Easter: Why is it so early this year?

Colourful Easter eggs in a field Thanks to rules set many centuries ago, Easter egg time is never later than 25 April

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Every year we are faced with the same question: will Easter be early or late? When can we expect Easter eggs to appear on supermarket shelves? Earlier and earlier, it would seem.

Although the imagery of Easter may remain the same - luscious chocolate eggs, fragrant hot cross buns and newborn chicks - Easter itself is a moveable celebration, and can fall anywhere between 22 March and 25 April.

But the date in which the faithful celebrate Christ's resurrection has been surrounded in controversy from early Christian times.

Lutz Doering, a reader in New Testament and an expert in calendars and festivals from the University of Durham, confirms: "According to the New Testament, Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday. However, it is unclear on what day or date the earliest Christians celebrated Easter."

Easter: did you know...?

A chocolate Easter egg filled with smaller chocolates
  • The earliest possible date for Easter is 22 March
  • The latest is 25 April, which has not happened since 1943, and will not recur until 2038
  • Although never implemented, in 1928 the House of Commons agreed a law to fix the date of Easter on the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April
  • The Vatican approved a proposal for a fixed date in 1990. It was subject to agreement with other Christian churches and governments, and has not yet been reached

Discover more about Easter with BBC Religion & Ethics

Jewish roots?

Dr Doering explains that there is evidence that, in the middle of the 2nd Century, some Christians celebrated Easter on 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan - that is, on the night of the Jewish Passover. They were hence known as Quartodecimans, from the Latin word for '14'.

This group saw Easter as a "Christian form of Passover, celebrated at the same time as Jewish neighbours would get ready for the Pesach meal," he says.

On the other hand, continues Dr Doering, other groups celebrated Easter on the Sunday after Passover as they saw it as something independent, a new celebration linked exclusively to Jesus' Resurrection.

"Increasingly, though, the full moon of Easter was made separate from the date of Passover and set in relation to the [spring] equinox - hence the rule of thumb that Easter falls on the Sunday after the spring full moon."

This early debate is well-documented by Eusebius, Roman historian and Bishop of Caesarea, who tells stories of representatives of each tradition meeting up, in the hope of persuading each other of their own tradition's superiority.

According to Dr Doering, one bishop, Victor of Rome, even resorted to excommunicating the Asian churches on account of their Easter date, although other bishops disapproved of his extreme action.

It looked like the only solution to this conundrum was that each faction would keep on celebrating according to their own tradition - until 325AD, date of the Council of Nicaea.

The full moon The full moon has an interesting role in the story of the Easter date controversies

The First Council of Nicea was called by Emperor Constantine, in an attempt to formulate and codify the Christian faith which he had made the official religion of the Roman Empire a few years earlier in 312 AD.

As well as settling other doctrinal questions, the Council aimed to resolve the issues surrounding the date of Easter, decreeing that all Christians should celebrate Easter on the same date and that this should be separate from the date of Passover.

Astronomy jargon buster

The Earth and Moon
  • Solar year: The period of time that the Earth requires to make one complete revolution around the sun, measured from one March equinox to the next. It is also known as 'tropical year' or 'astronomical year' and it lasts 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 45.51 seconds
  • Equinox: The day of the year in which day and night are the same length: approx. 12 hours. This occurs twice a year: around 20 March and 22 September
  • Full moon: When the Moon looks like a full circle in the sky, it is a 'full moon'. This occurs when the Moon is on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun
  • Lunar month: The time between two new moons or full moons.

Following the Council, rules were set to determine when Easter occurs.

Moveable feast

It was necessary to predict the date of Easter in advance but this was dependent on the date of the full moon, but Roman astronomy was not advanced enough to provide an accurate prediction of the lunar cycle in advance.

As Dr Robert Cockcroft, manager of the McCallion Planetarium at McMaster University in Canada, explains, this was resolved by the fixing of some 'ecclesiastical' dates, which differ from astronomical dates. The word 'ecclesiatical' simply means 'of the Church', or 'related to Christianity'.

Dr Cockcroft summarises the rules as follows:

  • Easter was made a moveable feast, unlike Christmas, which has a fixed date
  • Easter is on the first Sunday after the first ecclesiastical full moon after the spring equinox
  • The ecclesiastical full moon is the 14th day of the ecclesiastical lunar month
  • The spring equinox is always on 21st March.

"By fixing the [spring] equinox and the full moon in these ways.." explains Dr Cockcroft, "the date of Easter could be calculated in advance.

In other words, he says, the ecclesiastical lunar months approximate the actual lunar months.

"If an actual full moon occurs close to the real spring equinox, then the ecclesiastical [calculations] may force a later full moon to be used to determine when Easter occurs," he adds.

However such rules surrounding the date of Easter continued to be a focal point for the Church.

Julius v Gregory

Until 1582, the main calendar used in Europe was the Julian calendar (after Julius Caesar) which was designed to approximate the solar year.

"The solar year is the time it takes the Sun to move to the same seasonal position as viewed from Earth - e.g. from summer solstice to summer solstice."

"However ….the Julian calendar very slightly overestimated the solar year - by about 3 days every 4 centuries," he adds.

This meant the Julian calendar was out of sync with the spring equinox, and by the 16th Century, Easter fell in the summertime.

The Catholic Church needed a way to fix the feast within a set period of time and so in 1582 Pope Gregory XVlll gave us the Gregorian calendar.

Dr Cockcroft says that the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar "corrected the accumulated drift of the Julian calendar by skipping the calendar ahead 10 days."

Hence, people falling asleep on 4 October 1582 awoke the next day to find it was 15 October 1582: they had jumped 10 days.

But adoption of this calendar was slow, only affecting Catholic countries at first. As Pope Gregory's reform and the related bull were not necessarily recognised beyond the Roman Catholic Church, different Christian communities were celebrating Easter at different dates again.

Even today it is not universally used by all churches, although it is the standard international civil calendar.

The Orthodox church follows the Julian calendar, hence the later Easter celebrations compared to those of Western Christianity.

Whatever the tradition, and computational headaches aside, Easter remains the most important feast in the Christian world, an occasion for reflection and celebration of life and hope.

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