Facts of the Matter

Richard Brill

Easter’s a mosaic
of beliefs, symbols

You may be wondering today what is the connection between Easter Sunday, Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny, and why Easter doesn't occur on the same day each year like other holidays.

Eggs and rabbits may seem odd because most people think of Easter only as a religious holiday. It is that, but beyond that, it is a celebration of fertility and rebirth, the modern continuation of ageless rites of spring as they have been borrowed and adapted from ancient pagan rituals.


The name comes from Eostre, the pagan goddess of spring, whose name derives from East, the direction of the sunrise, itself the rebirth of the day. In Germanic mythology Eostre was said to have saved a bluebird from perishing in late winter's frost by appearing at sunrise on a rainbow bridge, her clothing of warm sunshine bringing warmth to nourish the dying bird, a symbol of spring.

The bunny is a carryover from the festival of Eostre, an annual celebration of the rebirth of nature in which hares (not rabbits) were eaten to promote fertility, for which hares (and rabbits) are famous.

Eggs have long been a symbol of fertility for obvious reasons. The use of the egg as a fertility symbol goes back at least to ancient Mesopotamia where it was closely identified with another goddess of fertility, Astarte.

Unlike other holidays, Easter doesn't fall on the same day of the month from one year to the next; it can occur anywhere from March 22 to April 25. Although it may seem as if the date jumps around arbitrarily, it doesn't. It's tied into astronomy and the calendar through the equinox and the full moon.

The connection to Christianity dates back nearly 1700 years, to 325 C.E., when the emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicea in order to promote unity among the different factions of the new church. It was at this first Ecumenical Council that church officials forged the fundamentals of modern Christianity, including specifying the date of observance of Easter, and introducing certain elements of Babylonian mysticism into the canons of Church doctrine. One outcome was the decision that Easter would thereafter fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the March equinox. This was somewhat problematic because the lunar month is not a whole number of days, there are not a whole number of lunar months in a year, and it is not easy to track the equinox.

At the council's request astronomers calculated the approximate dates of the full moons the best they could at the time. These became known as Ecclesiastical Full Moon (EFM) dates, essentially a table of "virtual" full moon dates to be used in the determination of Easter. Calculating the tables was quite a technological undertaking then as the motions of the sun and moon were not known precisely, and numbers had not yet been invented as tools of calculation. The table was subsequently modified down the generations until it was finalized around four hundred years later. These tables remained in use for more than 1,000 years, until the 16th century.

Although the actual date of the equinox moves between March 19 and March 22, March 21 was established as the day of reckoning, regardless of the actual date of the equinox, and the EFM as the date of the full moon regardless of when the astronomical full moon actually occurs.

The original EFM tables were based on the Julian calendar which uses a 19 year sun-moon-earth cycle, and are still used to determine the date of Easter in the Orthodox faiths.

In 1582 the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar, which was out of sync with the seasons by ten days. The adjustment and the accuracy of the new calendar made the old EFM tables obsolete so Pope Gregory XIII had new EFM tables calculated.

By that time, there was better information on the length of the month, and methods of calculation had been much refined by the introduction of numbers in the 9th century. The Western world has used the Gregorian calendar to determine the date of Easter Sunday ever since, but still uses the fixed March 21 date for the equinox and the calculated EFM tables for the date of the full moon.

Although Easter was decreed by the council to be the first Sunday after the first full moon after the March equinox, the actual date is the first Sunday after the first Ecclesiastical Full Moon after March 21.

Today's Easter symbols and dates of observance are a hodgepodge of symbols and science, fact and decree, modified by generations of people who, being human, look for excuses to celebrate.

We could all be a little smarter, no? Richard Brill picks up
where your high school science teacher left off. He is a professor of science
at Honolulu Community College, where he teaches earth and physical
science and investigates life and the universe.
He can be contacted by e-mail at


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