Why is Easter Sunday so early this year and how is the date decided?

Mar 22, 2016

All the symbols and traditions that make the spring festival such a moveable feast

KARL-JOSEF HILDENBRAND/AFP/Getty Images

In the majority of the Christian world, Easter Sunday falls at some point in the month between the end of March and the end of April – and this year, it comes right at the beginning of that window.

To anyone unfamiliar with the movement of the moon, the vagaries of the Julian and the Gregorian calendars and the March equinox, the date can seem somewhat random. But in fact, it's governed by strict rules…

How is Easter celebrated?

Easter, which commemorates the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is celebrated differently around the world. In the US, they give painted eggs and baskets of sweets, while British children go on hunts for chocolate eggs left by the Easter Bunny and the Greeks eat a traditional baked bread called tsoureki with red-dyed eggs. Many central and eastern Europeans also paint eggs decoratively and or fight with them like conkers - but in the Czech Republic, boys pour water on girls and symbolically whip them with willow twigs.

Why is the date of Easter not fixed?

The short answer is that early Christians wanted to observe Easter around the time of the Jewish festival of Passover as that is when the Last Supper is thought to have taken place. As the Hebrew calendar is based on both solar and lunar cycles, Passover changes each year and that, in turn, makes Easter change, too.

Added to that is another layer of complexity: Western Christians, including Protestants and Roman Catholics, and their Eastern Orthodox counterparts often celebrate on different dates thanks to differences in their calendars. In 2014, Easter Sunday fell on the same day for both but this year, it is 27March in the west and 1 May in the east.

There have been numerous attempts to fix the date. Secularists suggest it should always fall on the second Sunday of April, while the 1928 Easter Act in Britain fixed the holiday as "the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April". The law remains on the statute book but has never been enforced.

How is the date calculated?

In the very early days of Christianity, the First Council of Nicaea, a gathering of bishops, determined Easter would always fall on the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon - the first full moon of the spring equinox.

So is this the earliest Easter can get?

Not quite, it's possible for Easter Sunday to fall as early as 22 March, although the last time that happened was 1881 and it won't take place again until 2285. Its latest possible date is 25 April, which last occurred in 1943 and is due again in 2038. The most common date for Easter Sunday is 19 April, but the full cycle of dates only repeats after 5,700,000 years – so you've got a fair few chocolate eggs to get through before then.

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