QUITEINTERESTING

The full story of why Easter is such a move­able feast from the brains be­hind the television quiz QI

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Living -

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

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