Saturday, April 3, 2010

Looking back to Easter Sunday’s earthly and celestial foundations

There are things we were thought not to question from our childhood onwards until we become parents ourselves, like the foundations of our faith and the basis for the Holy Week that our predominantly Roman Catholic nation is celebrating now. This was why I was taken off balance seven years ago when my then nine-year-old son asked me why Holy Week wasn’t being held on the same date like that of Christmas Day, which is always December 25. Why, he asked, have the church authorities made the scheduling of Holy Week so complicated and ever-changing? I simply didn’t know the answers then, and my abysmal ignorance compelled me to do some quick research about Holy Week, a celebration that as we all know culminates on Easter Sunday. I then wrote an essay about my findings, “Matters of Faith,” for my column in The Manila Times sometime in April of 2003. It’s an essay that I believe remains relevant even today, so I am posting it in the Forum for your Lenten Season reading. I hope you’ll find it informative and interesting. (April 2, 2010)

Matters of faith

I was making notes for a possible non-English-language topic for this column, thinking that grammar wouldn’t be right for Holy Wednesday, when my nine-year-old tapped my shoulder and asked: “Dad, why is Holy Week from April 13 to 20 this year? Last year, it was from March 24 to 31.* Why not hold it on the same date like that of Christmas Day so it doesn’t get confusing?”

Talk about deja vu! I had wanted to ask my own father that same question when I was about the same age as my son now, but never got to ask. Now I am a father myself—three times over, in fact—and yet could only give a stock answer to veil my continuing ignorance: “It’s because the days of the Holy Week are movable feasts, son. They base it on a religious calendar—you know, that kind where there are names of one or two saints for every day of the year.”

“But why, Dad? They could do the same to every other religious holiday, but they don’t. And another question: Why is Easter Sunday called ‘Easter’? This celebration came from the West, so wouldn’t it make more sense to call it ‘Wester’? And one last thing: Why is the bunny a symbol for Easter? It looks funny and doesn’t seem right.”

Those questions stumped me even more, so I told him: “I really don’t know the answers, son, but tonight I’ll get them for you. Go to sleep now and tomorrow we’ll talk again.”

My little research to answer my son’s questions, I must say, yielded more fascinating answers than I expected. To begin with, it turns out that the movable Holy Week schedules are not totally arbitrary at all. They are always exactly timed in relation to the natural, once-a-year occurrence called the vernal equinox. The equinoxes—there are only two of them—are those times in the year when day is precisely as long as night. The vernal equinox comes in March, marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring, while the autumnal equinox comes in September, marking the end of summer and the beginning of autumn.

The advent of spring was, of course, always a cause for great celebration in the ancient world. The Anglo-Saxons welcomed it with a rousing spring festival in honor of Eoastre, their goddess of springtime and fertility. The Scandinavians called her Ostra and the Teutons, Ostern, but they honored her in much the same way. The importance of this festival to the early Europeans was not lost on the second-century Christians, who wanted to convert them to Christianity. They therefore made their own observance of Christ’s Resurrection coincide exactly with the festival. Then they gradually made it a Christian celebration, even appropriating the name “Eoastre” for it. Thus, contrary to what my son thought, the later use of the term “Easter” for the high point of the Holy Week had absolutely nothing to do with global geography.

People in those early times, however, celebrated the spring festival on different days, mostly on Sundays but often also on Fridays and Saturdays. This became a thorny issue. To resolve it, the Roman Emperor Constantine—who had by then become a supporter of the Christian faith—convened the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. This council came up with the Easter Rule, decreeing that Easter should be celebrated on the first Sunday that occurs after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. The “full moon” of this rule, however, does not always occur on the same date as the full moon that we actually see; it is the full moon after the ecclesiastical “vernal equinox,” which always falls on March 21. By this reckoning, Easter will always fall on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25. This rule has withstood the test of time, remaining unchanged exactly 1,682 years later to this day.

As to the Easter Bunny, it may be natural for us to think that it is simply a modern-day contrivance to liven up Easter Sunday. It isn’t. Its provenance is even older than that of Easter itself. The prolific rabbit, whose reappearance in spring unerringly marked the end of the brutal winters of those days, actually was the earthly symbol of the goddess Eoastre. Along with the Easter Egg, itself a symbol of rebirth in many cultures, the Easter Bunny was, in fact, a powerful ancient symbol for activity after inaction, for life after death.

In the suffering and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Roman Catholics and the rest of the Christian faithful have similarly found such an enduring symbol. They have thus consecrated the Lenten Season in His Name as their holiest of days, ending it on Easter Sunday in a feast where church tradition and ancient belief find joyful convergence.

These are the things I’ll tell my nine-year-old when he wakes up today and reminds me of what I promised him. (April 15, 2003)


*In 2010, of course, we are celebrating Easter on Sunday, April 4—the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the ecclesiastical “vernal equinox,” which in turn always falls on March 21. This really sounds complicated and rather arbitrary, but there it is.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 15, 2003 © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


What do you think of my ideas in this essay? Click the Reply button to post your thoughts.


  1. You write, "The advent of spring was, of course, always a cause for great celebration in the ancient world. The Anglo-Saxons welcomed it with a rousing spring festival in honor of Eoastre, their goddess of springtime and fertility."

    The 8th-century English writer Bede writes, "Eosturmonath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur et cui in illo festa celebrabant nomen habuit. A cuius nomine nunc paschale tempus cognoninant, consueto antiquae observationis vocabulo gaudia novae solemnitatis vocantes." (Easter-month, which now is understood to mean "Paschal month", once had its name from a goddess of theirs who was called Eostre and to whom they held festival in that month. They now name the Paschal season by the name of this month, calling the joys of the new rite by the accustomed name of the old observance.)

    Note what he says, and doesn't say, about Eostre. He doesn't say she was a goddess "of" springtime, fertility, or anything else. Only that she was a goddess and that her festival was in the month called Eosturmonath. The name "Eostre" seems to suggest a dawn-goddess but even of this we can't be sure.

    Not what else is not in Bede's report: No eggs. No bunnies. Your statement that "the prolific rabbit, whose reappearance in spring unerringly marked the end of the brutal winters of those days, actually was the earthly symbol of the goddess Eoastre" is not supported by Bede. Furthermore, rabbits did not exist in most of Europe until the middle ages. The Easter bunny is a hare, not a rabbit.

  2. Thank you so much for the more detailed background material about the origins of Easter. I have posted this same essay of mine in Jose Carillo's English Forum at so I was wondering if I could invite you to share your thoughts with Forum members by also posting your comments there. Perhaps you can also use the opportunity to answer a question that has bubbled up in my mind just now: Why do you make what looks like absolute reliance on the account of Bede? The drift I am getting is that if something wasn't said by Bede about Easter or anything, then it couldn't be true. Aren't there other reliable historical sources about that period? I'm not an expert on the history of Old England and would greatly appreciate it if you can clarify this matter. Thanks!