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I wish you all belated Easter greetings. This time last year I was posting about sacred chickens, pagan hares and Easter – or rather Eostre’s – bunnies. This time around, I’m looking at the calendar and when Easter falls. It appears to be a crazy law unto itself… or is it?

The dates on which the Easter holidays happen bounce around the calendar much like an Easter bunny. Have you ever wondered why? Some years we are celebrating Easter Sunday as early as 22nd March, yet in other years we have to wait until as late as 25th April. 

Well, if ever there was a case on history hiding in plain sight, it’s the dating of Easter. You’re eating your paschal lamb on a date largely (but not completely) determined by a tribe of Iron-age Hebrews, from around 10,000 b.c. Let me elaborate…

Solar and Lunar calendars

Those early Hebrews were keen observers of the phases of the sun and moon. They set down solar and lunar calendars, based on their observations, – carving them on limestone tablets. And  then later in their history they created the festival of Passover. This celebrated liberation from slavery in Egypt. And the date of Passover was set by their ancient lunar calendars. 

Passover always falls on the date of the full moon in the Hebrew lunar month of Nisan. That’s the first month of spring, which follows the spring equinox. (A quick reminder of your school geography – an equinox is where the tilt of the earth means the hours of daylight and darkness are the same length. There are two annually, of course).

But the actual calendar date of Passover changes, because of  discrepancies between solar and lunar months – they’re not the same length.( A lunar year is about 12 days shorter than a solar year). The ancient Jewish religious authorities adjusted  the annual dates of Passover in their solar calendar, to make sure that it corresponded with the lunar dates. 

Of course, Easter is firmly tied to Passover, because that’s when Jesus came to Jerusalem, riding on a donkey and, well, you know the rest of the Easter story. So, the moving dates of Passover and Easter stayed in tandem during the early days of Christianity.

The Pascal Lamb

Pascal lamb: Ghent Alterpiece by Jan van Eyck

Passover is called “Pesach” in Hebrew. That’s where we get the adjective “pascal” from, and it explains the words used for Easter in European languages:

Paques in French
Pasqua in Italian
Pascuas in Spanish
Pasen in Dutch
Paske in Danish

(It was only the pagan English and Germans, who celebrated the festival of the spring goddess Eostre, who used the terms Easter and Ostern respectively). 

So, the original significance  of  “a pascal lamb”, was the lamb sacrificed at the Jewish Passover. The term was adopted by the new Christians in an early example of cultural appropriation.

It’s complicated…

But hold on, if only life were so simple… are Easter and Passover really so firmly linked? It’s complicated.  The early Christian church decided that they wanted to do their own tinkering with the calendar. As they gradually parted company with their Hebrew roots over the centuries, they decided to use their own – similar, but not identical – computations to set the date of Easter. 

So, the new church’s rule of thumb: Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon that happens after the spring equinox. Sometimes that will fall on the same date as Passover, sometimes not. Done and dusted then…

Um, unfortunately not. The elders of the Christian church couldn’t resist tinkering with the calendar either, and so they set the dates of the spring full moon and  equinox according to their own calculations, rather than actual astronomical observations. These were called “ecclesiastical moons” and “ecclesiastical equinoxes”. They didn’t necessarily correspond with what was happening in the sky.

A difference of opinion

To  make matters worse, different factions of the church devised their own unique computations. So, Easter day could be celebrated on totally different days, depending on which faction of the church you favoured. In seventh century Anglo Saxon England, Queen Eanfled of Northumbria was still fasting on Palm Sunday, whilst her husband king Oswy was already celebrating Easter Day!

In England, there was a  showdown between the two key factions – the followers of Rome, and the Irish missionary monks, based on the island of Iona, with satellites  in Northumbria. It wasn’t really the dates of Easter that divided the two gangs. It was the overall direction of the church in general. Would the English church – actually led by Irish monks following Saints Aidan and Cuthbert – prevail, or would England fall into line under the dictates of the church in Rome, represented by Saint Wilfred?

Whitby gothic

Whitby Abbey

The two factions were commanded by King Oswy to meet at Whitby, in its new abbey. He probably had had enough of marital strife over when the fasting could end. The Synod of Whitby in 664 settled the matter of Easter. It was governed by the Abbess of the abbey, Hilde, who was  later made a saint. It also dictated the direction of the English church for the next thousand-odd years – until Henry VIII upended the apple-cart in the 1500s.  

Incidentally, we know much of what happened at Whitby from an old friend you might remember from my previous Easter post. This was Bede, who wrote, not only about the pagan goddess Eostre, but about the goings on in the newly established Christian church. 

Rome, represented by Wilfred, won the fight. Rome would set the dates for Easter for the English church, and the rival Easter calendars were retired from service. The Irish monks retreated to Iona.

Ammonites on the beach

I think it’s time for a diversion – let’s get to know  Saint Hilde – also known as Hild or Hilda – a little better. Why was she chosen to host such an important summit, in an age when a woman’s opinion wasn’t especially valued? It helped that she was a noblewoman – a member of the ruling family of Northumbria. But she also had a formidable reputation as a brilliant administrator of not only Whitby, but other abbeys under her control. She took an active part in the synod, because her opinion was greatly respected, and the great and the good often visited her for advice.

She was made a saint very soon after her death, and there are two lovely legends attached to her. Sea birds are said to dip their wings when flying over Whitby, in her honour. And she’s credited with quelling a plague of snakes by turning them into stone. The pious medieval folk of Whitby would point out to pilgrims the ammonite fossils found on the beach as evidence for Hilde’s miracle. 

Hilde, with ammonites (or snakes?) at her feet

Inevitably, some unscrupulous  medieval entrepreneurs  found a niche to exploit. They weren’t above carving  snake-heads on the ammonites they’d collected, and then selling them to gullible pilgrims, as relics of Saint Hilde’s snakes.

You can see ammonites on many old depictions of Saint Hilde. In fact, scientists gave ammonites the scientific name Hildoceras, in her honour. And the college of Saint Hild and Saint Bede  at Durham University, as well as of St Hilda’s at Oxford, depict ammonites and snakes in their coat of arms, to identify the saint.

A leap into the dark

So, back to the calendar, and thank goodness for  the synod of Whitby. The date on which Easter would fall was settled; it was done and dusted for perpetuity. Um, unfortunately not…

Fast forward a thousand years, to 1751. Forget Easter, England had a bigger problem with the calendar in general. The underlying issue being leap years. If only the Earth moved around the sun in exactly 365 days, there’d be no issue. But of course, it doesn’t. 

So, to allow for the fact that a solar year is 365 days and so many hours, calendars have to incorporate leap years every so often, to allow the artificial computation of the seasons on earth to catch up exactly with what’s happening out there in space. 

So far, so good. But when it comes to calendars, there’s always arguments. Inevitably, there were different ideas of exactly how often leap years should be incorporated into our earthly calendars. 

Julius and Gregory

England, along with the rest of Europe, had been following the Julian calendar. It was implemented, as you’d probably  guess, by Julius Caesar, on advice from his Egyptian mathematicians and astronomers. Things bumbled along nicely until 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII started to worry that dates on earth had started to drift against the solar year. And so he implemented changes to the Julian calendar, tinkering with the frequency of leap years, in order to synchronise with the heavens.

Gregory’s edict

Trouble was, England was not at all inclined to follow the commands of a Catholic pope. Remember, Protestant Elizabeth was on the throne, under siege by Catholic Spain, and it was only 6 years before the Armada. So England – and other Protestant countries – ignored the implementation of the so-called the Gregorian calendar, and carried on regardless with the Julian calendar.

Over the next two hundred years, the British calendar  became increasingly out of “synch” with continental dates. All other Protestant countries had gradually changed calendars, and only Britain continued with the Julian version. Finally, in 1751,  Parliament decided to get things into line. The discrepancies in dates caused problems in international trade – a grave problem for a “nation of shop-keepers”. 

“Give us back our eleven days!”

The 1751 Act of Parliament authorised the  removal of  11 days from the calendar, from  the month of September 1752.  So, the date after 2nd September 1752, was 14th September 1752!  Britain and her Empire were finally in line with the rest of the world.  

“An Election Entertainment” by William Hogarth

Some historians write that there were riots in the street, with people demanding, “give us back our eleven days!”. But it’s probably an urban myth, encouraged by mischievous types such as William Hogarth. He painted a comic scene of an apparent argument about the lost days at election time.

Actually, the government did try to alleviate any financial discrepancies and disadvantages arising from the act. Many agricultural rents and business taxes became due on the religious festival of Lady Day, which falls on 25th March. (It’s called Lady Day,  because it’s the church Feast of the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel appeared then, to Mary to tell her of an important upcoming event).

The Annunciation – Leonardo da Vinci

Taxing Issues

It wouldn’t have been fair if farmers and businessmen had to pay their dues 11 days earlier than usual, just because the calendar had changed. So the new Act also moved the payment of rents and taxes forward by eleven days. That way,  there would still be the same number of days since the last payment. 

And that’s why, last week, we all rushed to get our tax affairs into place by the 5th of April!  The day after – the 6th – is eleven days after Lady Day, and consequently the new start of the financial year, as set down by the 1751 Act of Parliament.

The 1751 Act also held another clause, which caused no end of confusion to amateur genealogists, such as myself. Why had rents and taxes always been paid on Lady Day?  It was because Lady Day, 25th March,  was the first day of the new year, as computed in the Julian calendar.  Parliament took the opportunity with the 1751 Act to modernise, and move the start of the New Year to 1st January.

So, genealogists can find themselves very confused, when looking at the old registers, dating before 1752.  For example, I have found ancestors born on 20th December 1749, who were baptised on 5th January 1749. Baptised before they were born?  Of course, it’s because, under the old calendar,  the year 1750 didn’t start until 26th March. On old monuments, you can often see dates before 25th March written with both years. For example, died on 4th March 1740/41. They knew the change was on its way!

Hiding in plain sight

Who’d have thought that our daily browse through the Google calendar could involve so much history?  Easter bank holidays determined 12,000 years ago by Iron Age Hebrew tribes, and amended by Anglo-Saxon monks? Tax return dates dictated by religious feasts? Leap years decided by medieval popes?  Nothing’s really new, it’s old stuff disguised in modern clothes.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Sandra French

    Thank you again for your fascinating and totally confusing post!! Let’s remove religion from the calendar altogether and set fixed equally spaced holidays.

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