Spotlight on the language of Easter

Easter Thursday

Why we refer to Easter Thursday as Maundy Thursday

Also known as Holy Thursday, Maundy Thursday is the name for the Thursday before Easter, and commemorates the Last Supper. In the UK, the day is known for the custom of the sovereign giving alms to the poor. The day is also an official holiday in several countries around the world.

The word Maundy, however, specifically refers to the custom of washing the feet of the faithful, paying tribute to Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. During the ceremony, one of the antiphons, or ‘short sentences sung or recited before or after a psalm or canticle’, comes from the Gospel of John: ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another’ (John 13:34). In the Latin version of the service, the phrase ‘new commandment’ is mandatum novum. Over time, the ceremony became known as the mandatum, which eventually was shortened to Maundy.

Easter Sunday

Is the Christian holiday of Easter named after a pagan goddess?

Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods depicts a goddess named Easter who, living in 21st century San Francisco, notes that while most of the Old World pagan deities have been forgotten in the modern era, “on my festival days they still feast on eggs and rabbits, on candy and on flesh, to represent rebirth and copulation. They wear flowers in their bonnets and they give each other flowers. They do it in my name.” The implication is that Christians are unwittingly keeping the name of an ancient goddess alive through the name of the holiday celebrating Christ’s resurrection.

We owe this explanation of the name of the Christian holiday to a single source: the Venerable Bede, an English monk writing in Latin during the 8th century. He claimed that the word Easter came from the name of a goddess called Eostre, whose festival was celebrated by pagan Anglo Saxons at the time of the vernal equinox. Bede’s mention of the goddess (an aside in his description of the Old English names of the months) is the only record of her existence, and some scholars have suggested that she may have been the product of his own invention. Nonetheless, as the Oxford English Dictionary’s etymology points out “it seems unlikely that Bede would have invented a fictitious pagan festival in order to account for a Christian one”.

Whether it was originally the name of a goddess or not, the English word Easter and its German cognate Ostern are most likely derived ultimately from the same Germanic word as the cardinal direction east, which in turn is cognate with the word for dawn in many ancient languages (including Classical Latin aurora), by association with the direction of the rising sun. The word for Easter thus has metaphorical links with the ideas of dawn, spring, and rebirth (as do the holiday’s traditional symbols of eggs, rabbits, and flowers).

Amongst the Germanic languages, English and German are exceptional in not using a word related to Passover as their usual word for the Christian holiday of Easter. The crucifixion is strongly associated with Passover, and Christian writings often equate Jesus to a “paschal lamb”, in reference to the traditional Passover sacrifice. The English adjective paschal can mean either “relating to Passover” or “relating to Easter”, and it is derived from the Hebrew word for Passover, pesaḥ (compare Pesach). In most European languages, this is also the origin of the word used for Easter: French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua, Icelandic páskar, Dutch Pasen, Swedish påsk, etc. There is a similar English word, Pasch, which dates back to Old English and has been used to refer to both Passover and Easter, but it is comparatively rare, surviving primarily in the English regional and Scottish form Pace.

 Easter Monday

Why we refer to Easter Monday as Black Monday

While it is probably the most well-known of the ‘black’ days, Friday is not the only day to have found itself blackened. The first day evidenced to have Black prefixed to it was a Monday, more specifically Easter Monday; a quotation referring to Easter Monday as Black Monday has been found as early as 1389. There are a few competing theories for what caused the day to be so named. One historical theory holds that the name refers to a severe storm on Easter Monday in 1360, which led to the deaths of many soldiers of Edward III’s army during the Hundred Years’ War. A different historical theory purports that Black Monday is a reference to the massacre of English settlers in Dublin by the Irish on Easter Monday 1209. The name may be unrelated to either event, and may instead be linked to a general belief in the unlucky character of Mondays, possibly influenced in this case by the view that misfortune will naturally follow a celebration like that of Easter Sunday.


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