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The Etymology of Easter

Where did the word “Easter” come from? What does it mean?

Easter, also known as Resurrection Sunday, is one of the most important days in the Christian calendar. On the third day after Jesus was crucified, He was risen!

Preceded by Lent, a 40-day period of fasting and penance which culminates in the Holy Week, Easter commemorates the risen Saviour, marking a new dawn for God’s people. One historical view maintains that the origin of the word relates to a crucial time in the solar calendar: the vernal equinox when light and dark constitute equal periods of the day. This time of the year ushers in spring; the season for rebirth and new life.

Similarly, another view considers the week of Easter being referred to in Latin as in albis, the plural of alba (dawn). From this, eostarum (east) in Old High German was derived, before it became ēastre or eōstre in Old English and what we have today in modern English and German. As the sun rises in the east, the word recalls new beginnings.

In many cultures and European languages, words for Easter are derived from “Passover” in Hebrew – for example, Pascha in Greek and Latin, which is the root for Easter in French: Pâques. You may recognise remnants of this derivation in church supplies used during Easter, such as paschal candles.

The Passover is a spring observance remembering the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt (see book of Exodus), celebrated close to the vernal equinox. On Maundy Thursday, the night before Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday, Jesus and His apostles celebrated the Passover with a meal, which came to be known as the Last Supper. The symbolic meaning accorded by Jesus to the bread and the cup in the Passover meal was a foreshadowing of His sacrifice on the cross for man.

In other non-Indo-European languages like Hungarian, the word for Easter comes from a reference to the ending of Lent – taking meat. In Mandarin Chinese, Easter is known as Resurrection Festival; in Macedonian and Bulgarian, Great Day; while in Slavic, Great Night. Check out a map of the etymology of Easter in European languages here.

What is Easter in your heart language? On this day and every day, let us remember that Jesus is alive!

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