The half-heathen Angles, Saxons and Danes celebrated many old holidays even as Christianity was growing up among the elite of their nations.
According to the historian Bede the Venerable (673?-735), writing in chapter 13 of his De temporum ratione, the heathen Anglo-Saxons called the third and fourth months "Rhedmonath" and "Esturmonath" after their goddesses Rheda and Eostra respectively. Rheda, except for the brief citation above, has been forgotten. Eostra (Ostara) has fared somewhat better, although there is little direct evidence of her and her followers.The story of Easter in the Anglosphere is remarkable in several respects. The first is that we should call it by the name of an ancient heathen goddess. This is not the case in most of Christendom. To return to the first cited source:
The English and German words for "Easter" derive from the name "Ostara," the Germanic Goddess of Springtime. All other European words for "Easter" derive from the Hebrew word "pasah," to pass over, thus reflecting the Christian holiday's Biblical connection with the Jewish Passover.There are several examples, including Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic, all having some variation of "Pask" as their root. This seems to have been the preference of the Church of Rome, and her paladins who took the Cross to their people.
But Germany was Christianized by invasion, at the hand of Charlemagne, and the survival of some of the old forms was perhaps a popular reaction to the imposition. England was another matter.
In England, the great Christian kingdoms that survived the fall of the Roman Empire came under assault by the sea kings. They mastered the land, though their numbers were not great:
To answer the question 'how did the small number of invaders come to master the larger part of Britain?' John Davies gives us part of the answer: the regions seized by the newcomers were mainly those that had been most thoroughly Romanized, regions where traditions of political and military self-help were at their weakest.Unwilling and unable to defend themselves, man for man, they fell to those who were still warriors. Not always by the sword! Tradition holds that the British king Vortigern invited two such kings to come and protect his land: Hengst and Horsa. They are said to have invitied their kin to follow them, and disposed of Vortigern once their warriors were in place.
It is from this time that the legendary realm of Arthur is supposed to have existed. You are probably familiar with much of the thinking on where, and when, such a kingdom would have been.
But Christianity returned to Britain. It was not, quite, the Christianity of Rome. It came instead from Ireland, where St. Patrick had converted the great Irish kings, but which had been largely cut off from Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The Irish monasteries sent teachers and preachers into Britain through what is now Scotland, but was at the time the home of the last Christian Kingdoms: Dal Riada, the Gaelic kingdom that was already in the process of absorbing the Picts, and the Cymirc lands that produced Y Gododdin.
With secure bases in those lands, the Celtic missionaries passed south into the English states. They converted the kings of the Angles and Saxons, Jutes and Danes, among them St. Edwin of Northumbria. Like St. Edwin, the converted kings brought along their people. There was little pressure felt in England to abandon the old languages. The Celtic monks were glad to absorb the old forms, putting them to new uses. What had been a fertility festival, celebrating the coming of Spring and new life in this world became -- not instead, but in addition -- a celebration of life in a world beyond.
Therefore it is that we in the English-speaking world, along with the Germans, are alone in calling Easter by a heathen name. Nothing is thereby lost, and much that was great of old is thereby preserved.
I wish you a Happy Easter, you Christians, you Heathens, and those halfway in between.