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How the Date of Easter is Determined Each Year

Updated on April 3, 2015

Why Does the Date Change?

Why does the date of Easter vary from year to year?

The answer to this has to do with history and tradition. If you recall, Jesus and his disciples were Jewish and, as Jews, celebrated the Jewish holidays, among them the Feast of the Passover which commemorates the flight or Exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

The Last Supper, which Jesus celebrated with his Disciples on what we now call Holy Thursday, was the Passover meal that Jews celebrate at the start of Passover.

According to the New Testament, Jesus was arrested that evening following the Passover meal, and was crucified on the next day which was Friday. He then rose the following Sunday. So we have the Last Supper on Thursday, the crucifixion on Friday and the resurrection on Sunday.

Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona
Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona | Source

Calendars and Tradition

By the second century, the early Church had grown and expanded to Europe.

Christians in the West (Rome and Europe) celebrated Easter on Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, while those in the East (the Holy Land and Asia Minor) celebrated Easter on the date of the start of Passover which was the date on which Jesus had celebrated the Passover with his Disciples.

Jesus' celebration of the Passover meal with his Disciples is known as the Last Supper and it was at the Last Supper where Jesus instituted the Eucharist.

Jesus was Jewish and the Christian Church began as a sect within the Jewish religion.

However, the Apostles Peter and, especially, Paul directed their ministries toward the Gentiles while the Apostles John and Philip directed theirs more toward the Jews.

The division over what day/date to observe Easter and whether the focus was to be on the institution of the Eucharist which coincided with the Jewish Passover meal or the Resurrection which occurred on Sunday was split along the lines of Jew and Gentile with each side claiming authority from either Peter and Paul (Gentile) or John and Philip (Jewish).

Statue of Christ in front of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Tucson, AZ
Statue of Christ in front of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Tucson, AZ | Source

Roman Calendar vs Jewish Calendar

The Passover is celebrated on a specific date which is the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan.

Since Christians used the Roman custom of measuring days from midnight to midnight, the date is the 14th of the month.

However, for Jews using the Jewish calendar which measures a day from sunset to sunset, the Passover, which begins after sundown, the date is the 15th day of the month of Nisan.

The controversy continued to smolder and to be debated at various church councils.

However, in time, the champions of the Sunday celebration gained the upper hand and Sunday gradually became the day on which Easter was celebrated.

Our Savor Lutheran Church in Tucson, AZ
Our Savor Lutheran Church in Tucson, AZ | Source

Council of Nicaea Decreed that Easter Be Celebrated on Sunday

Even though Sunday became the accepted day for the celebration of Easter a problem still remained and that was the date itself.

The New Testament is very clear that the Crucifixion occurred during Passover and the date of Passover is the 14th/15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan.

However, the Jewish calendar is a lunar/solar calendar and dates vary somewhat based upon the moon. So, the next task was to get the Churches throughout the world to celebrate Easter on the same Sunday each year.

At the Council of Nicaea, called by the Emperor Constantine in 325, it was formally decreed that all Churches would celebrate Easter on the same Sunday and that the Sunday would be the Sunday that followed the fourteenth day of the Pascal Moon.

The Pascal Moon was decreed to be the new moon whose fourteenth day followed the Vernal or Spring Equinox.

The necessary calculations for determining the Pascal Moon for each year was left up to the Church of Alexandria as Alexandria, Egypt was home to the best astronomers in the Roman Empire at that time.

Pet Chihuahua  with Easter Basket
Pet Chihuahua with Easter Basket | Source

Gregorian Calendar vs Julian Calendar

Despite the Council's decree that all churches celebrate Easter on the same Sunday a new divergence occurred following the revision of the calendar in 1582 during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII.

The new calendar, known as the Gregorian Calendar, was a revision to the Julian Calendarwhich had been created during the reign of the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar and was by then out of sync with the seasons.

The Gregorian Calendar has now been adopted by most nations of the world as their civil calendar. However, many Orthodox Churches continue to use the Julian Calendar as their ecclesiastical calendar and this causes the dates of major Christian feast days, such as Christmas, Easter, Ash Wednesday, etc. to differ between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity.

While both branches of the Christian Church adhere to the same set of rules laid down at the Council of Nicaea, the application the rules to two different calendars continues to cause the dates to differ resulting in two different Sundays each year being celebrated as Easter Sunday.

The Mediterranean World Where Christianity Began

A
Rome, Italy:
Rome, Italy

get directions

Rome, capital of Roman Empire and home of the Church in Europe

B
Alexandria, Egypt:
Alexandria Governorate, Alexandria, Egypt

get directions

Alexandria, Egypt the city whose astronomers were called upon to calculate the date of the Pascal Moon.

C
Nicaea (now Iznik), Turkey:
Iznik/Bursa Province, Turkey

get directions

Nicaea (now called Iznik), Turkey where the the Emperor Constantine convened Council of Nicaea in the year 325.

D
Jerusalem:
Jerusalem, Israel

get directions

Jerusalem, Israel where Jesus was crucified and Easter began.

A Basket of Easter Eggs
A Basket of Easter Eggs | Source
Artificial Giant Easter Eggs in an artificial Spring Garden
Artificial Giant Easter Eggs in an artificial Spring Garden | Source
Easter Bunny in Tucson Mall, Tucson, Arizona
Easter Bunny in Tucson Mall, Tucson, Arizona | Source
Easter Eggs dyed Russian style by boiling them with onion skins added to the pot
Easter Eggs dyed Russian style by boiling them with onion skins added to the pot | Source

© 2007 Chuck Nugent

Comments

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    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Anytime Chuck. Happy Easter!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      My pleasure, Chuck. Hope you have a nice Easter weekend!

    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      3 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Kristen Howe - thanks for your post and for visiting my Hub. I am glad you found it interesting.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Chuck, this is an interesting hub about the Easter date. Two weeks from today, Easter will be here. Thanks for sharing. Voted up!

    • Tolovaj profile image

      Tolovaj 

      3 years ago

      Very interesting background on this important (actually biggest Christian) holiday in connection with different calendars. I knew it's lunar base, which is definitely of pagan origin and connected with earliest attempts on counting days. If we look from this perspective, Christmas (second most important Christian holiday) is related with 'death' of Sun with strong hope it will come back again - and it does every spring, just around Easter (resurrection). The same motif can be found all over the world, it is part of folklore and mythology and fairy tales, like Red Riding Hood are fine example of the same story /observance / believe.

      Thanks for interesting background!

    • Harlan Colt profile image

      Harlan Colt 

      7 years ago from the Rocky Mountains

      Funny, I remember a guy coming by my house one time and he told me, Easter is a Pagan Holiday. I threw him out of the house and off the property. Then years later another good friend told me the same thing. I decided to research it out. I now believe Easter is also Semarimis, the wife of Nimrod, King of Babylon. She was ultimately called the Goddess of 10,000 names, because God changed the languages of the people in those days. Nimrod was the great Grandson of Noah the Grandson of Ham, and the son of Caanan and the first King after the flood. He was also a satanic king, as Noah had cursed the seed of Ham. Regardless, Nimrod's great uncles, Shem and Japheth warned Nimrod to stop all the bloody rituals of sacrifice to false gods and idols. When he refused, they rode in with an army and slew Nimrod. It is my empirical leaning that Nimrod's wife left Babylon at this time and with her new Egyptian race and language rode into Egypt as the Queen of the Egypt. It is also my belief that she strongly believed she was a true goddess, despite her world falling apart. As the goddess of 10,000 names in Phonecia she was known as Ishtar, prounced Easter as we say it in english.

      The hardest thing for me to swallow is that Christians have allowed this bloody, cruel goddess who sacrificed her own people in Babylon to Molec, before proclaiming her own godhood - to wiggle in to Christ's ressurection and even having it called after her, and on the same day they worshipped her with sex orgies as the goddess of fertility.

      Jesus rode in to Jerusalem on the 10th day of Abib (Nisan now), was crucified on the 14th day of Abib and rose from the dead on the 17th day of Abib. The 17 day of the month of Abib is on the 17th day of Abib, every year. It does not change. One can easily look it up on a jewish/gregorian calendar. This year Abib 17, falls on Thursday, April 21, 2011. This is the true date Jesus rose from the dead, however, sometimes it does fall on Easter

      Personally, I prefer to observe Abib 17 as Christ's ressurection. However, I do not fault anyone for celebrating Easter, the bible says to "let people regard the day unto the Lord". I assume that means Easter too. I do imagine however that the devil gets a good laugh out of getting Christ's followers into celebrating his ressurection on a day named after / celebrating a satanic queen and pagan goddess.

      - Harlan

    • pauljorg profile image

      pauljorg 

      9 years ago

      Interesting article. I vaguely knew the reasons behind this, but not in detail so this was informative.

    • profile image

      Clearwaterhomes 

      10 years ago

      I heard this year was the earliest date we'll have for 100 years - we have a large Greek population here so I knew about the different dates. This is an excellent hub.

    • sdorrian profile image

      sdorrian 

      10 years ago from Chicago

      Thanks for a great and infromative Hub! I didn't know some of this stuff. Happy Easter!

    • Jason Stanley profile image

      Jason Stanley 

      10 years ago

      I always know when Easter is by looking at the calender and being reminded by my wife. Lazy? yes. Functional? That too.

      Thanks for the explanation. It is one of those little things that comes up in conversation every year, but never gets looked into.

    • profile image

      Adam Lanquet 

      10 years ago

      This is how I figure when Easter is. The first Sunday after the first fullmoon after the first day of Spring.

    • archturn profile image

      archturn 

      10 years ago

      Interesting historical lesson on the Church. I wonder though that the early Jewish distinction versus Christian distinction is accurate since the church was pretty much a separate entity after the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. Just a question. I doubt too that John should be considered a minister with leanings toward the Jewish believers. This distinction , I think, goes more so to James. John in his gospel make a clear distinction between Christian followers and the Jews. James writings, however, have very Jewish flair. He seems to be the leader in Jerusalem at the first council recorded in Acts. Minor points I know. Thanks for the Church history lesson. One of my interests.

    • johnr54 profile image

      Joanie Ruppel 

      10 years ago from Texas

      In our house one of us is Catholic and the other Greek Orthodox, some some years Lent effectively lasts 10 weeks since on the occasional year the Easters are a month apart. And just as occasionally they are on the same day. Keeps you on your toes.

    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      10 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      singpec476 - Thank you for visiting my Hub article and for your comment.

      While it is true that some Easter traditions were absorbed by the Church from pagan spring festivals, the focus of Easter is the resurrection of Christ which is the central event of Christianity. Since the whole purpose of Easter is to celebrate this event this makes it a Christian holiday. Incorporating some traditions and customs from other religions and cultures is simply an example of the Church, in its efforts to be universal, being open to additional ways of celebrating this event.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      Chuck

    • singpec476 profile image

      singpec476 

      10 years ago from Not Too Far Away

      Good hub but easter is another pagan festival that the church adopted when trying to smother out the other faiths.

    • profile image

      aeh  

      10 years ago

      interesting! have you read tlig.org?

    • profile image

      bobmnu 

      11 years ago

      I knew that the date for Easter was based the phases of the moon and the date ofpassover. I did not realizethatthe two churches used different calandars.

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