Words in the News


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

It seems that no festival can go by these days with some sort of row about the ways in which it is observed, or not observed. Just as Christmas always seems to give rise to claims of enforced secularization, so the Christian calendar’s most important festival is accompanied by stories about the alleged removal of the word ‘Easter’ itself from chocolate eggs, with confectionery producers forced into public denials that they are pursuing any such policy. This week has also seen reports of a row in Spain over a defence ministry order that flags at all military installations should be flown at half-mast for the duration of the holiday, a move opposed by those who believe it flouts Spain’s constitutional status as a secular state.

Easter falls in spring, of course, so it is perhaps not surprising that the festival is associated with a variety of fluffy animals, from chicks to rabbits to lambs, as well as with eggs, both chocolate ones and the kind that come from hens. The Easter bunny (or sometimes hare) is figure from folklore attributed with bringing coloured eggs and gifts to children. Hares are also associated with spring in the figure of the March hare whose reputation for eccentric behaviour, immortalized by Lewis Carroll, goes back much further, the expression ‘mad as a March hare‘ being first recorded in 1546. The tradition of wearing new or best clothes to church at Easter survives in the Easter bonnet, worn not only to church but as the song has it in the parade that followed.

The word Easter goes right back to the origins of the English language. It comes from the Old English ‘ēastre’ which is related to the German word for East. In his Ecclesiastical History the 7th-8th century English monk Bede linked the word to the name of a goddess whose festival was celebrated by the pagan Anglo-Saxons around the time of the spring equinox.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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