It seems natural that the vernal, or Spring, equinox has, time-out-of-mind, marked new birth. In pre-Christian times the occasion honoured the Germanic Eastre, the goddess of the dawn. Eastre can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European roots, her name deriving from Austro, meaning dawn, or bright light. The venerable Bede, from whom we learn about Aestre, reports that by his time the tradition had already died out, to be replaced by the paschal month. Though it must be said the Venerable Bede is not always regarded as a thoroughly reliable source. It is from Eastre we get our modern name Easter. Some think this is a big deal but when Christians on Easter Sunday morning proclaim, ‘He is Risen indeed!’ I wonder how much it really matters.
Christians are not ‘celebrating paganism’ at Easter, nor have we stolen a pagan idea. At this same time we mark the death and resurrection of Jesus, during the Jewish feats of Passover, and have simply ‘baptised’ the name into the Christian lexicon. In much the same way we often meet in buildings that look suspiciously like Roman basilica, build churches where once pagans planted their ‘sacred’ trees, and celebrate the birth of Jesus during the Winter solstice. It is the focus of your worship that identifies your loyalties after all.
The giving of Easter eggs is based on pre-Christian festivals of fertility and Spring. Eggs clearly symbolise new life and the first Easter eggs were painted hens eggs. It was forbidden to eat eggs during Lent but it didn’t occur to anyone to tell the hens, who just kept laying them, so the eggs were boiled, decorated, and saved for Easter. There is also Egg Saturday, the Saturday before Shrove Tuesday when, because eggs were forbidden during Lent, people had an Egg Feast to use up eggs before the fast began. I just hope they had plenty of roughage to balance out the effects of eating so many eggs.
It is an easy mistake to make in an age when people don’t pay as much attention to the church calendar as they once did, but Easter Saturday is the Saturday after Easter. The Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is called Holy Saturday.
There is much talk of standardising, fixing the date of Easter across the world. It will take five to ten years to do this, if it is done at all, because church leaders don’t wait until January to decide what date Easter will be this year. We depend heavily on astronomers to help us identify the date many years years ahead. It falls on the first Sunday after the full moon on or following 21 March. The problem arises, not because of anything in the Bible or Christian tradition, but because our calendars are imperfect and different calendars are used across the world.