This weekend is Easter, but it was supposed to have happened last weekend if a law from 1928 — that fixed the date of Easter — were to be enforced.

Easter, supposed to be the date that Jesus died then undied, should like most fairly terminal events in people’s lives be something that occurs on a fixed date. But Easter is religious, so ambiguity reigns and Easter is confusing the “first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox”.

The most common date for the Western churches’ Easter is 19 April. The earliest Easter can be is 22 March, and the latest it can fall is 25 April. This year it’s 17th April, so quite late by easter bunny standards.

The tradition of setting it by the moon and the spring equinox, instead of a set date in the calendar was a classic religious fudge carried out by the Council of Nicea in 325 to sort out a problem caused by different parts of the Christian world marking Easter on different days.

They set it to be the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal or spring equinox. So now they generally agreed on when it took place, and by wobbling the date around and blaming the moon, they avoiding upsetting anyone — except calendar makers. However, it seems not everyone agreed with the new deal.

It was the UK though where this all came to a head, when in the year 664, King Oswiu in the kingdom of Northumbria, brought up on Celtic traditions celebrated Easter on one day, while his wife, who had been brought up in Catholic traditions was celebrating Easter on a different day.

For the King to have an Easter feast while the wife is still marking Lent was, to put it mildly, a bit of a problem, and the King decided to sort it out, summoning religious leaders to a Synod, a meeting, to settle the problem.

Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne put the case for the Celtic tradition, while Bishop Wilfrid of York put forward the Catholic argument, and won, it’s said after noting that St Peter who kept the keys to heaven was the first Bishop of Rome. This impressed the King, who switched to the Catholic method of working out when Easter falls.

So Easter still wobbles around the calendar like an errant fool, but at least all the calendars agree when it should take place. Or do they? Not all Christian countries follow the Gregorian calendar which was introduced by Pope Gregory in 1528, and countries that use the older Julian calendar celebrate Easter on a different date, although every few years, the two calendars align and celebrate Easter on the same day. The next time that will happen will be 20th April 2025.

But, 400 years after the Gregorian calendar was introduced, the UK got interested in settling the Easter problem again, and on 3rd August 1928, passed “An Act to regulate the date of Easter Day and days or other periods and occasions depending thereon” – known as the Easter Act.

That didn’t pop out of nowhere though, as the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations had passed a resolution in 1926 calling for the date of Easter to be sorted.

Easter would still wobble a bit, but far less than it does today — and more usefully would no longer be bound by the vagaries of the moon. The effect of the act would be to establish Easter Sunday as the Sunday following the second Saturday in April — so fixed by the calendar, not the moon, and resulting in Easter Sunday being between 9th April and 15th April.

The act of law has Royal Assent but has never been enforced, as it requires both Houses of Parliament to pass resolutions agreeing on when to start enforcing the law. So the King said yes, but Parliament says no.

The issue of the UK legislation is occasionally raised in Parliament, such as in 1930, 1964, 1981, 1989, and 1999, but still no decision on when to enforce it.

So, basically, there’s a law in force that fixes the date of Easter, but no one has ever agreed to enforce it, in part because it needs Parliament to agree to do so, but also a clause that says the views of the Church should be considered. However, as a piece of legislation, it has been granted royal assent, which means the Queen has approved, and lest we forget, she is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, so the issue about getting the church to approve seems rather moot.

There is in fact a modern move to fix the date of Easter once and for all, and a number of Church leaders from the various sides have argued over the past decade or so that it’s time to sort it. That’ll probably take another century or so though.

But when you munch on your easter bunny this Sunday, just think, that if the law were enforced, you’d be doing that a week later than you should.

Happy Easter!

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12 comments
  1. ChrisC says:

    In 1928 it would have been George V that gave Royal Assent to the Easter Act.

    Separate Commencement orders only need to be passed if a commencement date isn’t already stated in the Act.

    The commencement order in the 1928 Act does not follow the usual form and is more complicated than most – Parliament doesn’t usually approve Orders in Council for example.

  2. Brian Butterworth says:

    I thought that we used the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox? Not really vague at all!

  3. Duncan Martin says:

    From the new testament it should coincide with Passover. It does this year, I think, but not always. Anyone know why?

  4. Toby Lambert says:

    To be rather nerdy about legislative procedure, the Easter Act needs to be commenced rather than enforced.

  5. simhedges says:

    >>the Queen has approved, and lest we forget, she is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, so the issue about getting the church to approve seems rather moot.
    <<
    The Queen (her grandfather was the one who approved it) isn't a dictator when it comes to the UK govt, OR the Church of England. The Church of England is run by the Archbishop of Canterbury (its executive) and by the General Synod (its legislature): the Queen has no actual say in how it's run, so the issue about getting the church to approve is very much NOT moot.

    • ianVisits says:

      Remember that a) it’s just a light-hearted article, and b) it’s about religion, so facts don’t matter anyway.

  6. Nigel Parker says:

    Perhaps it’s time that the statute book was tidied up and this Act repealed.

  7. Barney says:

    Ian, did you write this? I’m presuming so as it’s not credited to anyone else. It’s a perfect Sunday morning with a coffee combo of interesting and amusing and I’m now going to share it on my social media platforms whilst I once again recommend everyone to subscribe to your email newsletter!!

  8. Nicholas Bennett says:

    Although Parliament could legisilate to fix Easter it would have had no effect. The Church of England would not have broken step with the Catholic Church, which being universal, would not have taken any notice of one country’s fixing of the date of Easter.

    • ianVisits says:

      I presume you commented before reading the sentence in the article about how the various churches are indeed working on fixing the date?

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