Saturday, April 15, 2017

Words about religion, Part 1: Easter

[This entry is an excerpt from Chapter 44 (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). It is the most important and oldest of all Christian celebrations. 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).

The date for Easter ranges between March 22 and April 25, for Western Christianity at least. Since according to Christianity, Jesus died the day after he celebrated Passover with his apostles (the same day according to the Jewish calendar, since the day begins at dusk in this tradition), there is a connection between these two holidays. However, Passover and Easter Friday do not always coincide nowadays. That is because the Christian date for Easter, using the first-Sunday-after-the-full-moon formula, was laid out at the Christian Council of Nicea in 325 CE, whereas the date for Passover varies depending on the vagaries of the Hebrew calendar, which is a lunar calendar with only 354 days. The calendar is regularly adjusted approximately by adding a leap month to make sure that Nissan, the month of Passover, always falls in the spring.[1]

The word Easter is not Christian in origin, but pagan. It comes from Old English ēastre, a native Germanic word related to (and derived from) the word east, though the exact derivation is not clear. The name seems to be a direct descendant of Ēostre or 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 name was *Austron). Her holiday was celebrated at the vernal equinox. 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 in different cultures since Christianity started to be widely adopted starting in the fourth century CE. What is different is that this time they did not bother to change the name of the festivity by adopting a Christian one. It has been claimed that there is a connection of this Germanic goddess and Astarte, the Hellenized version of the name of the Bronze Age Middle Eastern goddess Astoreth or Ishtar, who was associated with fertility, sexuality and war, the equivalent of the Greek goddess Aphrodite and the Roman goddess Venus. There is probably no such connection, however, and the similarities in the names are probably just coincidences.

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’, mentioned earlier, 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, according to Jewish scripture. 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. The name pascua florida ‘flowery/florid pascua’ has 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 specifically 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’. In English too, the expression Holy Week has been used for the week that ends on Easter Sunday, in addition to Passion Week, though these names are not in common use today the way Semana Santa is common in the Spanish-speaking world. 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 (= for the 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.

Holy Week starts with Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, which commemorates the entrance of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, when palm branches were supposedly strewn before him as he entered the city. This is one of the major Christian feast days. The reason for this name is that in ancient times in this part of the world the branch of the palm tree was a symbol of triumph and peace. The Spanish equivalent of this holiday is Domingo de Ramos. The word ramo has several meanings, such as ‘(flower) bunch, bouquet’, but also ‘cut tree branch’ (note that the normal word for the meaning ‘tree branch’ is rama). In earlier times, the Sunday before Palm Sunday, two Sundays before Easter or the fifth Sunday of Lent (see below), was known as Passion Sunday (Sp. Domingo de Pasión). The two-week period that followed Palm Sunday was known as Passiontide in English. The Catholic Church removed Passiontide from the liturgical calendar in 1969. Passion Sunday is also deemphasized by other Christian churches and Lutheran and many Anglican churches now refer to Palm Sunday also as The Sunday of the Passion (not to be confused with Palm Sunday).

The other major day in this three-day period besides Easter Sunday is Friday, known as Good Friday in English and Viernes Santo ‘Holy Friday’ in Spanish. Other names for this day in English are Holy Friday, Great Friday, and Black Friday. This is the day of the crucifixion of Jesus, the day that Jesus is said to have died on the cross. The original day when this happened of course coincided with Jewish Passover, but nowadays the dates may not coincide in the different calendars in use, as we saw earlier. Even different Christian denominations use different calendars and thus celebrate Good Friday on different dates. Most notably, Eastern and Western Christianity celebrate Easter at different times, as they differ on the reckoning of the date for Easter since most Orthodox churches base their Easter date on the Julian calendar and Western Christianity for the most part uses the Gregorian calendar (see Part II, Chapter 23, §23.6).

The name Good Friday would seem to be an odd choice for this most solemn day, which is why it has been suggested that perhaps Good Friday is a corruption of the phrase God Friday. However, the name has a long tradition and it comes from the ‘pious, holy’ sense of the word good, which is now archaic. Equivalent names in other languages include Dutch Goede Vrijdag (attested in the 13th century), Anglo-Norman Bon Venderdy, and Late Latin bonus dies Veneris (the latter two attested in the 14th century), all using words meaning 'good' (OED). Good Friday is a legal holiday in many traditionally Christian countries and in twelve states of the United States.

There are also names for the other two days of Easter week, namely Thursday and Saturday. Thursday is found here because the three-day period in question started in the eve of Thursday, since in the Hebrew tradition the day started at sunset, and in this case, Passover started at dusk on what would be our Thursday of Passover week. The name for this day in Spanish is Jueves Santo ‘Holy Thursday’. In English, this day is known primarily as Maundy Thursday in England, though it has gone by other names as well, all of them rare today, such as Holy Thursday (like in Spanish), Covenant Thursday, Great and Holy Thursday, Sheer Thursday, and Thursday of Mysteries.

The word maundy of Maundy Thursday is thought to come from Old French mandé, which comes from Latin mandatum ‘commandment’ (cf. Sp. mandato ‘command’), which derives from the first word of the Latin phrase Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos ‘A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another’, from the Gospel of John (13:34). This phrase is found in a hymn sung during the Maundy ceremony of the washing of the feet by a priest or bishop of twelve random people from the community traditionally done on this day. A different theory, which is less likely, is that maundy comes from maund ‘a woven basket’ derived from French mendier and ultimately from Lat. mendicare ‘to beg’. Thus, as we just saw, Maundy Thursday commemorates Christ’s foot washing and the Last Supper with the Apostles.

The Saturday of Holy Week is known as Holy Saturday or Silent Saturday in English, though other names are Holy and Great Saturday, the Great Sabbath, Black Saturday, Joyous Saturday, and Easter Eve. The primary name for this day in Spanish is Sábado Santo ‘Holy Saturday’, though another name is Sábado de Gloria ‘Glory Saturday’. Christians see this as the day between Christ’s death (Friday) and resurrection (Sunday). However, according to Christian tradition (based on something that the apostle Peter says in the book Acts of the Apostles) this is also the day in which Christ triumphantly descended into Hell (or Hades), what is known as the Harrowing of Hell or, in Spanish, Descenso de Cristo a los infiernos (or al limbo) (in Latin, Descensus Christi ad Inferos ‘the descent of Christ into Hell’).

The three days that comprise the period leading up to Easter Sunday are the last three days of the period of Lent, ‘the 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday [Sp. miércoles de ceniza] until Easter observed by Christians as a season of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter’ (AHD). The word Lent, first attested this way in the 14th century, comes from an earlier Middle English (12th century) lenten, from Old English lencten ‘springtime, the season of spring’. This word was actually a shortening of the West Germanic phrase *langa-tinaz ‘long days’. The Spanish equivalent of Lent is Cuaresma, a word derived from Latin quādrāgēsĭma ‘fortieth’ (masculine: quādrāgēsĭmus; source of the Spanish learned ordinal number cuadragésimo/a ‘fortieth’), an adjective derived from the numeral quādrāgintā ‘forty’ (source of the patrimonial Spanish cardinal number cuarenta).

These three days have traditional names, particularly in the Catholic tradition. In Spanish, a name that has been used is Triduo Pascual, though this name is not as common as the term Semana Santa, which in the religious context is typically used to refer just to those three days and not the whole week that precedes Easter (except when used to refer to the vacation time period, if it happens to include the whole week). English equivalents of this Spanish expression are Easter Triduum or Paschal Triduum (a translation of Latin Triduum Paschale), Holy Triduum (a translation of Latin Triduum Sacrum), or simply The Three Days. The  triduum (pronounced [ˈtraɪ̯.dju.əm] or [ˈtrɪ.dju.əm]) is used by Catholic Christians in the English-speaking world, though it was not borrowed into English until the late 19th century. Spanish, of course, adapted the inflectional ending of this learned loanword from Latin and changed it to triduo ([ˈtɾi.ðu̯o]). The Latin noun trīdŭum ‘period of three days’ is composed of the morphemes trī‑, the combining form of trēs ‘three’ (cf. Sp. tres), dŭ‑, a variant of the root dĭ‑ of the noun dĭēs ‘day’ (originally *dĭūs; cf. Sp. día), and the neuter inflection ‑um . The first of these three days, Friday (which starts at dusk on Thursday) is the day of Christ’s passion, death and burial, and Sunday is the day of the resurrection of Jesus. Other Spanish names for this season are tiempo pascual or tiempo de Pascua and, in English, Eastertide, Easter Season, Easter Time, Paschaltide, Paschal Season, or Paschal Time.

Interestingly, Easter does not end on Easter Sunday for many Christians. In some Christian traditions the Monday after Easter is also a special day. It is called Easter Monday (Sp. lunes de Pascua). Easter Monday is a holiday in many traditionally Christian countries, from Germany and Belgium in Western Christianity to Bulgaria and Serbia in Eastern Christianity. In Spain, it is a holiday in several autonomous communities, such as the Basque Country, Navarre, and Catalonia.

Speaking of Easter, we should mention the use of this word in the name of the Polynesian Easter Island, or Isla de Pascua in Spanish, famous for its massive moai statues ([ˈmoʊ̯.aɪ̯]; Sp. moái [mo.ˈai̯]) of the Rapa Nui people. The island belongs to Chile since 1888, the closest mainland, though it is 3,500 kilometers away. This island was given its name by its first European visitor, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who chanced upon the island on Easter Sunday of 1722 (the original name in Dutch was Paasch-Eyland, of which Easter Island and Isla de Pascua are calques or translations).

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, anyway. Another possible reason for the name is perhaps that the vegetation in this land was in bloom when the Spaniard arrived. At any rate, the State of Florida celebrates Pascua Florida Day on April 2 (unless it falls on a weekend), 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. This 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 associated with this season, the beginning of spring, namely the hare and the egg. The two symbols which are associated with the pagan fertility celebrations of this time of the year, are being rolled into one. Curiously, the original tradition referred to a hare (liebre in Spanish), but in the US this was changed to a rabbit for some reason (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 as well since 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 there is an unexpected association of the hare to the virgin Mary and to Jesus in this tradition. To the extent that the Easter bunny tradition exists in isolated parts of the Spanish-speaking world, it is a very recent innovation copied from the United States, much like other cultural traditions such as Halloween.

Figure 164: Domestic rabbit and easter eggs[i]



[1] In earlier times, until the 4th century, the leap year was added by the Sanhedrin (Rabbinical Supreme Court) approximately every three years but depending on a number of other factors as well. Since the 4th century, the calendar became fixed by the sage Hillel II with nineteen-year cycles, each cycle containing seven leap years.

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