Felices Pascuas, Joyeuses Pâques, Buona Pasqua, Glad Påsk… Around the world, Christians use very similar words to wish each other a happy Easter, and with a couple of glaring exceptions, they call the feast by a variant of pascha, Passover. Even Tagalog uses pasko. The odd-tongues-out are of course English itself, and its close ally German, where believers wish Frohe Ostern! That oddity actually says a great deal about the process of inculturation, past and present.
Astonishingly in retrospect, English took the name Easter from a pagan goddess. We know this from the work of Bede, who around 725 wrote his De Temporum Ratione. He records that “Eostre-Month” was named after a goddess named Eostre, in whose honor feasts were celebrated (quondam a Dea illorum quæ Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant nomen habuit).
Bede says nothing more about this figure, about whom nothing else is known, but there is not the slightest doubt that his statement is accurate. Bede himself was an utterly scrupulous and cautious historian. He grew up in a family only a generation or two removed from paganism, and the remnants of old pagan shrines would still have littered the Northumbrian landscape. He often talked with older people who would assuredly have known about pagan times. Most tellingly, it is inconceivable that he would have invented such a linkage, which would have seemed blasphemous were it not rooted in sober truth.
The English, then, named the greatest Christian feast after a Spring-goddess, and that was the name they took with them when their missionaries converted Germany shortly after Bede’s time. Although we know nothing of the worship of Eostre, analogies from elsewhere make it unlikely that it would have been chaste enough to win the approval of even the most broad-minded Christian clergy.
Throughout history, Christian missions have made accommodations with local pagan cults and observances, but have usually offered at least a thin disguise. In this case, though, it’s almost as if the celebration was named after Artemis or Thor, or that modern churches advertised their Odin-eve services.
This offers a useful precedent when we see modern debates about reconciling Christianity with older primal faiths. In Africa especially, such inculturation has for decades been the subject of ferocious controversy, for fear that it would contaminate the orthodox faith. But look at our English Easter story. At the time, that appropriation might have seemed radical or even syncretistic, but what happened in the long run? Today, what do we know of the older pagan Easter, of the goddess and any of her rituals? Absolutely nothing.
If a faith is confident enough, it can afford to be very tolerant indeed of any potential competitors. To adapt Shelley’s words, Christians should know that in the long run, the One remains; the many change and pass.