Q: Why is Easter celebrated on different dates each year?
A: The date many Christians celebrate Easter — the day Jesus Christ is said to have risen from the dead — is determined each year based on both solar and lunar calendars, according to John Leonard, professor and chairman of the Religious Studies Department at Edgewood College.
Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, Leonard said. The spring equinox falls on March 21, but because the lunar calendar and the solar calendar we use today do not align, the first full moon could fall just after that or almost a month later.
The Bible says Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection took place during Jewish Passover — which is based on the Jewish lunar calendar and begins on the first full moon of spring. The resurrection happened on the first day of the week, according to the Bible, which is Sunday, Leonard said.
Not all early Christians agreed on a day to celebrate Easter, Leonard said. Some believed it should always take place on the first full moon of spring, and others believed it should always be the Sunday after the full moon.
“The Bishops gathered at the Council of Nicea (325 CE) decided that (Easter) would henceforth be observed on the same day by all Christians in the Roman Empire,” Leonard said, adding that is still the case for Catholics and Protestants.
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Orthodox Christians follow a different calendar, which puts Easter on a different date — the Sunday after Passover, Leonard said. Easter for Catholics and Protestants can coincide with Passover, as it does this year.
The difference between a changing date for Easter and the fixed date for Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ birth, has not gone unnoticed.
Leonard said the date for Christmas is likely “an early 4th-century innovation” with a date chosen to correspond with the Roman imperial feast of Sol Invictus, or unconquered sun.
It was celebrated as the increase of light became noticeable after the winter solstice, Leonard said. That day was always Dec. 25.
— Shelley K. Mesch