Of Full Moons and Chocolate Bunnies

Article Published: Apr. 21, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 19, 2011
Of Full Moons and Chocolate Bunnies


If it seems like Easter Sunday is unusually late this year, that's because it is. The latest possible date for the holiday is April 25, and that only happened once in the past century, in 1943. So April 24 is pretty close to the latest possible Easter one could celebrate.

Unlike Mother's Day, which is always the second Sunday in May, and Thanksgiving, which always falls on the fourth Thursday of November, Easter Sunday is regulated by a complicated set of rules that give it a wide berth. It can fall anywhere between the earliest possible date of March 22 to the latest on April 25. (It last fell on March 22 in 1818.)

So, what are those rules? Well, I'm glad you asked. After doing a little digging, I've found a Time magazine article from 1943 that explained why that year's Easter was so late. The article explains:
"The timing of Easter, a confusing system mixing astronomy and ecclesiasticism, was worked out by the early Christian Church at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. and has never been changed. The Council provided that:

Easter must closely follow the spring equinox, in accord with the pagan tradition of spring festivals. For convenience, the Council arbitrarily set the equinox on March 21, although astronomically it usually falls on March 20, sometimes the 19th.

Easter must closely follow a full moon in order to light the way for pilgrims' travel to the festivals. The Council arbitrarily fixed the 14th day of the Jewish 'paschal month' (Passover) as the day of the full moon, although the actual full moon is usually one or two days earlier.

Easter must follow the Jewish Passover (which always falls on the 14th day of the paschal month) to avoid conflict between the two holy days.

Easter must be on a Sunday (Before the Council of Nicea, some parts of the early Church had celebrated Easter on the third day of Passover, whether it fell on a Sunday or a weekday, but in Rome the practice arose of always celebrating Easter on a Sunday.)"

Well, that certainly makes it easier to understand.

Now, 1,686 years after the Council of Nicea, we are still obeying its rules on when to celebrate Easter. I find that astounding. I wonder if they had any idea that what they were deciding would last so long. I'm sure there must have been some voices at the council that wished for something a little easier to remember.

"What if we just make Easter the first Sunday after the spring equinox," I can hear them asking. "Wouldn't that be more convenient?"

"No, no, no. We've got to make it near the full moon so folks don't have to walk to the festival in the dark. It's a liability issue."

After the Council, I'm sure there were a few members thinking, "Well, we'll just try it this way for a few years to see if it works out, then we'll iron out the wrinkles at the next Council."
1,686 years later...

I also find it fascinating that although Easter is considered the most important day of the year for Christians, its origins are also rooted in Judaism's Passover celebration and in many ancient pagan spring festivals.

The Easter Egg and Easter Bunny, for example, have become important symbols of the holiday, especially for children. Both the egg and the rabbit have been symbols for the fertility aspect of springtime since ancient times, and their images have been found representing that time of year in cultures all over the world.

Now if I can just find out why jelly beans and marshmallow Peeps are part of the Easter holiday...
Seriously though, whatever your beliefs, have a safe and fun Easter weekend with your family and friends!

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