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Easter is the name for the spring festival commemorating the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, as recounted in the Christian Gospels. Although the festival is celebrated in most European nations, the English name has a different origin from the names used in other cultures.

In most European languages, the word for Easter comes from the Hebrew Pesach. We can see the connection easily in French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua, Dutch Pasen, Danish Påske or Russian Paskha, for example. All of these words refer to the Jewish feast of Passover, which was the setting for the Easter events related by the Gospel writers.

However, the name Easter is unrelated to these terms; and in fact, its derivation is unclear. There are various theories to explain where the name came from.

The most popular theory is reflected in the entry for Easter in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary: the Old English word eastre came "apparently from Eostre, a goddess associated with spring."

The basis for this theory is found in a work written in AD 725 by Saint Bede the Venerable, an English monk and historian. According to Bede, April was called Eosturmonath ("Easter-month") because in pagan times the month was dedicated to Eostre, an Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. When Christian beliefs spread throughout England, says Bede, Easter-month lent its name to the new April festival.

Another theory is that Eostre was simply the Anglo-Saxon word for spring festivals. Linguists trace this word to roots thousands of years old meaning "shine" and "dawn." Spring is a season of lengthening days and increased light. It would make sense for early peoples to give their spring festivals a name that celebrated the rising sun.

Words related to Easter

Other words from the same root as Easter are east (the direction of the dawn) and its German equivalent Ost, as well as Ostern (the German word for Easter). A more distant relative is the Latin word aurora ("dawn" or "east"), which we still use in the expression aurora borealis, the northern lights.