What day is Easter 2023 and why does it change every year?

A small hare in a meadow next to a basket of Easter eggs
Hares and rabbits were major pagan symbols of fertility | Image: Shutterstock

For many Christians, the most wonderful time of the year is Easter, not Christmas. For pretty much everyone else, it’s all about having a few days off work to overindulge in chocolate and confectionery, at some randomly appointed time at the beginning of spring. Or is it the middle? Who knows?

So, what is actually going on with Easter? Let’s answer all the questions you’ve ever had about Easter but were too afraid to ask.

When is Easter Sunday and why does it change every year?

The answer isn’t quite what you might expect, bearing in mind that Easter is about celebrating the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In actual fact, Easter Day is set by the lunisolar calendar, which was created in Mesopotamia around 3000 BC. Note ‘BC’.

The lunisolar calendar is comprised of lunar months that have been adjusted to fit into solar years. Easter is determined by the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal (or spring) equinox.

For example, in 2022, the vernal equinox is on 20th March and the following full moon is on 6th April. Therefore, Easter is on the 9th. I’ll repeat for emphasis, so you don’t forget. Easter Sunday is on 9th April 2023!

This full moon is also known as the 'pink moon', better known in the Jewish calendar as the start of Pesach or Passover. This celebration remembers the Israelites' freedom from Egyptian slavery between 1300 and 1201 BC.

Why do Christians celebrate Easter?

Easter covers the seven days that surround Jesus Christ’s crucifixion at the hands of the Romans in Calvary in 30 AD. Known as Holy Week, it begins on Palm Sunday, the sixth Sunday of Lent. Palm Sunday gets its name from the palms waved as Jesus’ triumphantly entered Jerusalem, as specified in all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Holy Monday and Tuesday are relatively unremarkable, but Holy Wednesday is also known as Spy Wednesday, to acknowledge the day that Judas Iscariot told the Romans of Christ's whereabouts in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. Maundy Thursday commemorates the day of the Last Supper and the symbolic washing of the disciples’ feet. Good Friday we’ll get onto in a second, and we end the week with Holy (or Black) Saturday, before the resurrection on Easter Sunday itself.

When is Good Friday and what’s so good about it?

Good Friday falls two days before Easter Sunday and, for many people, Good Friday just means a lie-in and a cheeky lunchtime pint or two. However, Christians recognise it as the day that Jesus Christ was crucified which is definitely anything but good!

In Old English, the word ‘Holy’ was ‘Hālig’ which means ‘wholeness’ or ‘good’. So, in English at least, ‘Good Friday’ is actually a rather clumsy way of saying ‘Holy Friday’.

Was spring celebrated before Christianity?

The first moon in spring, marked longer, warmer days and the return to a more bountiful existence. In the days before central heating and instant soup, spring was as much about having survived winter as it was about celebrating new life.

Subsequently, ancient cultures across the globe worshipped spring through their gods and goddesses: Ishtar from Assyria, Astarte from Phoenicia, Demeter from Mycenae, Hathor from Egypt, Aphrodite from Cyprus, and Ostara of Scandinavia. In the case of the latter, the name Ostara means ‘spring’ in paganism and the word derives from ‘Eostre’ (where our word for Easter comes from), the Anglo-Saxon goddess who was even mentioned in the fifth-century writings of the Venerable Bede.

A quick, related, note on hot cross buns, traditionally eaten on Good Friday. The pagans also celebrated spring by decorating bread and cakes with a cross, arguably to symbolise the horns of the Ox, the animal the pagans were believed to have sacrificed to Eostre. Meanwhile, the word 'bun' derives from the Anglo-Saxon word 'boun', which means 'sacred ox'.

Do other religions celebrate Easter?

Only Christians view Easter as a religious holiday, but many other cultures and religions acknowledge the beginning of spring with festivities. For example, in Egypt, the spring festival is called ‘Sham el-Nessim', a day that the Ancient Egyptians celebrated as the beginning of world creation. In Iran, the spring/new year festival is called ‘Nowruz’ and, in the Punjab and parts of Pakistan they celebrate spring with ‘Basant’, a festival typified by kite flying and yellow flowers.

Islam marks the beginning of ‘Ramadan’ during early spring, a month-long period of fasting and prayer. Hindus and Sikhs celebrate ‘Vaisakhi’ on 13th or 14th April with colourful events and feasting to mark the beginning of the solar new year. In large parts of Asia, they celebrate the Buddha’s birthday, or ‘Buddha Jayanti’, by gathering at temples and lighting lanterns. In Japan, Buddha figurines are ceremonially washed with tea.

Why does the Easter Bunny bring Easter Eggs?

Eggs have long symbolised new life and fertility. Romans and early Christians considered eggs to be the seeds of life, though, for Christians in particular, eggs are commonly associated with re-birth to commemorate the resurrection. Christianity also forbade eggs during Holy Week, and in some quarters they were banned for the whole of Lent. Therefore, any eggs laid during this period of abstinence were saved up until Easter when they were gratefully received as little objects of desire in their own right.

This inspired the Victorians to stuff satin-covered cardboard eggs full of treats and give them as gifts. and, By the end of the 19th century, the first chocolate eggs began to appear in France and Germany.

However, the giving of eggs as gifts isn’t exclusive to Western traditions. The Chinese have been giving each other painted eggs as springtime gifts for over 5000 years and in Egypt, devotees eat coloured eggs to celebrate ‘Sham el-Nessim'. Decorated eggs are also a significant part of Nowruz, the Persian new year.

As for the Easter Bunny, the sighting of young, overenthusiastic rabbits and hares bouncing about in spring made them an obvious choice as pagan symbols of fertility.