Christians have two dates for Easter. Here's why
A Pillar explainer
You will probably celebrate Easter this Sunday — you might already have a box of Peeps or peanut butter eggs waiting for your after-Mass Easter feast.
But for some Christians, April 4 will still be Lent, and marshmallow chicks, chocolate bunnies, and other Easter feasts will still be weeks away.
Those Christians won’t celebrate Easter until May 2 — so long after “Catholic Easter” that you will probably have eaten all your jellybeans while they’re just getting started.
It turns out that the date of Easter is more complicated than you probably realize.
In fact, for the whole of Christian history, the date of the celebration of Easter has been a controversial question: controversial enough even to lead to excommunications and nearly to schism. And complex enough that historians are still arguing about how the controversies unfolded, and whose at fault.
The long and short of it is this: While the majority of the world’s Christians celebrate Easter on the same day, there is a split between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches about the correct date. And that split extends even to some Catholic communities themselves.
So there are two dates for Easter?
Here’s the history:
In the early centuries of Christianity, churches in different parts of the world celebrated Easter at different times and in different ways. Some churches, especially those with direct Jewish roots, celebrated Easter on the day of Passover, tying the feast of the Pascha to the Last Supper, and centering the feasts of the resurrection on that day — they said this was the custom since the time of the apostles. This practice eventually came to be called Quartodecimanism.
But other churches, including the diocese of Rome, thought the celebration of Easter should be on Sunday, and the date not necessarily tied directly to Passover.
Eventually, that disagreement got pretty serious, and led to attempts to excommunicate the bishops who led the Quartodecimanist dioceses. The controversy nearly led to schism. And it was complicated; scholars are still debating the exact contours of the disagreement.
Even more complicated: the Quartodecimanism controversy was only one of several serious disagreements in the early Church over when to celebrate Easter. There were other fights about other Easter-date issues, some related, some completely different.
In 325, the Council of Nicea decided the whole Church needed to standardize the date for Easter. In a certain sense, Rome won that debate: Nicea decided that the Roman way of calculating Easter’s date should be used everywhere. But while Nicea preferred the Roman way, details on how Rome actually set the date were not exactly clear, and so most places kept doing what they’d already been doing.
It took a few centuries before things were entirely worked out. And different Christian churches disagree strongly on the way that history unfolded.
Eventually, however, it became standard among Christians that Easter should be celebrated:
On the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.
The vernal equinox is the date when day and night are the same length, and from there the days begin getting longer than the nights. And the Church has mostly considered it to be a fixed date (March 21, for most people).
Why after Passover? Well, because that’s the sequence of events in Scripture: Jesus celebrates Passover, is crucified, and then rises from the dead.
Ok, so once that formula was *mostly* set, it was *mostly* smooth sailing, right?
Mostly. For a little while. But here’s what happened next.
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced a new calendar system, called the Gregorian calendar. Before he did that, most Christian countries followed the Julian calendar, which had been introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. The trouble with the Julian calendar is that it overestimated the length of a year by about ten minutes, which might not seem like a lot, but which added up over the centuries, leaving the calendar drifting from the cycles of the seasons.
Gregory shortened the year by .0075 days, recalculating how leap years would work, and aligning the actual vernal equinox with the date at which it was set on the Church’s calendar.
Introducing the calendar also meant fast-forwarding by 10 dates when the switch was made. And because the difference between dates on the Gregorian and Julian calendars grows over time, the calendars are actually now 13 days apart.
The thing is, the Eastern Orthodox churches, which by that time were split from communion with the pope, did not accept the Gregorian calendar. They kept using the Julian calendar. That meant that all the feasts of the Church were celebrated by the Orthodox almost two weeks after they were celebrated by Catholics.
Until 1923. In that year, several Orthodox Churches agreed it would be good to align the dates of most feasts with the Catholic Church. So they agreed on a new calendar, the “revised Julian calendar,” that reset the date for most things, but kept the old calculation of Easter.
Not all Orthodox Churches went with the “revised Julian calendar.” So now, Orthodox Churches are split among themselves between “new calendarists” and “old calendarists,” and they celebrate most feasts on two different sets of dates — except, of course, for Easter.
But whether they are “new calendarists” or “old calendarists,” all Orthodox Churches celebrate Easter on a different date than does the Latin Catholic Church — and because of the way the date is calculated, “Orthodox Easter” can be anywhere between one and four weeks after “Catholic Easter.”
Crazy, huh? Now, here’s where it gets even trickier.
The Catholic Church is a communion of 24 “sui iuris” Churches, which are often referred to (incorrectly) as rites. By far the largest of those Churches is the Latin Catholic Church — if you’re reading this, the odds are that you’re a Latin Catholic.
For the most past, the other Churches, sometimes called the Eastern Catholic Churches, were once de facto Orthodox congregations that eventually reestablished communion with the Bishop of Rome, the pope. They retain their liturgical and cultural heritage, and a high degree of internal autonomy, but they are subject to the governance of the pope.
The Eastern Catholic Churches — for the most part — celebrate Easter at the time the Latin Catholic Church does— some do so proudly, as a sign of their communion with the pope.
But in some Eastern Catholic Churches, there remains a cultural attachment to the Julian calendar, and to the Orthodox date for Easter. In the Ukrainian Catholic Church, for example, while the official date for Easter is April 4, most dioceses in Europe, and especially in Ukraine, celebrate Easter on the Orthodox date. In the U.S. and Canada, the decision sometimes comes down to individual parishes. And some parishes even celebrate Easter twice, once on each date.
In some majority Orthodox countries, even Latin Catholic parishes celebrate Easter on the date the Orthodox do.
As the Church approaches the 1,700th anniversary of the Council of Nicea, which will be commemorated in 2025, some prominent Orthodox leaders have urged a renewal of talks on finding a common date for Easter. The Vatican has been positive about the idea. But this suggestions actually pops up every few years. And if history is a guide, it won’t be easy to find a common date, and it’s probably unlikely.
Meanwhile, no matter the date, Christians will be unified in one proclamation this Easter: Christ is risen. It’s just that some will say it in April, while others fast through four more weeks of Lent.