The full story of why Easter is such a moveable feast from the brains behind the television quiz QI
Do the maths
Why does Easter move around so much? You might think it’s because the precise historical date is hard to determine. After all, December 25 seems to have been chosen for Christmas more on its marketing value than any attempt to mark a real anniversary. It just happened to be the same date as the Roman celebration of the cult of the Unconquered Sun, which had been started by the Emperor Aurelian in 274AD as an attempt to provide his empire with a single religion. In less than a century, Christianity and Christmas had taken over.
But with Easter you can actually work out a historical date. The Biblical account is relatively clear – the timing of the Passover feast and the Crucifixion happening on a Friday cut down the options.
Passover celebrates the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and lasts for seven days from the middle of the Hebrew month of Nisan, which equates to late March or early April.
Sir Isaac Newton was one of the first to use the Hebrew lunar calendar to come up with firm dates for Good Friday: Friday April 7, 30AD or Friday April 3, 33AD, with Easter Day falling two days later. Modern scholars continue to think these the most likely.
Unfortunately, Newton’s calculation came at the end of 1,700 years of ecclesiastical squabbling. Most people will tell you that Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, which is broadly true. But the precise calculations are unbelievably complicated and involve something called an “ecclesiastical full moon”, which is not quite the same thing as the real one.
‘Dennis the Dwarf’
The serious mathematics behind this system was laid down in 525AD by Dionysius Exiguus, a Romanian monk, whose name roughly translates as “Dennis the Dwarf”. As well as inventing the Easter readyreckoner, Dennis came up with the Anno Domini (AD) dating system and was the first Latin writer to use the zero symbol. He couldn’t persuade the Eastern church to adopt his scheme, unfortunately – Easter in the Western and Eastern churches still only coincides every three or four years. An agreement to harmonise was reached in 1997, but the year of the proposed change (2001) came and went without anyone actually changing anthing.
So, we are left with 35 possible dates for Easter in the West. The earliest, March 22, last fell in 1818 and won’t happen again until 2285. The latest is April 25, which last happened in 1943 and is next due in 2038. The whole sequence repeats itself once every 5.7 million years. You might think a fixed date would be simpler. British confectioners certainly agree. As far back as 1928, they lobbied for one: the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. The Easter Act was passed as law but, despite the support of both main churches, the bill was never implemented. No one knows why.
Eggs and bunnies
Maybe it’s the persistent rumours of paganism. In almost every European language, the festival’s name is derived from “Pesach”, the Hebrew word for Passover. The Germanic word “Easter”, on the other hand, is said to come from Eostre, a Saxon fertility goddess. Except there are no records of any such goddess ever being worshipped. She is mentioned only once, by the Venerable Bede, who describes the Saxons worshipping her in “Eøstur month”.
He seems to be confusing her with the classical dawn goddesses like Eos and Aurora, whose names all mean “shining in the East”. So, rather than being a full-blown Wicker Man- style cult, Easter might simply have meant “beginning month”, a good time for planting, or starting up after a long winter.
Eggs are a good example. On the one hand, they are an ancient symbol of birth in almost every European culture; on the other, hens start laying regularly again in the spring. Since they were forbidden during Lent, it’s easy to see how eating and decorating then became a very practical way to celebrate Easter.
The “pagan” name of Easter was enough to persuade the Jehovah’s Witnesses that they ought to to rename it Resurrection Day or “the Memorial”. However, they also seem to believe that Christ came back in 1874 and possibly again in 1914 (unfortunately invisible to all save those with “eyes of understanding”). What the Witnesses should really look out for is the Easter bunny, which is properly pagan. These “bunnies” aren’t rabbits at all but hares, the ancient fertilityrebirth-moon symbol, throbbing with speed and sex.
The Roman historian Pliny the Elder believed that eating a hare would make you sexually irresistible for nine days – worth a thought if you want an Easter lunch that balances the sacred with the profane.
Ecclesiastical squabbling (clockwise from left): the Crucifixion by Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.12551319); the Saxon fertility goddess, Eostre; Sir Isaac Newton, who was one of the first to use a Hebrew lunar calendar to work out firm dates for Good Friday