.

 

The origin of the word easter isn’t certain.  The Vernerable Bede, an eighth-century monk and scholar, suggested that the word may have come from the Anglo-Saxon Eeostre or Eastre – a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility.  Recent scholars haven’t been able to find any reference to the goddess Bede mentioned and consider the theory discredited. 

 

Another possibility is the Norse eostur, eastur, or ostara, which meant “the season of the growing sun” or  “the season of new birth.” The word east comes from the same roots.  In this case, easter would be linked to the changing of the season.

 

A more recent explanation comes from the Christian background of Easter rather than the pagan.  The early Latin name for the week of Easter was hebdomada alba or “white week,” while the Sunday after Easter day was called dominica in albis from the white robes of those who had been newly baptized.  The word alba is Latin both for white and dawn.  People speaking Old High German made a mistake in their translation and used a plural word for dawn, ostarun, instead of a plural for white.  From ostarun we get the German Ostern and the English Easter.

 

What Does Easter Mean?

 

The origin of the word easter isn’t certain.  The Vernerable Bede, an eighth-century monk and scholar, suggested that the word may have come from the Anglo-Saxon Eeostre or Eastre – a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility.  Recent scholars haven’t been able to find any reference to the goddess Bede mentioned and consider the theory discredited. 

 

Another possibility is the Norse eostur, eastur, or ostara, which meant “the season of the growing sun” or  “the season of new birth.” The word east comes from the same roots.  In this case, easter would be linked to the changing of the season.

 

A more recent and complex explanation comes from the Christian background of Easter rather than the pagan.  The early Latin name for the week of Easter was hebdomada alba or “white week,” while the Sunday after Easter day was called dominica in albis from the white robes of those who had been newly baptized.  The word alba is Latin both for white and dawn.  People speaking Old High German made a mistake in their translation and used a plural word for dawn, ostarun, instead of a plural for white.  From ostarun we get the German Ostern and the English Easter.

 

The Easter Bunny!

 

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Easter?  As a Christian, the first image might be the cross or the empty tomb.  For the general public, a blitz of media images and merchandise on store shelves makes it more likely that the Easter Bunny comes to mind.  So how did a rabbit distributing eggs become a part of Easter?

 

There are several reasons for the rabbit, or hare, to be associated with Easter, all of which come through pagan celebrations or beliefs.  The most obvious is the hare’s fertility.  Easter comes during spring and celebrates new life.  The Christian meaning of new life through Christ and a general emphasis on new life are different, but the two gradually merged.  Any animals – like the hare – that produced many offspring were easy to include.

 

The hare is also an ancient symbol for the moon.  The date of Easter depends on the moon.  This may have helped the hare to be absorbed into Easter celebrations.

 

The hare or rabbit’s burrow helped the animal’s adoption as part of Easter celebrations.  Believers saw the rabbit coming out of its underground home as a symbol for Jesus coming out of the tomb.  Perhaps this was another case of taking a pre-existing symbol and giving it Christian meaning.

 

The Easter hare came to America with German immigrants, and the hare’s role passed to the common American rabbit.  Originally children made nests for the rabbit in hats, bonnets, or fancy paper boxes, rather than the baskets of today.  Once the children finished their nests, they put them in a secluded spot to keep from frightening the shy rabbit.  The appealing nests full of colored eggs probably helped the customs to spread.

 

Back in Southern Germany, the first pastry and candy Easter bunnies became popular at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  This custom also crossed the Atlantic, and children still eat candy rabbits – particularly chocolate ones – at Easter.