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Easter is considered “a movable feast” (New Catholic Encyclopedia) and Easter’s date also affects other holy days: Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent; Palm Sunday; the days of Holy Week – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday – and Pentecost.
The earliest date for Easter, March 22, occurred in 1761 and 1818; it will fall on March 22 again in 2285 and 2353. Easter can be as late as April 25 as happened in 1886 and 1943 and this will occur again in 2038. This year, 2021, Easter is celebrated on April 4.
From the earliest years of Christianity, Easter has been its most important feast, and the date of the observance varied. No one day of the week was associated with Christmas, Christ’s birth day, and by about A.D. 400 the western Church had assigned December 25 as the date for the observation of Christmas.
The Easter season, however, did have specific days of the week associated with its events and this contributed to the variety of dates on which Easter was celebrated. Historically, it is believed that Jesus held the Last Supper on the 14th day of Nisan (a Jewish month), the date of Passover.
The date of Passover was based upon a lunar calendar and Passover did not always fall on the same day of the week. But for Christians, Christ’s Resurrection occurred on a Sunday and therefore Easter should be celebrated on a Sunday. And this led to conflicts, which were resolved by the Council of Nicaea (Council of Nice).
Read Lenten Reflections, compiled by the Office of Mission & Ministry, from Villanova faculty and staff.
Holy Holidays! The Catholic Origins of Celebration (2011). Greg Tobin.
Passover and Easter: Origin and History to Modern Times (1999). Paul F. Bradshaw and Lawrence A. Hoffman, editors.
“The Date of Easter: A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of the Department of Mathematics, Villanova University” (1954). Sister Mary Bernita Smith, RSM.
The Regulation of Easter, or the Cause of the Errors and Dfferences [sic] Contracted in the Calculation of It Discover’d and Duly Consider’d. (1735). Henry Wilson.
The Great Cicle [sic] of Easter Containing a Short Rule, to Knowe Yppon [sic] What Day of the Month Easter Day will Fall … (1584). John Pett.
Alice Bampton is a retired staff member of Falvey Memorial Library. A version of this article was originally published April 4, 2015.