Reconciling (religious) holidays
Last night I got an e-mail response to my post suggesting a rational
celebration of Easter by a non-believer, for the sake of wife and
chlidren who want to at least celebrate it in a secular way. I won't
go into all of it, as the sender pushed it somewhat into the realm of
a religious argument, which is not the aim of this newsgroup, nor was
it my aim either. But I thought to elaborate a little in case others
had similar objections.
To summarize, Rick Gillespie, an atheist, said he felt comfortable with
Christmas as a secular holiday of human warmth and fellowship, but the
religious connotations of Easter were a problem for him. His wife and
child want to have an Easter egg hunt, etc., but he would prefer to
celebrate some other, distinctly non-Christian festival, perhaps
the equinox, so that his family could be doing something at the same
time but not directly connected with Easter and its religious implications.
Rick pointed out that the equinox does not work, because it does not
always coincide with with Easter (Easter can come as late as the end
I gave some suggestions about celebrating festivals in general and about
some secular, nature-oriented aspects of the "Pagan" side of Easter, such
as the Easter bunny. Then I went into some detail about how the date
of Easter is determined. From a pure point of view of astronomy, time,
and human reckoning, Easter is unique among religious festivals, and
perhaps that aspect could be a topic of rational discussion, quite apart
from the religious implications. Depending on the age of the child and
her ability to relate to concepts of time, these could be an appropriate
point of departure.
The text following the page break below deals with the debunker's questions
and objections and adds a few more insights to the calendrical consider-
ations of the festival. I think that non-believers will find much that
is interesting in it, and I hope that Rick Gillespie will find a pos-
sible solution to his family celebrations problem that allows him to
maintain his own integrity (which I agree is extremely important for
a parent to do vis-a-vis his children). Perhaps also Christian parents
will find some interesting possibilities for their celebrations too.
Though I am a Christian myself, I have tried to keep all consideration
of religious and doctrinal matters strictly out of it. Each person may
add that element or not, according to his own inclinations. At least
I hope it offers some clarification of the concept of the "moveable
Best regards to all, including my e-mail correspondent,
Gerry Palo (email@example.com)
The e-mail correspondend, who was apparently interested in debunking,
claimed that Easter was pegged to Passover, which he said was always
the Saturday after the first full moon of spring. This is not true.
Passover falls on a different day each year, the 15th day of Nisan in
the Jewish lunar calendar. As with all lunar calendars, the Jewish one
has to be adjusted periodically, otherwise the months would move around
the year, and you could have, say, Nisan in December. This is called
intercalation. The Babylonians would intercallate to assure that the
first day of their month Nisanu always came after the vernal equinox.
The Jews adjusted the calendar so that the 15th of Nisan, i.e. Passover,
would always fall after the equinox, so their calendars were different.
The result is that, while Passover falls on different calendar dates
each year, it also falls on different days of the week. E.g.
2 BC April 20 Sunday
1 BC April 8 Friday
33 BC April 4 Saturday
These dates are not absolutely certain, because prior to 400 AD (BCE), the
Jews determined the date empirically, rather than cyclically. According
to the Talmud, the previous custom is described a follows:
"A year may be intercalated on three grounds: on account of
the premature state of the corn crops; or that of the fruit trees;
or on account of the lateness of the Tequfah [vernal equinox]. Any
two of these can justify intercalation, but not one alone... The year
may be intercalated on the ground that the kids or the lambs or
the doves are too young. But we consider each of these circum-
stances as an auxiliary reason for intercalation."
After 400 BCE, the intercalation was done by astronomical cyclical calcu-
lation, as the Babylonians had already done in ancient times. Jewish
readers of this may be able to provide more details, about past and
current practice. A perusal of recent calendars will reveal the dates
of recent Passovers.
However it was calculated, Passover fell on the day of the first full
moon of spring, 15 Nisan. More precisely, the moon would have already
passed the full point and be waning by the 15th - which in Jewish
practice began at sundown, rather than midnight. So the Jews, in
remembering their deliverance from Egypt, tied this central festival
to the solar rhythm and to the spring season, and to the cycle of the
moon. But the day of the week played no role in it and does not play
a role in it today.
Now, when Christianity started to celebrate Easter, a new element was added
in determining the date. All the feast and saint's days of Christianity,
except for Easter and the feasts pegged to it, are celebrated according to
the solar calendar. That is they fall on a specific day of the year. E.g.
Christmas falls on December 25, no matter what the moon is doing and no
matter what day of the week it is. There is one exception, Advent, the
first day of which is traditionally four Sundays before December 25.
But Easter and its related festivals are celebrated according to an entirely
different concept of time. It always comes in spring, and it always comes
after at least the first full moon of spring. But it also always falls on
the same day of the week. This is why Easter is called a "moveable feast".
The other moveable feasts are pegged to it: Ash Wednesday (the start of Lent),
Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Ascension, and Pentecost).
Thus, the church fathers singled out Easter as a feast that was not to be
celebrated strictly according to the natural, observable rhythms of the
solar system, but also according to an "invisible" rhythm, that of the
seven day cycle of the week. It was to this that I pointed in suggesting
to Rick a possible way of dealing with the festival in a rational sort of
way. As a non-believer, he might tell his children, "Easter is a spring
festival celebrated by Christians. It is called a moveable feast, and here
is how they do it..." The following rational explanation would then lead
to a discussion of sun, moon, time, the concept of the seven day week,
and of course nature. In this way, along with the use of some of the
interesting aspects of the various "pagan" symbols of Easter, like the
Easter bunny (hare) and Easter eggs, one could have a family festival
that coincided with the date of Easter every year, whereas the equinox
does not correspond most of the time and can differ by more than a month.
Now none of this depends on the assertion that Christianity is the only
religion to have festivals that move in just this way. I believe the
idea is unique to Christianity, but that is not the point. The point is
that there is a lot you can say about Easter that is very interesting
and instructional, without having to touch on religious doctrine at all.
If there is another moveable feast that follows Easter, then by all means
have a look at it. And please tell me about it. I would be very inter-
ested to hear about it.
One more technical detail. The debunking e-mail correspondent asked, what
happens if the full moon and the equinox coincide? First of all, they
never coincide exactly. What he should have said is, what if the two
moments are too close to measure? Well, obviously a call has to be made.
I don't know if there has ever been such a case, and I doubt that there
has been one, but if there were one, a call would be made, and perhaps
there would in earlier times been controversy over it. But it would not
mean the end of Christianity if a mistake were made in one year! Anyway,
the rule as I understand it is this: The moment of the vernal equinox must
already have passed before the moon reaches its full point. If the moon
turns full just a moment before, then you wait until the next full moon,
i.e. another whole month. As for which Sunday, the moon must have
reached its full point and already be waning at midnight between Saturday
and Sunday. If Sunday begins before the moon has started to wane, then
you wait until the next sunday. The Jewish day began at sundown, and it
is possible that in the past, and maybe today, this practice may have been
used to determine when Sunday begins.
There are some other differences too. I believe that some of the eastern
Orthodox churches add the requirement that Easter must always come after
the Jewish Passover. This is why the eastern and western Easters some-
times fall on different days.
Ormund Edwards, "The Time of Christ" Floris Books, Edinburgh 1986.
(Available fromm Anthroposophic Press, Hudson NY)
Eviatar Zerubavel, "The Seven Day Circle". Free Press [Macmillan],
New York. 1985. (I have seen it in closeout discount racks at
I hope this throws some light on things. If I have erred or there are
other considerations to be added, please do post or e-mail to me.
Gerry Palo (firstname.lastname@example.org)