April 8, 2012
No one knows for sure how the term Easter came to be. It probably derived from Oestre, the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of Spring, Fertility and New Life. Which helps to explain why we still celebrate the resurrection with bunny rabbits and painted eggs.
But in French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and Danish, the words for Easter (Paques, Paschen, Pasqua, Pascua, Pask, and Paasske) all come from the Latin Paschalia, itself was a variant of the Greek Pascha, a term used by early Christians to refer to the even older Hebrew word Pesach, aka Passover. Pesach was the holiday Jesus and his Disciples were celebrating on the occasion of the Last Supper.
In the United States, by far the most common method for determining the date of Easter is by scanning the Sundays in March or April for the one that says “Easter” on your calendar. This proven technique has not failed me in all my years of prognostication.
But if you chronophiles want to get a little more complicated, Easter falls on the Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.
But if you really want to get freaky with the details…
…and believe me, you don’t…
Since the date of Easter determines the dates of so many other Christian holidays from the Triodion to Ash Wednesday to Pentecost, it was of paramount importance in the early days of the church, that Western and Eastern Churches agree on the same day to celebrate. Which, of course, they almost never do
In the first centuries after Christ, Eastern Churches related the date of Easter to the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Passover falls on the 14th day, or full moon, of the month of Nisan. However, since the Jews at that time used a lunar calendar the date of Passover would change in relation to the solar calendar.
The Roman Church decreed that Easter should fall each year on a Sunday, and should show relevance to the solar, rather than the lunar calendar.
The Eastern Church used a 19-year “paschal” cycle to determine the annual date of Easter. (In the fifth century BC the Greek astronomer Meton had discovered that the 19 year solar calendar coincided with the 235 month lunar calendar, with a differentiation of approximately 2 hours.)
The Roman Church on the other hand, developed an 84-year paschal cycle, which is roughly the formula we use today. The Sunday following the first full moon after the equinox. In the Roman Catholic Church’s definition, the Spring Equinox is fixed on March 21. Thus the earliest Easter could fall is March 22.
The Eastern Church no longer relates Easter to Passover, but maintains that Easter should not fall before or during the Jewish holiday. Also the Eastern Church uses the actual spring equinox as measured from Jerusalem, site of the crucifixion, and follows the Julian Calendar rather than the Gregorian, adding to the complication of the dates. Still, Western and Eastern Easters do sometimes fall on the same date as they did on April 8, 2007.
2008 marks one of the earliest possible Easters, on March 23, only two days after the equinox. The ancient pagan traditions and rituals of spring have not only refused to die, they have become forever intertwined with the celebration of Easter.
published March 23, 2008