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March 24, 2008

A bee in the bonnet

In the weeks leading up to Easter, I started to notice something: Christians talking about how we shouldn't use the word Easter because it has pagan roots. Maybe this isn't a widespread thing -- maybe it was just a coincidence, but it seemed to be coming at me from several different directions: Christian message boards, a visitor to our church Easter pageant, and more.

I'm only one among many, many Christians, but with all humility and respect, I feel the need to ask my fellow believers: Could we maybe not go there?

My sympathies have always been with those who are sick of "holiday this" and "holiday that" and want to feel free to say "Merry Christmas" without bringing the PC police down on their heads (although the strident tone that this movement has begun to take in recent years has sometimes troubled me). So you could say I understand the impulse to honor God in the language we use. But honestly, do we really want to earn a reputation as the people who are always fussing over names of holidays? When it comes to the meaning of the holiday itself, we won! Unless you happen to know large groups of people who gather together every year to celebrate the goddess Ishtar, I don't think the pagans as a whole have much say in what the holiday has become. Isn't that the important thing?

It's not like we haven't known about the origins of the holiday, and how it ended up becoming a Christian celebration, for the past two thousand years. But it seems like every so often, we feel compelled to get a bee in our bonnet over things that really don't matter. Wouldn't we be more effective if we just left the name alone and spent more time talking about what Easter means now?

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In support:

I Timothy 6:3-4: "If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and ARGUMENTS OVER WORDS..."

II Timothy 2:14: "Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to STRIVE ABOUT WORDS to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers."

Ted Slater

I don't understand what you're saying, Steve. Are you saying that Gina shouldn't be arguing over this word, or that others shouldn't be arguing over this work?

Are you arguing over this word?

The blogosphere would be a very quiet place if we didn't wrestle with the meaning of words....

FWIW, count me as one who cringes when I hear the name of the fertility goddess instead of a reference to what Jesus did. I'm all for "Holy Week" and "Resurrection Day" over "Ishtar/Easter."


Apparently I sacrificed clarity for brevity; I completely agree with Gina. The verses seem to go unnoticed, or unheeded, by those creating the flap.


That'll preach, Gina! :o) I completely agree. There are more important battles to be fought.

Steve (SBK)

I agree with Gina and Steve.
*mumbling to self* ... God incarnate... yada yada yada... Rose from Dead... ok. bing... referred to by the word Easter!!??! Oh my! *begins to board up windows*

Seriously, some interesting stuff here (from an etymological, not theological point of view).

I write this on a *Monday* (or Lundi for the Romantic, and I'm sure you can tell by the increased *lunacy*). I was hoping to write this on Mardi or Thor's Day, feeling more aggressive, but decided now was the best time.

To be honest, I doubt the salvation of those who use the pagan names for the days of the week. We should be using something like EinGottag, ZweiGottag, etc. as each day should be dedicated as "God day #1, God day #2 etc". I'm surprised our pagan language is even understood by Christians. Also, for I'm appalled how Protestants use the word "Christmas" (i.e. the Christ Mass), as though they fully supported the liturgical connotations of a Roman service. By the way, the paragraph in which this sentence appears is a joke.

The festival/holiday referred to in English as "Easter" is from the Germanic family of languages. If it is really bothersome/worrisome, we could switch to the Romance branch, where the word is from the Greek for Passover (Pascha. And as an aside, the time of the Passover/Easter varies based off the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. This is all in Wikipedia).

Honestly, it's good to know the history of languages, but appealing to the ancient meaning of words often tell us very little about the current meaning (cf. etymological fallacy). If we are communicating properly (e.g. Easter makes us think of the Resurrection of Christ), we are doing our job properly. Like Gina is saying: the concept (the idea and the fact) is more important than the language (the actual, current words).

He is Risen. Peace. (more Hebraic Shalom than Pax Romana :P)

Ted Slater

Am I the only one to find it ironic that those who advocate not arguing about words are arguing about words?

I personally think wrestling over words and their meanings is a good thing.

Gina Dalfonzo

I think that, rather than arguing over the words, we're arguing over whether we should argue over the words.

I do understand how that could be confusing. :-)

I love words and I love exploring and learning about words. There's a reason why Dickens and Sayers and other lovers of words are among my favorite writers. However, my thought in this case is that there are times when trying to change the word that an entire society has used for a very long time may do more harm than good.

After all, we've never tried to change "The Book of Esther" to "The Book of Hadassah," even though some have said that Hebrew lady's name was changed by heathens to echo the name of that very goddess that I've mentioned.

Jason Taylor

"Arguing" can mean, "advocate in a rational manner" or it can mean "quarrel". In the context it is obvious it is referring to quarreling, not etymology. Though I suppose if we are going to quarrel about words, doing so in the last week of Mars' month is not inappropriate...


Yea, I've long been concerned over the excess of peace and unity in the church. We need more clubs with which to clobber one another. Survival of the wittest, you know. Makes the church stronger.

Jason Taylor

Aye, can't have to many sectarian controversies. Especially those regarding words and dates. We must after all always be ready to judge Another's servant. Keeps us on our toes...


That makes Easter a two-fer, because it involves words AND dates.

benjamin ady

I for one am all for it being named after a fertility goddess. Here's to (married, in my case) sex and fertility.

Not that I don't also think we should be a bit responsible in terms of populations growth (there, that should push a couple buttons =))


Gina, don't you dare :-) tell them that in addition "Christmas" is actually a contraction; some of our more radical Protestants might start a campaign to change that one, too. And we would probably get another flame-war about what day Jesus was actually born, etc.

"He is risen!" (punch) "He is risen indeed!" (kick) (stomp, bite, melee, ...)

And regarding Esther/Hadassah, I'm fascinated by the fact that Daniel's three friends are remembered for their Babylonian names and not their Hebrew ones, but hardly anyone remembers who Belteshazzar was.

Ted Slater

This really is an odd conversation. I haven't seen "fighting" or "quarreling" about the term Easter. I haven't seen any punching, kicking, stomping, biting, etc. take place over this term. Really seems like a Straw Man argument to me.

Am I to be dismissed as argumentative because I prefer to refer to the day Jesus came back to life as Resurrection Day rather than [Ishtar, Eostre, Astarte, Ostera, Eastre] Easter? Am I supposed to pretend that I don't know the etymology of the word Easter?


Wow, what a silly controversy. Ted Slater, do you call something really disgusting "awful"? If so, by your reasoning you're blaspheming God, since the word has changed meaning from its original "inspiring awe" to today's meaning of something horrible/disgusting. Early English translations speak about our "awful" God. Imagine the modern praise song, "Our God is an awful God he reigns, on heaven and earth ..." (Today's "awesome" is, etymologically speaking, meaningless.)

My point is, words change meanings. Are you striving to be a "peculiar" person? The original King James translation says you should.

Don't obsess about the old meanings of words. Sure, it's fun to know a word's origins. It's fun to see how meanings have changed.

But speak simply and plainly, in language that today's hearers will understand. Easter they know. Resurrection Day is likely to elicit quizzical looks.

Ted Slater

Again, it puzzles me that some people are so quick to defend the word "Easter" and so quick to dismiss the term "Resurrection Day." All the while arguing that I shouldn't be arguing about the term.

FWIW, I welcome the quizzical looks, Buzz. It may remind people that the day is about Jesus' coming back to life, and not about bunnies and eggs and chocolate. Controversial? Maybe. But certainly not silly.

I explain myself a bit more thoroughly here: http://www.boundlessline.org/2008/03/easter-ishtar-e.html

Gina Dalfonzo

I haven't seen fighting over it yet either, Ted (outside of LeeQuod's "Batman" spoof up there). :-) What I was trying to say is, maybe we should head it off at the pass before it gets to that point. Not that it definitely will, but the possibility is there. As I implied above, the movement to hang onto the name "Christmas" went from something I wholeheartedly supported, to something that I started to feel really uncomfortable about (though still supporting it in principle), thanks to the shift in tone. The thing that worries me is that this movement could go in the same direction. I just don't think it's worth it.


I'm not so much defending one word and dismissing the other. I'm trying to head off an unnecessary controversy where none really exists. My point was that you use words every day that don't mean precisely what they meant before. Do you date your checks "January" during that month? Does that mean you're celebrating the Roman god Janus? How about March (Mars)? Heck, let's rename the planets, too. Who needs Roman gods and goddesses when we can just call them first rock from the sun, second rock from the sun, etc. (Yeah, I realize some of them would be fifth giant ball of gas from the sun. So sue me.)

But as Gina says, the whole "war of words" thing when it came to Christmas turned out to make Christians look like petulant, whiny kids. Bad witness. A lot of people relate the word "Christian" with "whiny complainers." Read the book "UnChristian" for an idea of how we're perceived.

Why create the same thing with Easter?

Ted Slater

Buzz et al. -- you're free to continue using the word "Easter." I've never tried to make you use any other term.

And I'm free to use the term "Resurrection Day."

No arguing. No "war of words."

Gina Dalfonzo

Personally, I don't mind if anyone wants to call it Jump Up And Down And Yell Hallelujah Really Loud Because Jesus Came Back From The Dead Day. :-) This isn't about what anyone prefers to hear or say, or is free to hear or say. As I said before, I just don't want to see us start playing the Language Police. And I understand that you haven't done that, Ted. I'm not accusing anyone here of doing it.

Steve (SBK)

Hey Ted,

I understand your bemusement. (My apologies by the way if you took my words too seriously. They were meant more in a (word-)playful way and to show the impossibility of language stagnation. I'm sure we can all agree that words are fascinating.)

But your point I think is the need, esp. for Christians, to reclaim some language. (Which, as I think Gina is saying, is the opposite of those who want to take Christ out of Christmas for the 'holidays', which can be taken too extreme).
In reality I agree with you and think "Easter" has lost a lot of its "meat". Resurrection Day would make the connection a lot easier (over, say, lavender bunnies). And I have absolutely no problems with the diaspora of Rez Day over 'Easter'. Still, I think that there are things to be said for seeing symbols in the appropriated pagan rites. Eggs, life in tombs, new birth, fertility, abundant life, etc. (Please understand I'm not in any way endorsing pagan rituals, I'm merely saying, along with C.S. Lewis's thought, that if pagan religions resemble Christianity, so much the better for them, not the worse for Christianity, as its truth value is not determined by the resemblance.)
I think there is a richness in history where God has provided hints to his living Word.
Perhaps it would be more fruitful if we (Christians) used a different word (with same concept), but of course its pointless to try to enforce Christian language on the masses (they'd likely just need an explanation again). Better to show Christian love, that they may see and want to partake of this new life in Christ.

Anyway, I think Gina and Steve (first comment in this thread) were simply pointing out that some people are more fond of disputation over against resolution - and I don't think that's you, or me.


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