We will soon be celebrating Holy Week. I have been thinking about some of our Easter customs, and looking into history. The date of Easter has been a subject of controversy since the early days of the church. In the second century Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (in Syria), and Clement, Bishop of Rome, disagreed about the day to celebrate easter. Ignatius argued that it should always be celebrated on the 17th day of Nissan (2 days after the Passover celebration) in the Jewish calendar. This date is tied to a lunar calendar, and so changes the day of the week from year to year. Clement argued that since Christ rose on the first day of the week (Sunday) Easter should only be celebrated on the Sunday after Passover. The issue was not settled until the First Ecumenical (worldwide) Synod in 325 AD declared that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox (March 21). All churches in the Roman Empire at the time were of course following the calendar established by Julius Caesar.
The trouble was that the Julian calendar miscalculated the length of the year, and as the centuries passed March 21 no longer actually coincided with the equinox. This meant that Easter was no longer close to the actual equinox. The reform of the calendar was authorized by the Council of Trent in 1545, but it took another 37 years to reach a consensus on how to achieve that. Pope Gregory implemented this solution, so for the Roman Catholic church and in Roman Catholic countries, Thursday October 4 1582 was followed by Friday October 15, 1582, thus beginning the Gregorian calendar. Protestant countries and Orthodox countries (and churches) took several centuries to ad opt the new Calendar. In fact, though it adopted the Gregorian calendar for many things, some branches of the Orthodox church still base their Easter celebration date based on the Julian calendars, so it is usually 13 days later than in the Western church. In England and its American colonies the Gregorian calendar was adopted 1752. It had been considered much earlier, but not adopted because of fear that it was a Catholic plot.
The origin of the name Easter is in dispute. This name is used in English and German speaking areas. In most of the Christian world the name for Easter is derived from the Latin and Greek Pascha, itself derived from the Hebrew Pesach (Passover). Thus in Spanish it is Pascua; in French, Pasque; in Welsh, Pasg; in Dutch, Pasen; in Swedish, Pask; in Icelandic, Paskir; and in Ethiopian languages, Faskia. Other languages use other derivations. In Romania,
Easter is usually called Inviere, or sometimes Anastasis the Romanian and Greek respectively meaning “Resurrection”. In Poland it is Wielknoc (“Great Night”) or Wielka Niedziela (“Great Day”) with similar names in other Slavic speaking countries. In Hungary it is Husvet (“taking meat”) a reference to the end of the Lenten fast. In Finnish it is Paasiainen (“liberation”). So where does Easter fit in? According to the 8th century English Historian Bede the Holiday took the name of Eostre, an Anglian goddess of spring, and what we now call April was Eosturmonath after the same goddess. However nowhere else can we find a mention of this goddess. In the 19th century it was proposed that in most Indo European languages a dawn goddess had a similar name, which may be the source of our word East as well as Easter. In Norse eostur orostara meant “Season of the growing sun” or ”Season of New life” ie “spring”. This is posited as the source of Easter. It has also been suggested that the Latin name for the week following Easter is hebdomada alba (white week) because white was the liturgical color for the season. This was mistranslated into Old High German as Osterun which became the German for Easter and this passed into English.
How did we end up with eggs and rabbits associated with Easter? Both rabbits and eggs are associated with new life, and so the association with Easter. Though the eggs have a further association, in the Eastern church eggs were among the items that were not to be eaten during Lent (the season of fasting preceding Easter). The crusaders may have brought back the idea that eggs could now be eaten at Easter, because the first records of the association of eggs and Easter occur at about the time the crusaders would have been returning. A much more modern symbol (though to my mind a more natural fit) is the association of the butterfly coming out of its cocoon as a symbol of resurrection and new life.
What is important of course is not the historic derivation or the customs associated with Easter, but what they symbolize: the day to remember the resurrection of our Lord, which promises forgiveness of our sins, and the promise of our own resurrection with Christ. So we close Lent with the celebration of Jesus last days, and his crucifixion, then we celebrate the new beginnings of Easter. This is the heart of the Christian faith.