Easter’s music is sublime, but what sort of celebration is it, anyway?

Some of the greatest music ever written is associated with Easter, and during the week we went to a magnificent Tenebrae service at All Saints Church in Ainslie, given by the Nos Igitur choir. Last night we listened and watched a performance of Bach’s Ascension Oratorio given in St Nikolai church in Leipzig, where we had once been to another fine concert. And during the week Bach’s Matthew Passion, Handel’s Messiah, Monteverdi’s Vespers and other celebratory works have been available to listeners on Classic FM and elsewhere. The story of the life and death of Jesus Christ is a moving story, whether or not you are a Christian, and composers have responded over the centuries.

But the celebration itself seems to have a much older history. The word ‘Easter’ comes from Anglo-Saxon, and is a reference to ‘Eostre’ or ‘Eastre’, the dawn goddess, and she is a pagan deity of fertility whose linguistic source is the Teutonic tribal domain. In other languages the event has another name altogether — ‘Paques’ in French, for instance — that is related to the Jewish celebration the  ‘Passover’, or ‘Pesach’ in Hebrew. ‘Paschal’ is an English equivalent, used in reference to ‘the Paschal lamb’. And Passover is celebrated in March or April to commemorate the flight of the Jews from Egypt 3,300 years ago, as set out in the Book of Exodus.

So the Christian celebration of Jesus Christ has very strong links to an older Jewish celebration, one that is also part of Christian heritage. And the link to ‘Easter’ or ‘Eastre’ points in another direction, to the Babylonian goddess ‘Ishtar’, who is no part of Christianity whatever, but was the Babylonian, Akkadian and Sumerian goddess of sex, love and fertility, whose symbols are eggs and rabbits (a common reference to reproduction). When we talk of the Easter bunny, and hand out Easter eggs, we are following the traditions of the Babylonians, a long time ago — though not as long ago as Exodus. Christianity has adapted the Easter eggs to suggest new life, and the rebirth or return of Jesus Christ. ‘Eastre’ is almost certainly the Teutonic form of ‘Ishtar’. And, so far as we can make out, Ishtar’s time of celebration was  around the Spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. When is that? Why, now. The timing of Easter for us is a function of the lunar cycle, and that is true too in the case of Passover for the Jews, but the Spring equinox is inside the range of dates.

Christmas is another example. It is an adaptation of the Roman festivity of Saturnalia, a festival of light that led to the winter solstice. Many candles were lit, and they symbolised the search for truth and knowledge. The festivities led to the dies natalis, or birthday, of ‘The Unconquerable Sun’ (sol invictus) on December 25th. And Jesus Christ is sometimes referred to in those terms. Boxing Day probably also has its origins in Saturnalia, where on one day slave-owners would exchange roles with their slaves, and gift were given from the wealthy to the poor. The ‘Boxing’ adjective has nothing whatever to do with fisticuffs, but most likely with the boxes in which the gifts were presented.

Adaptation is what human societies do with forms  and ceremonies. Saturnalia was alive and well in the 4th century AD, when Christianity became the official religion of the fading empire. Banning things and practices which people are used to is never a clever way to go for rulers. How much easier it is to adapt a popular and useful celebration to another purpose. Both Christmas and Easter have been adapted from older forms to newer purposes, the older living on in what is now to happen, such as families coming together, feasting and the giving of presents in the case of Christmas, and the name itself, the easter bunny and easter eggs, in the case of Easter. When we are asked to remember the real meaning of these occasions it is the newer meanings, not the older ones, which are intended.

Does it matter? Not at all, at least for me. The ways societies work as collectivities has always fascinated me. We are not the only culture, for example, which provides on Boxing Day a major sporting event, and I wouldn’t mind betting that that goes back to Saturnalia, too. To me the great virtue of both celebrations, given that I am not in any real sense a Christian, is the abundance of wonderful music that has been stimulated by these events. While I enjoy that music for its own sake, I also recognise that Bach, for example, was a devout Christian. Christianity is not important to me in a personal way, but only an ignoramus would ignore its importance to our culture over the past two millennia.


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