Modern-day Easter is derived from both Judeo-Christian and Pagan traditions. Both Christians and Pagans have celebrated death and resurrection themes. Most religious historians believe that many elements of the Christian observance of Easter were derived from earlier Pagan celebrations.
Origins of the name "Easter":
The name "Easter" originated with the names of an ancient Goddess and God. A Christian scholar, The Venerable Bede, said that Easter was named after Eostre, the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe. Similarly, she was also known as Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur, Eastra, Eastur, Austron and Ausos. Her name was derived from the ancient word for spring: "eastre."
There has also been a second suggestion for the derivative of the name. The name given by the Frankish church to Jesus' resurrection festival included the Latin word "alba" which means "white." (This was a reference to the white robes that were worn during the festival.) "Alba" also has a second meaning: "sunrise." When the name of the festival was translated into German, the "sunrise" meaning was selected in error. This became "ostern" in German. Ostern has been proposed as the origin of the word "Easter".
The Pagan Origins of Easter
Most Pagan religions in the Mediterranean area had a major seasonal day of religious celebration at or following the Spring Equinox. Many religious historians believe that the death and resurrection legends were first associated with Attis many centuries before the birth of Jesus. Attis was the fictional consort of Cybele, the Phrygian fertility goddess. Attis was believed to have died and been resurrected each year during the period March 22 to March 25. Historians say the legends were later simply grafted onto stories of Jesus' life in order to make Christian theology more acceptable to Pagans.
Others suggest that many of the events in Jesus' life that were recorded in the gospels were lifted from the life of Krishna, the second person of the Hindu Trinity.
Ancient Christians had an alternative explanation; they claimed that Satan had created counterfeit deities in advance of the coming of Christ in order to confuse humanity. Modern-day Christians generally regard the Attis legend as being a Pagan myth of little value. They regard Jesus' death and resurrection account as being true and unrelated to the earlier tradition.
Wiccans and other modern-day Neopagans continue to celebrate the Spring Equinox as one of their 8 yearly Sabbats (holy days of celebration). Near the Mediterranean, this is a time of sprouting of the summer's crop. Farther north, it is the time for seeding. Their rituals at the Spring Equinox are related primarily to the fertility of the crops and to the balance of the day and night times. Where Wiccans can safely celebrate the Sabbat out of doors without threat of religious persecution, they often incorporate a bonfire into their rituals, jumping over the dying embers is believed to assure fertility of people and crops.
The Christian Origins of Easter
The life of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels includes the Christian version of Easter. It is the annual festival commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the principal feast of the Christian year. Easter is celebrated on a Sunday, on varying dates anywhere from March 22 to April 25. It is also called a movable feast.
Connected with the observance of Easter are the 40-day penitential season of Lent, beginning on Ash Wednesday and concluding at midnight on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday; Holy Week, commencing on Palm Sunday, including Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion, and terminating with Holy Saturday; and the Octave of Easter, extending from Easter Sunday through the following Sunday.
Most scholars emphasize the original relation of Easter to the Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach, from which is derived Pasch, another name for Easter. The early Christians, many of whom were of Jewish origin, were brought up in the Hebrew tradition and regarded Easter as a new feature of the Passover festival, a commemoration of the advent of the Messiah as foretold by the prophets.
The History of Easter
According to the New Testament, Christ was crucified on the eve of Passover and shortly afterward rose from the dead. The Easter festival commemorates Christ's resurrection. In time, a large difference over the date of the Easter festival arose among Christians. Those of Jewish origin celebrated the resurrection immediately following the Passover festival, which, according to their Babylonian lunar calendar, fell on the evening of the full moon. By their reckoning, Easter, from year to year, fell on different days of the week.
Christians, however, wished to commemorate the resurrection on the first day of the week, Sunday. By their method, Easter occurred on the same day of the week, but from year to year it fell on different dates. An important historical result of the difference in reckoning the date of Easter was that the Christian churches in the East, which were closer to the birthplace of the new religion and in which old traditions were strong, observed Easter according to the date of the Passover festival. The churches of the West, descendants of Greco-Roman civilization, celebrated Easter on a Sunday.
Ways of fixing the date of the feast tried by the church proved unsatisfactory, and Easter was celebrated on different dates in different parts of the world. Because the Easter holiday affects a varied number of secular affairs in many countries, it has long been urged as a matter of convenience that the movable dates of the festival be either narrowed in range or replaced by a fixed date in the manner of Christmas. In 1923 the problem was referred to the Holy See, which has found no canonical objection to the proposed reform. In 1928 the British Parliament enacted a measure allowing the Church of England to commemorate Easter on the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April.
Despite these steps toward reform, Easter continues to be a movable feast.