A church historian and monk around 700, known as The Venerable Bede, wrote that the term Easter was derived from Estre, a German goddess of dawn and spring. (How awesome a name is The Venerable Bede?) There appears to have been, at one time, a pagan celebration of spring from which the name Easter is derived.
So is Easter actually an older pagan celebration appropriated by the church, as today’s heathen like to claim about all church holidays?
No, not really. Easter is an Anglo-Saxon word, and what we know as Easter had been celebrated for centuries before either the Angles or the Saxons ever found out about it.
The holiday was originally referred to as the Christian Passover, or Pascha in Greek (from the Hebrew Pesach), which was adopted as a proper name in Latin as well. To this day, the Danish call it Paske, the Dutch– Pasen, the French– Paques, Romanians– Pasti, Portuguese– Pascoa, Spanish–Pascua, Italian– Pasqua, Swedish– Pask, etc.
The term “Easter” may be derived from a pagan deity or from the month that bears the same name, “Ostermonat“/April. The origins of the holiday itself though, originated quite independently of any Germanic influence whatsoever, directly from the resurrection of Christ at Passover time.
What’s interesting is that the Medieval Germans seem to have taken a similar approach to what the first Christians did, namely refer to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection by the name of the holiday formerly celebrated at that time.
The first Christians kept the term Pascha or Passover and simply updated it by celebrating Jesus’ resurrection at Passover instead of the Israelites’ rescue from slavery in Egypt. As Christianity spread into Europe, many simply accepted the church’s name for this holiday, but those Anglo-Saxon rebels decided to use their own term for a celebration of new life for the holiday of Christ’s resurrection.
Rather than adopt the technical church word Pascha, which was for them meaningless, they chose to refer to the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection in their own terminology that reflected the meaning of the holiday as a celebration of new life.
When we think about today’s celebration of Easter, I think what jumps out most to me isn’t any possible connection to ancient heathenism, but contemporary heathenism. For a lot of people, the resurrection of Jesus has no more to do with Easter than the goddess Estre, just some ancient historical celebration of what has become basically just a spring festival again.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the name Easter or the traditional signs of spring associated with it, like bunnies and eggs, but much like Christmas-time, the secular observances can become a problem when they distract us from what matters.
As Christians celebrating Easter, we want to keep a clear focus on what actually makes the holi-day holy, and what should be at the front of our minds every day— that Jesus rose from the dead to prove His divinity and our salvation.