Searching for the historical origins of traditions can be a frustrating exercise. Too often we take the first explanation we find and assume that is the only valid explanation. Then we find another one that contradicts the first one and we begin to doubt both of them. When the origins of a tradition have religious, racial or political implications it is always advisable to keep in mind that the researcher is motivated to find validation for their current practices and to find ways to denigrate the practices of others.
Explanations for the origin of Easter are full of conjectures that elevate Christianity while denigrating other ancient practices. Thus, some claim that Ishtar, an ancient Babylonian goddess, is the origin of the word Easter. Ishtar gave birth to a son without a human father. When the son died he descended to the realm of the dead. By divine intervention, however, he was allowed to return to earth every spring as evidenced by the renewal of life in the spring.
There usually are then cited many ways in which this ancient story, dating about 2,000 years before Jesus of Nazareth, is inferior to the Christian story of a savior born of a virgin who was killed on a cross and returned to life. Jesus does not have to keep rising from the dead every year, for instance. He has ascended into heaven, no more to die.
I think, however, the simpler explanation comes from the word itself. East, from the Greek goddess Eos, goddess of the dawn, is used in idioms to signify the dawn of a new day/life/era. After The Flood, for instance, Noah and his family left the ark on Mr. Ararat and “traveled to the east”, but went to the plains of Shinar, which are due south of Ararat. “Traveled to the east” is not to be taken literally. It is an idiom that means they started a new life. (Similarly “rode off into the sunset” does not mean they kept traveling west. It is an idiom similar to “lived happily ever after”.)
The bottom line is that Easter is a celebration of new life. Any time you let go of something, overcome trials or stop letting destructive elements have power to ruin your life, you are celebrating Easter – a new day. Telling these truths in the form of stories makes them easier to remember and to apply them to our lives.
When we refer to Easter as the Festival of the Resurrection we celebrate newness of life on a whole new level in which even death and fear of death have lost their power over us.