Easter and Passover are two of the most significant holidays in the Christian and Jewish faiths, respectively, and the traditions that celebrate these holidays have deep, ancient connections.
To better understand the link between these religious festivals, let’s start with the word “paschal” and learn more about the words of Easter and Passover.
“Paschal” is an adjective that can describe anything related to Easter (in Christianity) or Passover (in Judaism). These holidays occur around the same time in the spring, sometimes even coinciding. “Paschal” came into English in the 15th century as an Old French loanword. It stems from the Hebrew pesah (“he passed over,” relating to the holiday of Passover). The close relationship between these holidays is nothing new — “pasche” was also a Middle English term for “Easter,” proving that these etymological ties go back centuries.
Easter’s etymology isn’t simple. In Christianity, Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion. The holiday is always observed on a Sunday, but its date changes from year to year according to the lunisolar calendar, which uses the positions of the moon and sun to assign dates. Since the fourth century, Easter has officially been celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring, which is called the Paschal Full Moon. It usually lands at the end of March or the beginning of April. In 2023, the Paschal Full Moon is on April 5, and Easter falls on Sunday, April 9.
Easter’s name was likely derived from its connection to spring and the lunar calendar. In Old English, it was called Easterdæg, stemming from the Northumbrian (medieval Anglo-Saxon) word Eostre, which parallels the Germanic word Ostern. But this is where things get murky. Ostern might have come from austern, meaning “dawn,” or from Eostre/Eostrae, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility and spring, whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox.
Other Easter-Related Terms
Lent is the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter when Christians remember the events leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It begins in February or March and lasts for 40 days (excluding Sundays). “Lenten” came from lencten, the Old English word for “springtime.” Lent is a time of reflection, and many Christians use these 40 days to give up something to test themselves, much as Jesus did, according to the biblical account of him fasting in the desert for 40 days.
Ash Wednesday is quite literal, as this day is observed with church services where attendees are marked by ash on their foreheads. It falls on the first day of Lent, which occurs 46 days before Easter Sunday (because Sundays aren’t included in the 40-day period of Lent). Pope Gregory the Great initiated the tradition of Ash Wednesday in the sixth century CE by sprinkling the heads of the penitents (those seeking forgiveness) with ash on the first day of Lent.
Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, or Fastnacht Day
Despite the different names, these are all the same holiday, which falls on the day before Ash Wednesday. It is a day of feasting and celebrating before the beginning of fasting during Lent. The phrase “Mardi Gras” was borrowed from French in the 17th century as a translation of “Fat Tuesday,” named as such because it is a day of feasting and revelry. Over the centuries, Mardi Gras season has taken on a life of its own in New Orleans.
Shrove Tuesday, the name of which is derived from the past tense of “shrive” (meaning “hear the confession of, assign penance to, and absolve”), comes from the practice of confessing sins to a priest for penance and absolution. Yet another name for this holiday is Fastnacht Day, most commonly used in German and Pennsylvania Dutch communities. The word fastnacht means “fasting night,” but the doughnuts eaten on this day (traditionally made to use up the lard before fasting) are also called “fastnachts.”
Maundy Thursday, or Holy Thursday, is the Thursday before Easter and commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus Christ, just before his crucifixion. “Maundy” is a Middle English shortening of a Roman Catholic anthem (in Latin): Mandatum novum do vobis (“a new commandment I give to you”) from John 13:34 in the Bible.
Good Friday falls on the Friday before Easter and marks the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. There are several theories as to why such a terrible day in Christianity would be named this way. The leading assumption is simple: “Good” used to be synonymous with “holy.” Another interpretation is that Christians believe the day of the crucifixion led to the resurrection of Jesus and the reason for the Easter celebration — a “good” thing.
In the Jewish faith, Passover (also known as Pesaḥ or Pesach in Hebrew) is the commemoration of when the ancient Hebrews were delivered from slavery in Egypt. Its name is a direct reference to the plague “passing over” Israelite houses and sparing their firstborns. The verbal phrase “pass over” in Hebrew is “ha-pesah.”
The Passover festival is observed for either seven or eight days, depending on the Jewish community. Reform Jewish communities tend to celebrate for seven, while Orthodox Jews and other more traditional communities celebrate for eight. Passover falls on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, and lasts until the 22nd. In the Jewish calendar, Nisan (Nīsān in Hebrew) falls during March and April on the civil calendar (the Gregorian calendar). The Hebrew calendar directly correlates to the lunar cycle, so Passover (Nisan 15th) always begins on a full moon.
Modern Passover is based on two ancient festivals mentioned in the Torah: Nissan 14th (the original Passover) and the Festival of Unleavened Bread (which began on Nissan 15th). During this time, the Passover lamb that was traditionally sacrificed on Nissan 14th was prepared and eaten on Nissan 15th with unleavened bread (bread without yeast). Over time, Passover became the common name for the entire Festival of Unleavened Bread.
Other Passover-Related Words
Yom Tov, a Hebrew phrase that literally means “good day,” is a festival day or Jewish holiday. Six days out of the year are called Yom Tov in Judaism, including the first and seventh days of Passover (in some forms of Judaism, the second and eighth days are also included). Honor, enjoyment, and celebrations of joy are all key characteristics of Yom Tov.
In Hebrew, Chag Ha-Aviv means “Holiday of Spring,” and is another name for Passover. Passover has three other names in Hebrew: Chag Ha-Matzot, meaning “Holiday of Matzot” (an unleavened bread); Chag Ha-Pesach, meaning “Holiday of Pesach” (the Hebrew word for Passover); and Z’man Cheiruteinu, meaning “Season of Our Freedom.”
“Seder” is a feast that occurs during the first night (or two nights) of Passover, on the 15th or 16th of Nisan. It comes from the Hebrew word for “order,” sedher. The seder ritual is specific and includes the retelling of the Exodus (when the Israelites were freed).
The dinner begins with a ceremony led by the head of the family, who wears a white gown called a kittel. The ritual involves a series of symbolic items, traditional foods, and four cups of wine (called arbaʿ kosot), which are drunk in intervals. Prepared questions and answers about the holiday of Passover and the feast of the seder are asked and answered in unison, and just before the meal is eaten, unleavened bread is served.
Literally meaning “the weekday of the holiday,” Chol Hamoed refers to the intermediate days of Passover between the beginning and end of the festival. Although creative work is prohibited on full-fledged festival days, such as the first day of Passover, many other activities are permitted during Chol Hamoed. (“Creative” in this sense does not mean artistic pursuits, but applies to practices such as turning on lights and creating flames. The rules of Yom Tov and Passover are interpreted differently in different Jewish communities.) In Judaism, this is a popular time to get together with family and friends, but it is less ritualistic than other days during Passover.
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