The date of Easter, when Jesus’ resurrection would have taken place, changes from year to year.
The reason for this variation is that Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox.
I’m a religious studies scholar specializing in early Christianity, and my research shows that this dating of Easter goes back to the holiday’s complicated origins and evolution over the centuries.
Easter is quite similar to other major holidays like Christmas and Halloween, which have evolved over the past 200 or so years. During all of these festivals, Christian and non-Christian (pagan) elements continued to mix.
Easter as a rite of spring
Most of the major holidays have to do with the changing of the seasons. This is particularly evident in the case of Christmas. The New Testament gives no information about the time of year when Jesus was born. Many scholars believe, however, that the main reason Jesus’ birth was celebrated on December 25 is that it was the date of the winter solstice according to the Roman calendar.
Since the days following the winter solstice become progressively longer and less dark, this was the ideal symbolism for the birth of “the light of the world” as recorded in the New Testament Gospel of John.
The same was true for Easter, which falls close to another key point in the solar year: the vernal equinox (around March 20), when there are equal periods of light and dark. For those who live in northern latitudes, the arrival of spring is often greeted with enthusiasm, as it means the end of the cold days of winter.
Spring also signifies the return to life of plants and trees that have been dormant during the winter, as well as the birth of new life in the animal world. Given the symbolism of new life and rebirth, it was only natural to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at this time of year.
The name of the holiday as “Easter” seems to date back to the name of a pre-Christian goddess in England, Eostre, who was celebrated in early spring. The only reference to this goddess comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede, a British monk who lived in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. As summarized by religious studies scholar Bruce Forbes:
“Bede wrote that the month in which English Christians celebrated the resurrection of Jesus was called Eosturmonath in Old English, referring to a goddess named Eostre. And even though Christians had begun to affirm the Christian meaning of the celebration, they continued to use the name of the goddess to designate the season.
Bede was so influential to later Christians that the name stuck, and so Easter remains the name by which the English, Germans, and Americans refer to the feast of Jesus’ resurrection.
The connection with Passover
It is important to point out that while the name “Easter” is used in the English-speaking world, many other cultures refer to it by terms better translated as “Easter” (for example, “Pascha” in Greek) – a reference, indeed, at the Jewish feast of the Passover.
In the Hebrew Bible, Passover is a holiday that commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, as told in the Book of Exodus. It was and continues to be the most important Jewish seasonal holiday, celebrated on the first full moon after the vernal equinox.
In the time of Jesus, the Passover had special significance, as the Jewish people were once again under the rule of foreign powers (namely, the Romans). Jewish pilgrims flocked to Jerusalem every year in the hope that God’s chosen people (as they believed themselves) would soon be set free once more.
During a Passover, Jesus traveled to Jerusalem with his disciples to celebrate the feast. He entered Jerusalem in a triumphal procession and caused trouble in the Temple in Jerusalem. It seems that these two actions caught the attention of the Romans and as a result, Jesus was executed around the year 30 AD.
Some of Jesus’ followers, however, believed they saw him alive after his death, experiences that gave rise to the Christian religion. Since Jesus died during the Passover feast and his disciples believed he had risen from the dead three days later, it made sense to commemorate these events nearby.
Some early Christians chose to celebrate Christ’s resurrection on the same date as Passover, which fell around the 14th day of the month of Nisan, in March or April. These Christians were known as the Quartodecimans (the name means “fourteen years”).
By choosing this date, they emphasized the death of Jesus and also underlined the continuity with Judaism from which Christianity arose. Others preferred to hold the party on a Sunday instead, as that is when Jesus’ tomb would have been found.
In AD 325, Emperor Constantine, who favored Christianity, called a meeting of Christian leaders to resolve important disputes at the Council of Nicaea. The most fateful of its decisions concerned the status of Christ, whom the council recognized as “fully human and fully divine”. This council also decided that Easter should be fixed on a Sunday, not the 14th of Nisan. Accordingly, Easter is now celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the vernal equinox.
Easter Bunny and Easter Eggs
In early America, Easter was much more popular among Catholics than Protestants. For example, New England Puritans considered Easter and Christmas too tainted with non-Christian influences to be appropriate for celebration. Such parties also tended to be occasions for heavy drinking and partying.
The fortunes of both holidays changed in the 19th century, when they became occasions to be spent with the family. This was done partly out of a desire to make the celebration of this holiday less rowdy.
But Easter and Christmas were also turned into national holidays because children’s understanding was changing. Prior to the 17th century, children were rarely the center of attention. As historian Stephen Nissenbaum writes,
“…children were grouped together with other members of the lower orders in general, especially servants and apprentices – who, it is no coincidence, were usually young people themselves.”
From the 17th century, childhood was increasingly recognized as a period of life that should be joyful, and not simply as a preparatory period for adulthood. This “discovery of childhood” and the passion of the children had profound effects on the way Easter was celebrated.
It is at this stage in the development of the holiday that Easter eggs and the Easter bunny become particularly important. Decorated eggs had been part of the Easter festival at least since medieval times, given the obvious symbolism of new life. A great deal of folklore surrounds Easter eggs, and in a number of Eastern European countries the decorating process is extremely elaborate. Several Eastern European legends describe eggs turning red (a favorite color for Easter eggs) in connection with the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Yet it was not until the 17th century that a German tradition of an “Easter Hare” bringing eggs to good children became known. Hares and rabbits have long been associated with seasonal springtime rituals due to their incredible powers of fertility.
When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought this tradition with them. The wild hare has also been supplanted by the more docile and domesticated rabbit, in another indication of how attention has shifted to children.
As Christians celebrate the holiday this spring in commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection, the familiar images of the Easter bunny and Easter eggs serve as a reminder of the holiday’s age-old origins outside of Christian tradition.
This is an updated version of an article published on March 21, 2018.
This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Brent Landau, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts.
Brent Landau does not work for, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.