Easter celebrations take different forms all over the world, and has long remained a holiday that retail markets love to capitalize on. The annual holiday represents a time when friends and family come together, religious services are held, egg hunts and egg dying are a common activity for many, and creepy photos of kids with mall Easter bunnies surface on the Internet. As people all over the world prepare for the spring holiday, they might be left wondering one important thing: Where does the word "Easter" come from?
The holiday has become one of the oldest and most important celebrations of the Christian Church, as it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Various celebratory traditions have emerged in the United States over the years, but the word "Easter" is actually German in origin, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. The word was derived from the German word "Ostern" and the Old English version of "ēastre," and it became known in relation to the English word "east" as well.
Perhaps the most fascinating history behind "Easter" is its derivation from an ancient Goddess known as Ēastre. The Venerable Bede, a monk and a Christian scholar who lived between 672 and 735 C.E., first wrote about the relationship between "Easter" and Ēastre in 725 C.E.
Apparently, goddess Ēastre also went by Eostre, according to The Economist. The Venerable Bede also wrote about how German speakers celebrate the month around Easter, often commemorating goddess Eostre. These people, specifically Anglo-Saxons, would refer to the month as "Eosturmonath" to both celebrate Easter and to honor goddess Esotre, even though they had accepted Christianity. Moreover, The Economist reports that because Eostre was the goddess of dawn and spring, that is why "east" — the region in which the sun rises — shares the same root as "Easter."
Similarly, the origin of the term "Good Friday" isn't exactly intuitive. It can be confusing when you stop to think about how Good Friday is actually the most somber day of the week; it was the day on which Jesus suffered and died. So why do we refer to it as a "good" day? The Economist explains Germans call it "Karfreitag," meaning lamentation, and Scandinavians call it call it "Langfredag" or "Långefredagen," which translates to "long." In the United States, though, we call it "Good Friday" because of the ancient meaning and connotation of the word "good":
Only Dutch, among the major western European languages, joins English in calling it “Good Friday”. Of course the sacrificial story is essential to the Christian version of salvation, but the mild and boring “good” is not the word that springs to mind. Orthodox Christians tend to call it something like Great Friday in their languages, rather more fitting. But the mystery is easily solved: good, in the medieval period, meant “holy” or “pertaining to God” in English, too—hence our word for the holiday is solidly in the western European tradition of "holy Friday". (This old meaning of good also explains what it is doing in expressions like good God!, good Lord!, and Would you be good enough to...?)
As you celebrate Easter this year, now you'll know where exactly the word itself came from. We may not acknowledge a goddess of dawn as much these days, but the Venerable Bede would likely be happy that the word "Easter" has stuck around for centuries and carries on goddess Eostre's name.