My son actually asked this question shortly after New Year’s Day. Christmas was still fresh in his mind, particularly since he’d received gifts on three different days – once at Christmas with his maternal grandparents, once at Christmas with his paternal grandmother, and once on our own family Christmas morning. Add to that the fact that we let him try to stay up to see the New Year (he started winding down about 9 pm, so we pretended it was the New Year for him and then put him to bed), and he was pumped for the next holiday.
“When’s Christmas?” he asked, jumping on my chest.
“Not for another year,” I answered.
He looked disappointed at that. “what’s next?” he demanded.
I scratched my head at that, because there really aren’t that many holidays right after New Year. Not holidays that get small children excited, anyway. “Uhm.. there’s Valentines Day,” I say. “And then Easter…”
He lit up at that, mostly (I think) because he remembers getting a basket full of candy last year. He’s five. He loves candy. “When’s Easter?” he asks, bouncing up and down.
“Uhm…” I tell him, not remembering the date. “That’s… complicated.”
What Is Easter?
Easter, of course, is something you’ve probably heard of whether you’re Christian or not. It’s the Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of their Savior, Jesus Christ, as described in the synoptic gospels of the New Testament. Here’s the description of the event from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 24:
- On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.
- They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
- but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
- While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.
- In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?
- He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee:
- The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ”
The word “Easter” does not appear in the Bible, of course. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, Easter derives from the Old English word Easterdæg, which comes from Eastre, which derives from the Proto-Germanic *austron-, meaning “dawn”. That word comes from the Proto- Germanic *aust- (“east, toward the sunrise”), which derives from the Proto-Indo-European *aus-, meaning “to shine”. We get the word ‘aurora” from the same root.
The “Venerable Bede“, a historian from the 7th century CE, told us a little about the origin of the word “Easter” for the religious holiday in De ratione Temporum, chapter 15:
In olden time the English people — for it did not seem fitting to me that I should speak of other people’s observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation’s — calculated their months according to the course of the moon. Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans (the months) take their name from the Moon, for the Moon is called mona and the month monath.
The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath; May, Thrimilchi; June, Litha; July, also Litha; August, Weodmonath; September, Halegmonath; October, Winterfilleth; November, Blodmonath; December, Giuli, the same name by which January is called. …
Nor is it irrelevant if we take the time to translate the names of the other months. … Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time. Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance. Thrimilchi was so called because in that month the cattle were milked three times a day…
Just how “pagan” the Easter traditions are is a matter of significant dispute, but the name certainly derives from a pagan goddess. Nothing but the name of that goddess is known, though, with some scholars speculating that Eostre may actually have been invented by Bede. Whether the traditions have pagan roots or not, though, the holiday is most certainly a Christian one now.
When Is Easter?
Like I told my son, this is complicated. Catholic Answers says:
On the Gregorian calendar (the one that we use), Easter is the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon, which is the first full moon on or after March 21. Easter thus always falls between March 22 and April 25.
And what’s the Paschal full moon? Well, according to the same source:
Theoretically, the Paschal full moon is the first full moon occurring on or after the spring equinox. However, this day can be reckoned in different ways. One way is by looking at the sky, which yields the astronomical spring equinox. But since this shifts from year to year, most people follow the calendrical spring equinox, which is reckoned as March 21.
Now, the spring equinox in 2016 happens on March 20, and the first full moon after that date is March 23. So, by the astronomical calendar, Easter falls on March 27. Conveniently, in 2016, March 27 is also the first Sunday following the first full moon after March 21. So by either method Easter is March 27, 2016.
The date for Easter has to do with the timing of the Biblical account of the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus celebrated Passover was arrested the same night, and crucified the next day. The Biblical account has him rising from the dead three days later, “after the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week”. The first day of the week, in modern calendars, is Sunday.
Based on this information, the original date of Easter was set at the first Sunday after the start of Passover. Passover, of course, starts on the 15th day of Nisan. According to the Jewish Calendar article on Judaism 101:
The Jewish calendar is based on three astronomical phenomena: the rotation of the Earth about its axis (a day); the revolution of the moon about the Earth (a month); and the revolution of the Earth about the sun (a year)….
The Jewish calendar, however, coordinates all three of these astronomical phenomena. Months are either 29 or 30 days, corresponding to the 29½-day lunar cycle. Years are either 12 or 13 months, corresponding to the 12.4 month solar cycle.
The lunar month on the Jewish calendar begins when the first sliver of moon becomes visible after the dark of the moon.
Nisan is the first month of spring in the Jewish calendar, and so Passover starts on the evening of the 14th day (making it the 15th day in this system). Why? Because Nisan 1 is the new moon, and the full moon is 14 days later. So the early Christian holiday that became Easter started on the first Sunday on or after Nisan 14 – the first Sunday on or after the first full moon following the first new moon of spring.
Clear as mud, right?
So, why is the determination slightly different from the original “first Sunday after Nisan 14” method? Well, Catholic Answers says it best:
Christians didn’t like being dependent on the pronouncements of rabbis for how to celebrate Christian feasts, so they came up with another way of determining the date. They decided that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after (never on) the Paschal full moon.