Saturday, April 15, 2017

Words about religion, Part 1: Easter

[This entry is an excerpt from Chapter 43 (Words about Religion) of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

The English word Easter refers to ‘the festival of the Christian Church celebrating the resurrection of Christ, held (in the Western Church) on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the northern spring equinox’ (COED). This celebration is the Judeo-Christian equivalent of traditional, pagan, spring equinox celebrations. Traditionally, it coincides with the Jewish celebration of Passover (Sp. Pascua judía) since Jesus was said to have died on Passover day. In the Jewish religion, Passover is ‘a holiday beginning on the 14th of Nisan and traditionally continuing for eight days, commemorating the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt’ (AHD).[i]

The word Easter is not Christian in origin but pagan. It comes from Old English ēastre, a native Germanic word related to the word east. The name seems to be a direct descendant of Ēastre, the name of a goddess of fertility and the sunrise associated with the end of winter and the coming of spring (the Proto-Germanic word was *Austron). In other words, when the ancestors of the English were Christianized they merely replaced one of their pagan spring festivities with the Christian one. This is something that had been going on since Christianity was widely adopted starting in the fourth century. What is different is that this time they did not bother to change the name of the festivity by adopting a Christian one.

The name in other European languages for this Christian celebration typically derives from the Latin word pascha, meaning ‘Passover or Easter’ (the accusative wordform was pascham), or its Vulgar Latin equivalent pascŭa, which came from Ancient Greek πάσχα (páskha), which came from Aramaic פסחא (paskha), which came from Hebrew פסח (pésakh). These latter words meant literally ‘passed over, skipped’ and were the name for the festival of ‘Passover’, which is ‘the major Jewish spring festival, commemorating the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian servitude’ (COED). The English name Passover for this Jewish festivity was coined by William Tyndale, a leading Protestant reformer, in 1530, from the phrase pass over, referring to God ‘passing over’ the homes of the Israelites in Egypt when he killed the first-born of the Egyptians. In Spanish, Passover translates as Pascua (judía), from the Vulgar Latin word pascŭa that we just saw.

The Spanish equivalent of Easter also is pascua, though these two words are not exact equivalents for the Spanish word pascua can refer to a number of things besides Christian Easter. It is used, for instance, to refer to the Jewish Passover, as we just saw, which is known as pascua judía. The word pascua is also used for a number some other major Christian celebrations, such as the birth of Jesus (Dec. 25), Kings Day or Epiphany (Jan. 6), or the coming of the Holy Ghost to the apostles (Pentecost, see above). The main remnant of the use of the word pascua for other holidays in the popular language is perhaps the phrase ¡Felices pascuas!, which is said at Christmas time and which is equivalent (along with ¡Feliz Navidad!), to Merry Christmas! in English. Here, the plural pascuas refers to the celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany, as well as the whole period in between, that is, the twelve days of Christmas. The phrase felicitar las pascuas thus is equivalent to ‘wish a merry Christmas’. Equivalent to felicitar las pascuas is felicitar las navidades (again, plural), as we will see below.

Because the word pascua can refer traditionally to several Christian holy days, the Christian resurrection celebration (Easter) is known more specifically as pascua de resurrección or pascua florida. The name pascua florida ‘flowery/florid pascua’ has also been a popular name to refer to this particular pascua, which unlike the other pascuas, took place in the spring, when plants begin to flower, which is what connects this celebration to pre-Christian spring celebrations. Regarding the name pascua de resurrección, we should not forget that the main day of Easter for Christians is Resurrection Sunday, or Easter Sunday, which is the day in which Christians believe Christ resurrected. The word Easter can be used to refer just to this day, the culmination of the three-day celebration. Resurrection Sunday is known in Spanish more especifically as domingo de pascua or domingo de resurrección.

Although the word Easter in English refers primarily to resurrection Sunday, as we have seen, it can also be used to refer to the whole Passover period, which traditionally lasted three days and went from the Thursday at sunset to Sunday at sunset. That is because in many ancient traditions, a day ended and started at sunset, not at midnight as it does nowadays. Thus, many of our celebrations start on what for us, who start our days at midnight, is the eve of the actual holiday. The traditional name for this three-day period in English is Eastertide, Easter Season, or Easter Time.

The word for this three-day Easter season in Spanish is Semana Santa, literally ‘holy week’. The phrase Semana Santa is also used to refer to the holiday season that is traditional in Spanish-speaking countries during this time, as in Me voy a Cancún para Semana Santa ‘I’m going to Cancun for Easter (holiday)’. In Spanish, one would not use Pascua or any of the other names to refer to this holiday season. In Spanish, the term tiempo pascual ‘Easter time’ is not equivalent to Easter season, as the name suggests, but rather to the period of time between Easter (Sunday) and the Pentecost.

The other major day in this three-day period is Friday, known as Good Friday in English and Viernes Santo in Spanish. This is the day that Jesus was said to have died in to Christian tradition. There are also names for the other two days, namely Thursday and Saturday. Thursday is found here because the three day period in question started in the eve of Thursday. This day is known primarily in English as Maundy Thursday, though it has other names as well. The Saturday is known as Holy Saturday or Silent Saturday, among other things, in English. The names of these two days in Spanish are Jueves Santo ‘Holy Thursday’ and Sábado Santo ‘Holy Saturday’, respectively.

By the way, the Polynesian Easter Island, or Isla de Pascua in Spanish, which belongs to Chile since 1888, was given its name by its first European ‘visitor’, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who came across it on Easter Sunday of 1722. Likewise, the name of the state of Florida also presumably comes from the Spanish phrase Pascua Florida ‘Easter’ (see above), for that is the time that Spanish explorer Ponce de León ‘discovered’ it in 1513. That is one of the theories for this name. Another possible reason for the name is perhaps that the vegetation in this land was in bloom when the Spaniard arrived. The State of Florida celebrates Pascua Florida Day on April 2, the day on which Ponce de León first spotted the state.

We can’t end this section without mentioning the Easter bunny (Sp. conejo de Pascua), also known as the Easter rabbit or Easter hare, which refers to ‘a folkloric figure and symbol of Easter, depicted as a rabbit bringing Easter eggs’ (WP). This is an old North-West European tradition brought to North America by German Lutherans in the 18th century. A description of this tradition first appeared in writing in the late 17th century. This seems to be a case of two fertility symbols of antiquity, the hare and the egg, being rolled into one and associated with the pagan fertility celebration of Easter (see above). (The original tradition referred to a hare, liebre in Spanish, but in the US, this was changed to a rabbit, conejo in Spanish.) The painting of the eggs represents the return of color to the landscape in spring, yet another pagan touch. However, there seems to be a connection of the hare to Christianity, namely that in the Northern European Christian tradition, the hare was thought to be a hermaphrodite which, besides being very prolific, reproduced without sex, just the way the virgin Mary is said to have given birth to her son Jesus. Hence the association of the hare to the virgin Mary and to Jesus in this tradition.

Figure 144: Domestic rabbit and easter eggs[ii]

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