Easter is generally accounted the most important holiday of the Christian year, observed each spring to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (after his death by crucifixion; see Good Friday), which Christians believe happened at about this time of year, almost two thousand years ago. (Easter can also refer to the season of the church year, lasting for nearly two months, which follows this holiday. See Easter (season).)
The festival's name in English (and other Germanic languages) is said to derive from Eostre, a pagan goddess, whose primary festival fell in the spring and in whose month, 'Eostremonat,' Easter generally fell. (The etymology is contested.) However, in most other languages (see list at bottom of page), the holiday's name is derived from Pesach, the Hebrew name of Passover, a Jewish holiday to which it is intimately linked. Easter depends on Passover not only for much of its symbolic meaning but also for its position in the calendar; the Last Supper shared by Jesus and his disciples before his crucifixion is generally thought of as a Passover seder.
In Western Christianity Easter Day always falls on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25. The following day, Easter Monday, is recognized as a legal holiday in most countries with a significant Christian tradition (with the notable exception of the United States).
The Date of Easter
Easter and the holidays that are related to it are moveable feasts, in that they do not fall on a fixed date in the Gregorian or Julian calendars (which follow the motion of the Sun and the seasons). Instead, they are based on a lunar calendar like that of the Jewish year. The precise date of Easter has often been a matter for contention.
At the First Council of Nicaea in 325 it was decided that Easter would be celebrated on the same date throughout the Church. The specific method (the Sunday after the 14th day of the first lunar month of spring) was not determined by the Council. Instead, the matter was referred to Alexandria. The practice of this city was essentially Easter is observed the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the day of the vernal equinox. Eventually, all churches accepted the Alexandrian method of computing Easter, which set the northern hemisphere vernal equinox at 21 March (the actual equinox may fall one or two days earlier or later) and determined the date of the full moon using the Metonic cycle. Since western churches now use the Gregorian calendar to calculate the date and Eastern Orthodox churches the original Julian calendar, their dates are not usually aligned in the present day.
At a summit in Aleppo, Syria, in 1997, the World Council of Churches proposed a reform in the calculation of Easter which would have replaced an equation-based method of calculating Easter with direct astronomical observation; this would have side-stepped the calendar issue and eliminated the difference in date between the Eastern and Western churches. The reform was propsed for implementation starting in 2001, but it was not ultimately adopted by any member body. See Reform of the date of Easter.
The calculations for the date of Easter can be somewhat complicated. See computus for a discussion covering both the traditional tabular methods and more exclusively mathematical algorithms such as the one developed by the famous mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss.
In the western church Easter has not fallen on the earliest of the 35 possible dates, March 22, since 1818, and will not do so again until 2285; it fell on the latest possible date, April 25 most recently in 1943, and will next fall on that date in 2038.
Historically, other forms of determining the holiday's date were also used. For example, Quartodecimanism was the practice of setting the holiday on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan.
In Western Christianity, Easter marks the end of the forty days of Lent, a period of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends at Easter Sunday. (See under Lent for more about its length.)
The week before Easter is very special in the Christian tradition: the Sunday before is Palm Sunday, and the last three days before Easter are Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday (sometimes referred to as Silent Saturday). Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday respectively commemmorate Jesus's entry in Jerusalem, the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday are sometimes referred to as the Triduum (Latin for "Three Days"). In some countries Easter lasts two days, with the second called "Easter Monday". Many churches start celebrating Easter late in the evening of Holy Saturday at a service called the Easter Vigil.
The Season of Easter begins on Easter Sunday and lasts until the day of Pentecost, seven weeks later.
In Eastern Christianity, preparations begin with Great Lent. Following the fifth Sunday of Great Lent is Palm Week, which ends with Lazarus Saturday. Lazarus Saturday officially brings Great Lent to a close, although the fast continues for the following week. After Lazarus Saturday comes Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and finally Easter itself, or Pascha (?ad?a), and the fast is broken immediately after the Divine Liturgy. Easter is immediately followed by Bright Week, during which there is no fasting, even on Wednesday and Friday.
The Paschal Divine Liturgy generally takes place around midnight, into the early morning of Pascha. Placing the Paschal Divine Liturgy at midnight guarantees that no Divine Liturgy will come earlier in the morning, ensuring its place as the preeminent "Feast of Feasts" in the liturgical year.
The Religious Observation of Easter