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April 25, 2017

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Why Easter is called Easter: little-known facts about the holiday

AP -- This Sunday, April 16, Christians will be celebrating Easter, the day on which the resurrection of Jesus is said to have taken place. The date of celebration changes from year to year.

The reason for this variation is that Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. So, in 2018, Easter will be celebrated on April 1, and on April 21 in 2019.

I am a religious studies scholar specializing in early Christianity, and my research shows that this dating of Easter goes back to the complicated origins of this holiday and how it has evolved over the centuries.

Easter is quite similar to other major holidays like Christmas and Halloween, which have evolved over the last 200 years or so. In all of these holidays, Christian and non-Christian (pagan) elements have continued to blend together.

Most major holidays have some connection to the changing of seasons. This is especially obvious in the case of Christmas. The New Testament gives no information about what time of year Jesus was born. Many scholars believe, however, that the main reason Jesus' birth came to be celebrated on Dec. 25 is because that was the date of the winter solstice according to the Roman calendar.

Since the days following the winter solstice gradually become longer and less dark, it was ideal symbolism for the birth of "the light of the world" as stated in the New Testament's Gospel of John.

Similar was the case with Easter, which falls in close proximity to another key point in the solar year: the vernal equinox (around March 20), when there are equal periods of light and darkness. For those in northern latitudes, the coming of spring is often met with excitement, as it means an end to the cold days of winter.

Spring also means the coming back to life of plants and trees that have been dormant for winter, as well as the birth of new life in the animal world. Given the symbolism of new life and rebirth, it was only natural to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at this time of the year.

The naming of the celebration as "Easter" seems to go back to the name of a pre-Christian goddess in England, Eostre, who was celebrated at the beginning of spring. The only reference to this goddess comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede, a British monk who lived in the late seventh and early eighth century. As religious studies scholar Bruce Forbessummarizes:

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