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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Origins of the word "Easter"

When I decided to jump back on the blogging bandwagon I did so thinking that Ukrainian Easter would be a perfect topic to get started again.

After all, it's one I'm quite familiar with. I grew up steeped in the religious and cultural symbolism of Ukrainian Easter, having belonged to both
 the Ukrainian Catholic church (the one I grew up in) and the Ukrainian Orthodox church (the one I got married in).

And of course I have made many of those lovely decorative eggs called pysanky over the years. I've made (albeit less prolifically) the wonderful Ukrainian ritual Easter breads, paska and babka. As well, despite having nary a creative bone in my body, I have managed to put together some reasonably attractive Easter baskets to take to church for blessing.

Living in an Anglo-Saxon world as I do, I have always called Easter by its Anglo-Saxon name. However, in both the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Catholic Church communities, Easter has popularly been referred to as Velykden, which means "Great day."

So I thought it would be fun to look into the meaning behind the terminology of both.

Little did I expect to find that the word for the holiday celebrating Christ's resurrection from the dead has been cause for controversy and conflict over the years, even up to and including today!

The origins of the English word "Easter" are far from certain. There may be a historical connection between the words "Easter" and "East.” More commonly held is the idea that the word “Easter” derives from pagan goddesses: Eastre (also Eostre), the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of spring and dawn; or Ishtar, the Babylonian  goddess of love and fertility.

As the festival of Eastre was a celebration of the renewal of life in the spring, so the logic goes, it was easy for early Christians to make it a celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. And "Eastre" eventually evovled into "Easter."

Some theologians argue that there is no connection at all between the origins of the word Easter and a pagan goddess.

In most European languages, the word for Easter comes from the Hebrew Pesach (Passover), which was the setting for the Easter events. In Latin, Easter is Festa Paschalia (plural because it is a seven-day feast), in French Pâques, in Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua, Scottish Pask, Dutch Paschen, Danish Paaske, and in Swedish Pask. In many Slavic languages, Easter is called Pascha which is Aramaic (a Hebrew dialect spoken by Christ) for Pesach. (Hear about Passover in Ukraine here.)

OTOH, some American Evangelical Christians consider that Easter itself is “pagan” and consider Easter eggs, ritual foods and even religious observances like Lent as idolatrous and evil! Less extremist sects merely suggest calling the holiday “Resurrection Sunday.” 

In both the Ukrainian Orthodox and the Ukrainian Catholic church communities, you will hear Easter referred to as Velykden, which means "Great day.

Maybe it was to avoid confusion with the word for the ritual Ukrainian Easter bread, paska. This is pure speculation on my part, however. In my reasearch on the origins of the words for Easter, I have not come across anything explaining the similarities between paska (the bread) and pascha (Easter).

Velykden was also the Ukrainian word used for the spring equinox. Before the arrival of Christianity, at spring equinox, which occurs around March 22, Ukrainians celebrated the sun's defeat of "the unclean spirit." After Christianity, this became a celebration of Christ’s defeat of death and His resurrection.

I have noticed that in recent years there is a move in the Ukrainian Catholic and the Ukrainian Orthodox church to re-brand Easter and Velykden as Pascha. It seems hierarchs in traditional Eastern Rite churches are every bit as concerned  as American Protestants about the supposed pagan origins of the word for Easter.

Well, IMHO as Shakespeare said, "a rose by any other name would still smell sweet" applies to Easter as well.

So whatever you call it, I hope you have a happy (and if you are religious, a most blessed) Easter/Velykden/ Pascha/Resurrection Sunday!

If you are looking for an Easter church service to attend at a Ukrainian Orthodox or Ukrainian Catholic church, there is a list of Ukrainian churches in BC here. This year (2011, Easter is celebrated on the same day in both churches.


mike said...

using your shakespeare quote, regarding a rose by any other name is a rose, would still apply to easter's pagan's roots.
in fact, if you are trusting and believing in God, that is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then according to God's laws, you ought to be following the Torah, and nowhere does it say in Torah that we are to observe the crucifixion or resurrection of Yeshua. It is commanded of us to observe the feast of passover, or unleavened bread, so the church will need to re-examine their bible. Chag pesach sameach. Passover concludes on tuesday at sundown.

Pawlina said...

Well Mike I am by no means an expert on theology so I can't really speak to your point one way or the other.

About all I would venture to say is that I believe faith is a personal matter and I certainly respect anyone's right to practice their faith as long as it doesn't harm anyone else.

To my mind it's so interesting how the various cultural observances of Easter have evolved and still continue to be observed today.

I just figure that if we're not blowing each other up over how and what we believe, we're doing well. :-)

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