I Took on that Inane "Easter/Ishtar" Thing So You Don't Have To
If you've been on Facebook in the last few weeks, chances are you've come across this image:
Okay, so. Let's just do this.
First of all: Easter is not about celebrating fertility and sex.
Glad we got that off the table.
Second: It's true, Easter is not the original term for the Feast of the Resurrection which all Christians celebrate. Originally, and from the dawn of the Church, this feast was called "Pascha"--and it still is in the Orthodox church.
Why? Because it's time for a linguistics lesson, that's why.
As documented in all four Gospels (John 13:1, Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:1, and Luke 22:7), the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday all happened surrounding the Jewish Passover feast. Now, the Hebrew word for Passover (remember "The Prince of Egypt"? That's Passover) is "Pesach" and Jews in Jesus' time, being subjects of the Roman Empire, spoke Greek. The Greek word for "Pesach" is "Pascha", and both these terms reference both the feast and the sacrifice of Passover.
(For a really great, brief, and understandable article on the connections between Passover/Pesach and calling the Feast of the Resurrection "Pascha", as well as its historical dating and why Western and Eastern celebrations fall on different days, check out this article from the Antiochian Orthodox Diocese of North America)
The earliest Christians, who saw themselves as extensions of Judaism, took on the term "Pascha" to celebrate the sacrifice of their paschal lamb, Jesus, and that's what it was called for quite awhile in the Church. Because of the dating of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection in the Bible revolved around Passover, Pascha has always been celebrated around the same time as the Passover--which, yes, happens to be around the Vernal Equinox.
And, yes, many other ancient religions had fertility festivals around that time.
Because it's spring, you guys.
Spring is the time of new growth, of birth and new life and, yes, new life comes from sex!
So it shouldn't be shocking or scandalous to us that world religions almost universally celebrate feasts of life and fertility around the same time as each other.
Does it make the legitimacy of the celebration any less? No.
Does it make the legitimacy of the religion any less? No.
Does it make you think about linguistics way more than you thought you ever would? Perhaps.
The purpose, the focus, and the timing of Easter have not changed (much...see the calendar debate in the article linked above), but the name--in certain parts of the world--did, probably because some well-meaning Anglo-Saxon missionary wanted to explain the holiday in terms that were more palatable to the people in the area.
What we call Easter doesn't change what we celebrate: that God became human, died as a sacrifice for humanity, and rose again, ushering in the possibility of eternal life and making death irrelevant.
Does a historical linguistic shift change any of that? No.
Cause here's the thing: people who are scandalized by the concept of a Christian holiday taking or changing its name in reference to the language of its surrounding culture and time are: 1) woefully ignorant of the rich tradition in the Bible of turning words and phrases over on their heads to mean new and completely mind-blowing things (talk to your friendly neighborhood Biblical scholar about Jesus' use of the phrase "I Am" in John or Paul's continuous use of "give thanks" throughout his letters), and 2) thinking about this through a modern, Western lens.
In the Ancient world, it was not considered stealing to take a phrase or a word or even a name and use it for your own, new interpretations and ideas. It just wasn't, and as offensive as that is to our post-Enlightenment mindset and our modern ideas of academic integrity, we need to get over it when it comes to things like this.
So, is the more modern term "Easter" a Christianization of the name of whatever local fertility goddess (Ishtar, Eostre, etc.)? Probably.
Does that change the integrity, the truth, or the meaning of the Christian celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ? Absolutely not.
Enjoy your chocolate bunnies and your hard boiled eggs, people.
And maybe consider calling it "Pascha" instead.