Why is there a fat Tuesday every year? Why do we sing “The First Noel” at Christmas time? And do people really celebrate being “intensely heated by the sun” during Ramadan? Clearly, the names of some of the most famous celebrations around the world have a lot to tell us. Let’s take a closer look at their origins and meanings.
Names in disguise
Firstly, there’s something I need to admit: When I was a child growing up in Lyon, France, I wasn’t actually aware of the literal meaning of the name of the “Mardi Gras” festival, i.e., “Fat Tuesday”. I guess I was too busy dressing up in my costume or eating bugnes, the local delicacy baked especially for the occasion. To me, it was just the name of the celebration, almost like a single word, and I didn’t pause to think about its significance. I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I finally realised what it meant, but I do remember it making me laugh!
Coming at the end of carnival season, Mardi Gras is actually the same celebration as Shrove Tuesday. It may seem odd at first that such different phrases are used to identify the same day of the year. However, it’s not so odd if you look at them as two very different ways of getting ready for the Lent season: While the Anglo-Saxons are atoning for their shortcomings, the French are busy emptying their cupboards and eating as much as they can before the period of fasting begins.
The other big fancy dress party of the year, Halloween, has also somewhat disguised its origin behind its name. Once upon a time, some 3,000 years ago, the festival of Samhain (a Celtic word meaning “summer's end”) used to take place on the 31st October and 1st November to mark the passage into the new Celtic year. The end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter was also the time when the dead would return to earth, and the festival of Samhain was held in worship of the god of the dead.
This Celtic celebration was punctuated by various traditions. One such tradition was for people to dress in scary costumes, so as to fend off evil spirits and fairies, who would come out during the long cold nights of winter to try to haunt and kidnap them. In due course, the growing Church made several attempts to turn the pagan festivities into a Christian celebration. This culminated in 835 when, at the instance of Pope Gregory IV, the 1st November officially became a day of obligation known as “All Saints’ Day”. And so the 31st October took on the name of “All Hallows’ Eve”, or “Halloween”.
It’s worth noting that, in the long run, this seems to have had little effect on diminishing the influence, or indeed the existence of the ancient pagan customs. These days, the feast of Halloween is undoubtedly more popular than the All Saints’ Day celebrations it is associated with. Sometimes, it’s not all in the name…
It’s not just power struggles between pagan rites and large religious organisations that are behind the names of popular celebrations. As we recently discovered with names of places, languages often bear witness to foreign influences. Such is the case with “Christmas”, which is composed of two foreign words from two different languages: “Christ” from the Greek "Chrīstos" ("Χριστός”) and “mas” from the Latin “missa”. Seems Jesus was a polyglot from birth… And if that was not enough, Christmas also used to be called “Noel” or “Nowell”, the French word for Christmas, based on the Latin word “natalis”, or “birth”. Just one more example of how English, like any other language, is constantly evolving and is a mix-match of other languages.
Of course, it’s hardly a surprise that Greek and Latin should have played such an important role in the naming of a Christian celebration like Christmas. But such an influence is not always so evident. Easter in particular has a somewhat uncertain story. Logically, the alternative name of “Pascha” (deriving from Aramaic via Latin and Greek) ought to have prevailed. Yet, somehow, the name “Easter” was favoured.
Contrary to “Pascha”, the etymology of “Easter” is a subject of some debate. Way back in the 8th century, the Venerable Bede wrote that the name of the celebration was related to Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility. Another theory claimed that, like the word “east”, it came from the Norse eostur, eastur or ostara, which meant “the season of new birth” or “the season of the growing sun”. In both scenarios, the name “Easter” would be linked to spring and the changing of seasons, making it clearly of pagan origin.
However, in more recent history, it has been argued that this can’t be the case, as the Christian church would never have accepted a pagan name in its midst. Instead, it’s now presumed that “Easter” comes from the Latin “in albis”. Can’t see the connection there? Well, let’s give it a little more context. The early Latin name for the week of Easter was “hebdomada alba” (“white week”), while the Sunday after Easter was called “Dominica in albis” (“Sunday in white”) in honour of those who had just been baptised in their white robes. Unfortunately, the word “alba” has two meanings in Latin: “white” and “dawn”. It’s thought that people speaking Old High German made a mistake in their translation, using a plural word for dawn, “ostarun”, instead of the plural for white. “ostarun” then became the German word “Ostern” and the English word “Easter”. Whatever the real story, one thing’s for sure: Somebody clearly got lost in translation!
So far, we’ve talked mostly about celebrations that were (re)shaped and (re)named by the Christian church. But what about those outside its realm of influence? Have they also been the object of conflicting forces? And have their names been changed and distorted to the point of being virtually unrecognisable? Let’s take a look at a couple of examples from two entirely different cultures.
Ramadan is probably the most famous and important month in the Muslim calendar. Its name comes from the Semitic root r-m-d, or “ramad”. More precisely, it is comprised of the Arabic letters Rā, Mīm and Ḍād, in reference to the extreme summer heat. For some, this suggests that, in ancient times, the month of Ramadan used to occur in summer. But for others, the explanation is not so rudimentary. Rather, it is meant to symbolise the scorching of everything that is evil. Just like with the darkness of winter or renewal of life in spring, the image of the burning summer sun acting like a furnace serves as a metaphor for the purgation of sins that is supposed to happen during Ramadan.
Less known on our shores is the Japanese Buddhist custom of honouring your ancestors’ spirits during the three days of Obon. These days, the holiday is an opportunity to visit your family and clean your ancestors' graves. That part seems clear enough. But what about the origin of the name “Obon”?
It starts off easy enough, with the composition of the word, which is made up of the honorific prefix o- and the word “bon”. The latter comes from the longer Japanese festivity names Urabon (盂蘭盆) or Urabon'e (盂蘭盆会), which are derived from the Chinese 盂蘭盆 (Yúlánpén) or 盂蘭盆會 (Yúlánpénhuì). Things then get a little muddier.
It is commonly claimed that the Chinese terms are derived from “ullambana”, which is supposed to mean “hanging upside down” in Sanskrit. This image would then represent the souls hanging upside down in hell. However, there are several problems with this explanation. For one thing, there is hardly any definite, concrete corroboration of the Sanskrit word “ullambana”. If anything, the verb “ullamb”, in the present participle, means only “to hang” without specifying being “upside down”. Then, there’s the matter of relevance. The Obon festival is about honouring and helping the dead, rather than punishing them. So why would you want to hang them upside down? With this in mind, the verb “ullumpana”, or its corrupted form “ullumbana”, seems a more likely candidate, as it means “to help” or “to raise” in the Indo-Aryan liturgical language of Pali.
In the end, no matter what the language, culture or religion, names of popular celebrations seem to be formed in a melting pot of various influences, which makes their etymology both murky and fascinating. Do you have any interesting stories about the names of any other local celebrations? We’d love to hear them in our comments!