We’re getting some warm spring breezes in Louisville today and they’re welcome after a not very snowy but conspicuously cold winter. Puts an old Catholic like myself in the mood for Easter, because if Easter isn’t about tulips, short sleeve shirts and roast spring chickens, then what’s it about? The resurrection of Christ thing, that’s a for-sure.
Reader Dusty wrote in to ask an interesting question: why does Easter move around the spring calendar so drastically when other big Christian holidays like Christmas are always on the same day each year? That’s a lovely one, and it all goes back to a little something called the Council of Nicaea, a gathering of Christian leaders that was convened in 325 A.D. by Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor whose conversion to Christianity turned the entire Roman Empire Catholic in one fell swoop, transforming the faith from an underground religion to an officially sanctioned church.
The Council arrived just in time as hundreds of years of operating under the Roman Empire’s radar had split the followers of Christ into all sorts of odd little splinter groups, many with unorthodox ideas about Jesus, God and the nature of worship. The Council of Nicaea was Constantine’s attempt to standardize Christianity. One of the results was a little mission-statement-slash-pledge-of-allegiance that we know today as the Nicaean Creed. Catholics still repeat it at every. Single. Mass.
Another achievement of the Council of Nicaea was the setting of the date of the celebration of Easter. Up until that point more than a few Christians celebrated Easter at Passover, which the newly minted Christian church sought to get away from, primarily for marketing reasons. The Last Supper was a Passover meal however, so moving Easter to say, July, wasn’t an option, and anyway Easter (known then as Pascha) had been observed for hundreds of years by then. Passover is a so-called lunar holiday, which is to say it is (or was at one time) dictated by the cycles of the moon. At the time of the Council of Nicea it was observed on the 14th day of Nisan, the first month of the Hebrew year, which not by coincidence falls right around the vernal equinox or the first day of spring.
Early Church leaders sought to distinguish Easter from Passover, but were conflicted about how to do it. On the one hand they could just assign a regular date to it according to the newfangled Julian solar Calendar (say, the 10th of April), but the problem with that option was than Easter could then fall on any old day of the week. That was a problem since it was known that Christ was crucified on a Friday, which meant he rose on a Sunday. Many church leaders were thus powerfully motivated to keep the observance of Easter to those days. In the end it was agreed upon that Easter would be celebrated on the Sunday after Passover each year, which according to the lunar calendar translated to the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. It all sounds rather pagan to say it that way, but that’s how people marked time back then.
Anyway, with the day of Easter finally set for good, all the other big feast days of the Church were arrayed according to it, at numerically significant distances in days (Ash Wednesday, say, at 46 days before Easter, or Pentecost at 50 days after). But since Easter shifted about the calendar from year to year, so did they. These feast days came to be known for obvious reasons as moveable feasts. Other lesser days were assigned fixed dates according to the solar calendar, among them a mostly insignificant day called Christmas, which wasn’t so much a recognition of the birth of Christ back then as an excuse play pranks and get drunk.
Oh, and if you’re wondering where we get the name Easter when the original name for the day is Pascha, chalk it up to the Germanic influences in our language. Easter comes from the name of a month in old Germanic almanacs, Eostur. It occurred about the same time each year as the Pascal month (the month of Easter) in the Christian calendar. Since old habits die hard a lot of the Germanic peoples never made the switch, and their term for Easter eventually made its way into Old English and then on down to us. Modern pagans like to tell the tale that Eostur was originally the name of a Germanic goddess, and call Easter another case of early Christian “re-branding” of a pagan holiday. Untrue. Though there was a goddess of a similar name from way, WAY back in Germanic tradition, it’s disputed that Eostur month is even derived from that name. Easter is not associated with pagan tradition, it’s associated — very, very closely — with Passover. And that’s pretty much the end of the story.
My gosh that’s a complicated answer to an easy question. Hope that helped, Dusty!