A. “Easter” derives from the Old English and Germanic word designating the season of the rising sun, the season of new beginnings or new life. Such is reflected in the Germanic Ost; i.e., “east.” The reference is, of course, to the springtime sun, which “rises” in the east. Liturgically, “east” metaphorically describes the new life secured by Jesus’ Resurrection.
(The theory that “Easter” originated from the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess; i.e., “Eostre,” has long been discounted. Besides, any reference to such a deity is absent in Germanic mythology.)
Officially, of course, Easter is the Solemnity of “the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” In certain Slavic lands it is known as the “Great Night.” In Rus’-Ukraine and Serbia it is the “Great Day.”
Modern Russians also call it “Great Day.” By and large, however, Easter is called the “Pasch,” reflecting the Hebrew term for “Passover.” Father Francis X. Weiser goes into this in his Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. (1952)
Q. What is the origin of holding “sunrise services” on Easter morning?
A. “Sunrise Easter services” date at least from medieval times in Europe, Great Britain and Ireland. My understanding is that such services can still be seen in certain Catholic areas, such as the Alpine sections of Austria. Here in America, of course, they are usual with various non-Roman Christian denominations and in newly ecumenical contexts.
Q. How did the custom of wearing new clothes at Easter begin?
A. New clothes at Easter reflect the “new life” that Easter heralds. The custom of new clothes dates from ancient Christian times, when catechumens were robed in new, white linen robes associated with their baptism.
Q. Are there many “Easter hymns,” comparable to Christmas carols?
A. One of the most popular of non-liturgical, English Easter hymns is of course, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” The composer was Charles Wesley (1788), brother of John Wesley, the Methodist preacher. Another widely liked Easter hymn is the German Christ Lag in Todesbanden; an English translation appears in the Divine Office said daily by priests, deacons and religious. The text is attributed to Martin Luther. There are many other Easter hymns in English; e.g., Now glad of heart be everyone, The strife is Over, etc.
Classical musical compositions regarding Easter include some masterpieces. Among these are the latter parts of Handel’s Messiah and Rimsky-Korsakov’s great Russian Easter Overture, one of my own favorites, recalling a trembling earth bursting open with Jesus’ new life.
Q. How did “Easter eggs” become popular as such?
A. Evidently, even in pre-medieval times, eggs were symbolic of new life emerging from an apparently lifeless shell.
Christianity adopted this symbolism, especially in northern Europe and Asia. A second symbolism emerged within the Christian era; specifically, the end of Lent, during which eggs were included among the various foods prohibited by strict fasting. Eventually, especially in Europe, “Easter eggs” were decorated and ornamented in various colors.
Q. What is the origin of the “Easter lily”?
A. “The Easter lily,” whose home was largely in Japan, was introduced to the Western world by way of Bermuda. Father Weiser credits its American source to a florist named W.K. Harris. Its name, based on the fact that it flowers around Eastertime, has religious significance because of various Biblical references to the lily’s beauty and perfection; e.g., Matthew 6, 28.