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04/06/2004 Archived Entry: "Fixing the date of Easter"
HOW THE DATE OF EASTER IS DETERMINED
As we prepare to go out and about on this first major public holiday of the year, it is interesting to note how North Eastern England played a highly important role in determining the method of calculating the date of Easter in this country. Easter is a moveable feast which can fall as early as March 22 and as late as April 25, a span of 35 days or five entire weeks. The rarest date for Easter Sunday is March 22 and it last fell upon that date in 1818. If the present system is maintained, it will not happen again until 2285. The last time Easter Sunday fell on its latest date, April 25, was in 1943.
In England, prior to AD 664, there existed two methods of calculating the date of Easter. One was the system used in the rest of the Christian world and which had been introduced here by St Augustine who was sent by the Pope to be our first Archbishop of Canterbury. This was the Roman method and it was used widely in the south of England. The Celtic branch of the church which had been established in the north by St Columba used a slightly different system.
This meant there were two different dates for Easter in this country and the problem was highlighted when King Oswy of Northumbria married Queen Eanflaed of Kent. She was a southerner while he was a northerner. The king wanted a single date for Easter and so he called for the Synod of Whitby to discuss the matter.
His wish was to unite both traditions of the church in England, one matter being that all the monks should have the same style of tonsure, and another being that both sides celebrated Easter at the same time. It was an important meeting and after a good deal of complicated discussion, Wilfred of Ripon said his piece.
He pointed out that Christ had given the keys of the kingdom of heaven to St Peter so surely the method used by Rome was the right one? The Synod agreed and so the whole of this country adopted the Roman method which is still used today. It is that Easter Sunday falls on the first Sunday after the full moon which happens upon or next after March 21; and if that full moon falls on a Sunday, Easter Sunday will be the one after that. So, as we saw a full moon last night, next Sunday will be Easter Day.
In spite of attempts to have a fixed date for Easter, we still follow that ancient method of calculation although the eastern Orthodox churches continue to use their own system. If you go to the Greek islands on holiday around this time of year, you might find yourself celebrating two Easters; one there and the at home!