From ancient spring ritual to crime story mania

Celebrating the beginning of spring may be among the oldest holidays in human culture

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

Photo: Janne Karaste / Wikimedia Commons Back when Easter was Eostre, bonfires were a common ritual marking the return of the sun in spring.

Photo: Janne Karaste / Wikimedia Commons
Back when Easter was Eostre, bonfires were a common ritual marking the return of the sun in spring.

Easter is known as Påske in Norway. The Easter Bunny is Påskeharen. Easter Eve is Påskeaften. Daffodils that bloom during the spring are known as Påskeliljer, one of the main symbols for Easter in Norway.

Publishers churn out series of crime books known as “Easter Thrillers” or Påskekrim. You can try to solve a puzzle known as Påskenøttene or crunch away on Påskenøtter [Easter nuts].

And while everyone really knows what the holiday is about, and may well duck into a church for the first time in a year to dutifully observe the religious side of the holiday, Påske seems to be mainly about celebrating spring, getting out into the world after a long, dark winter.

Many people go on holiday to påskefjellet, the Easter mountain—their mountain cabins, camping or skiing.

“Easter in Norway is a time to get away and travel to people’s cabins in the mountains or other recreational areas,” notes the Rev. Tormod Woxen, an “itinerant” pastor with the Church of Norway abroad, currently stationed at the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in San Francisco. “It’s also a time to travel abroad.”

The brown skin tone one gets after long outdoor days and sunbathing is called påskesol, and revelers may drink too much påskeøl. Those who stay home have a bypåske in the city.

So why is it the Påske bunny and not the Easter bunny in Norway? How did Easter become Påske?

“The etymology of Norwegian Påske comes from the Jewish Pesach,” notes the Rev. Tormod Woxen of the Church of Norway Abroad. “So the Norwegian Påske refers to Passover, which, of course, in the Christian belief is fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus.”

That death and resurrection happened around the Jewish Pesach.

“The majority of Norwegians don’t know the real meaning of Easter, if you start to ask more specifics,” according to Rev. Woxen.

Norwegians aren’t the only European nation to call Easter by a name that is derived from Passover. The French call it Pâques. And like the Norwegian Påske, the word comes from the Hebrew word hag ha–pessah or pèseh, the eight days of Pesach.

Also known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Passover is an eight-day observation commemorating the freedom and exodus of the Jews who were held as slaves in Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II. In the older Jewish nomadic tradition, it also meant the lamb that was sacrificed in spring, and Christians often refer to Jesus of Nazareth as the Lamb of God.

The Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples was a Passover meal, or seder. For Jewish families, Passover is a time of gatherings and lavish meals called seders, accompanied by special foods, songs and customs. Regular leavened bread cannot be eaten during the eight-day holiday, hence the custom of eating matzah, or unleavened bread (The biblical narrative relates that the Israelites left Egypt in such haste they could not wait for their bread dough to rise; the bread, when baked, was matzah, a flatbread.)

But there is an even more ancient connection to Easter. “The word påske is from pesach, while Easter is from Ostra,” noted Rev. Woxen.

Indeed, historians have traced the origin of the word Easter to the Scandinavian name Ostra and the Germanic Eostre. Both of these refer to the mythological goddess of spring and fertility. Her feast day was held on the first full moon following the vernal equinox, the beginning of spring. A similar calculation is used for Easter among Western Christians.

The name Eostre or Ostra, descendants of the ancient word meaning to shine, continues into English as Easter. Ostra was the goddess of spring and rebirth. And to welcome the returning sun, bonfires were once ceremonially lighted at Easter throughout Northern Europe.

Two of Eostre’s most important symbols were the hare (both because of its fertility and because ancient people saw a hare in the full moon) and the egg, which symbolized the growing possibility of new life. Each of these symbols continues to play an important role in modern celebrations of Easter.

Easter is the oldest feast of the Christian church, the connecting link between the Old and New Testaments. At the same time, celebrating the beginning of spring may be among the oldest holidays in human culture, dating back thousands of years.

And so, God Påske! Happy Easter! He is risen!

This article originally appeared in the April 18, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.