Saturday, March 30, 2024

Why's It So Hard to Keep Track of Easter?


No disrespect intended.  It’s a serious question. 

I  think most of us are aware that Easter is celebrated by Western Christianity and by Orthodox Christianity more often than not on different days. Last year they were celebrated a week apart, this year they're separated by the entire month of April.  Having no fixed date, that's why Easter is called a moveable feast, unlike Christmas…at least for most.

So, why is there such uncertainty over determining the date of this seminal holiday so significant to so much of the world? There are two answers–one easy, one not. The simple answer is that Greeks and others of the Orthodox faith calculate their Easter based upon the Julian calendar, while Western Christianity uses the modern Gregorian Calendar. If you want to know precisely how the date is determined, the explanation begins to sound strangely reminiscent of one attempting to explain how algorithms work.

First Council of Nicaea (325)

Officially, I understand the First Ecumenical Synod ruled in 325 that Easter Sunday should fall on the Sunday that follows the first full moon after the vernal equinox (the point at which the ecliptic intersects the celestial equator, the sun having a northerly motion) and the invariable date of the vernal equinox is March 21.  If the full moon happens to fall on a Sunday, Easter is observed the following Sunday.

Before the year 325 the determination of the date for Easter (or Pascha) seemed relatively easy.  Just ask the Jews in your community when they celebrated Passover according to the lunar-based Hebrew Calendar (now into its 5784th year), because the Jewish Holiday of Passover (or Pesach) was the occasion for the Last Supper.  The only dispute appeared to be over whether Easter should be celebrated on the Hebrew calendar’s date of Nisan 14 or the following Sunday.

Original mural by Leonardo Da Vinci between 1495-1498

The First Ecumenical Synod changed all that by calculating the exact date of Easter from the more modern cycles of the sun-based Julian calendar.  And even though some in the Church did not agree with that determination, it became Christianity’s generally accepted method for calculating the date of Easter and continued to be so for more than five hundred years after the Great Schism of 1052 separated the Church of the West to Rome and the Church of the East to Constantinople (Istanbul).

Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585)
But in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced what is known as the Gregorian calendar for the express purpose of correctly calculating Easter, something the Julian calendar was not believed to have achieved.  Today, the Gregorian calendar is the world’s officially accepted civil calendar (except in Greece’s 1500 year-old monastic community of Mount Athos—see Prey on Patmos), but there still is not agreement among the Christian world over whether it correctly fixes the date of Easter.

Indeed, as recently as 1997 the World Council of Churches proposed a method of using modern scientific knowledge for precisely calculating Easter and replacing divergent practices.  It was not adopted.

All of which means that (based upon our everyday calendar), Easter for Western Christianity always falls on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25, and for most of Eastern Orthodoxy on a Sunday between April 4 and May 8—at least during the 21st Century.

As for how Passover fits into all this, Julian calendar Easter always falls on a Sunday after the first day of the eight-day Passover holiday (and generally within those eight days), but Gregorian calendar observers who might think of tempting their Jewish friends with offers of treasured chocolate bunnies forbidden to their friends during that observant period should keep in mind that on the Gregorian calendar Passover will at times fall after Easter.  My buddies in the old neighborhood learned that lesson the hard way.

But no matter what calendar you follow, with all my heart I wish you a Happy Easter for tomorrow, a Zissen Pesach for April 22nd, and Kalo Paska for May 5th--plus as a bonus to my baby brother born on Cinco de Mayo, HAPPY BIRTHDAY BIG AL. 



  1. Hah. When my eye first caught sight of that picture of Pope Gregory, the thought flashed through my mind, "Why is he sucking up a really long spaghetti noodle???"

  2. So pleased, EvKa, to see that your sense of humor remains undeterred no matter how off your noodle it shows you to be... J

  3. Thanks for this breakdown, which was much more fun to read than trying to figure it out on Wikipedia. Hope you and Barbara had a wonderful holiday.