Entries tagged with “Easter”.

This posting was written in 2011, and year in and year out since then, it has continued to draw surprisingly steady readership. With Easter Sunday coming up this weekend, I thought it might be fun to post it again.

Easter will be celebrated on Sunday, making this an appropriate time to ask: do you know where the word comes from? Easter is never mentioned in the Bible. In fact, Easter as we know it originated in the pagan world.

This story begins with Gregory the Great (above), who was pope from 590 to 604. At the time, England was populated by pagan Anglo-Saxons, and this prompted Pope Gregory to send a mission to England to convert them to Catholicism.

The conversions would be easier, Pope Gregory wrote Archbishop Mellitus, if those being converted were allowed to retain their pagan traditions. They would simply be told that their rituals, in fact, honored the Christian God.

Missionaries should accommodate the Anglo-Saxons in this way, as the pope put it, “to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God.”

Among the “gratifications” permitted were Easter festivities, which had been a pagan celebration of spring. Because the actual date of Jesus’ death is unknown, the missionaries could tell the Anglo-Saxons that their spring celebration should go on as always but to understand it was really all about Jesus’ resurrection.

This redirecting of traditions was so successful that the church then used it to convert pagans in the Netherlands and Germany.


The Venerable Bede is responsible for our knowing the origin of the word Easter.

A Christian scholar, the Venerable Bede (672-735), a century later wrote that Easter took its name from Eostre, also known as Eastre. Eostre  was the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe.

Similarly, some of the Teutonic names for the goddess of dawn and fertility (above) were Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur, Eastra, and Eastur. These names were derived from an old Germanic word for spring, “eastre.”

Since ancient times, spring has been seen as a time of fertility, so it was not surprising that among the pagan symbols of the season were rabbits (because large litters are born in early spring) and decorated eggs (because wild birds lay eggs in spring).

Bizarrely, these pagan symbols became so intertwined that Easter Bunnies ended up distributing Easter Eggs.

And so it was that in this roundabout way Pope Gregory I unintentionally helped bring about a goofy bunny’s becoming associated with….

the resurrection of Jesus, who is seen appearing to Mary Magdalene as she weeps outside his tomb.

Having attended three Independence Day parties a week ago, I was struck by the fact that all the other guests referred to the holiday as the Fourth of July. Why is that? Why do we say to each other: “Have a happy Fourth of July,” and not: “Have a happy Independence Day”?

We celebrate Christmas, not Dec. 25. Has anyone ever wished you: “Have a happy Dec. 25”? Or, “Have a happy Fourth Thursday in November”? No, we wish each other Merry Christmas and Happy Thanksgiving. We celebrate “Halloween,” not Oct. 31, “New Year’s Eve,” not Dec. 31, and “New Year’s Day,” not Jan. 1.

And we certainly don’t say: “Have a happy First Sunday after the Paschal full moon.” No, we say: “Have a happy Easter.”

The Paschal full moon, by the way, is supposedly the first full moon after the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. However, the Paschal full moon doesn’t necessarily occur when there’s a full moon in the sky. It can be off by a day or two — whatever’s needed to make computations work out.

The First Council of Nicaea, a council of bishops meeting in what is now Turkey back in 325 AD, settled on this loony way of calculating Easter’s date. It basically amounted to tweaking the traditional Jewish calendar.

As a result, Easter Sunday this year was April 24. Last year it fell on April 4. In 1213, it will be March 31.

Not counting 9/11, which is hardly a time of celebration, the only large observance in this country referred to as a date and not by what it memorializes is Cinco de Mayo.

Ironically, the event, which recognizes Mexican pride and heritage, is celebrated more widely in the United States than in Mexico. It is not Mexico’s independence day, which is Sept. 16.

Cinco de Mayo is Spanish for May 5.

That was the day in 1862 when Mexican forces — despite being greatly outnumbered — defeated French forces at the Battle of Puebla (right).

In this case, using the date and not a name makes sense. It would obviously be too cumbersome to wish people “a happy Celebration of Victory in the Battle of Puebla.”

And while the victory gave Mexicans a sort of David-and-Goliath sense of pride, it did not end the fighting.

France, which was then ruled by Napoleon III, was trying to establish a Latin empire, and despite their defeat in Puebla, French forces a year later defeated the Mexican army and made Emperor Maximilian the ruler of Mexico. The French, however, were expelled in 1867, and Maximilian was executed.

President George W. Bush greeting Cinco de Mayo dancers at the White House.

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated primarily in the region around Puebla and in a few other places. In the United States, however, President Bush in 2005 issued a proclamation urging US citizens nationwide to observe the day with ceremonies and festivities. There are now more than 150 Cinco de Mayo celebrations, which each year are held in more than 20 states, and the numbers are growing. Or so I read. In San Francisco, the event always draws large crowds.

Mexicans, I might note, refer to their independence day as Grito de Dolores (“Cry of Dolores”) or El Grito de la Independencia (“Cry of Independence”). It marks the beginning on Sept. 16, 1810, of an 11-year-long war that achieved independence from Spain.

The “cry” was made by a Catholic priest, Miguel Hidalgo, who standing outside his cathedral in the town of Dolores exhorted Mexicans to revolt against the Spanish.

As it happened, I visited Dolores (now called Dolores Hidalgo) in 2006 and was much impressed by the town’s garden-like plaza and Spanish Colonial buildings. The old cathedral still stands. What a charming place, I thought, for launching a revolution.