Why do some Christians celebrate Easter on a different date?

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

This year in 2024, across most of the Orthodox world, many millions of people are celebrating Easter on Sunday 5 May. This is the story ...

Eastern and Western Easter

Unlike Christmas, Easter doesn't take place on the same day each year. Whichever church tradition you are from, or wherever you live in the world, Easter is always a movable feast day. For most Christians from a Catholic and Protestant tradition, in 2024 Easter fell on Sunday 31 March. However, there are many countries where Easter Sunday 2024 falls on 5 May. So, the Christian world has two different dates for Easter. These are sometimes known as Eastern Easter and Western Easter.

Eastern Easter

Easter Sunday in 2024 is on Sunday 5 May in Eastern Europe in countries like Belarus, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Serbia and the Ukraine as well as in Georgia and Kazakhstan. In the Middle East and north-east Africa, it is on 5 May for Orthodox Christians in places like the Holy Land, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Ethiopia. These are countries where the majority of people who profess to be Christians are from the Orthodox tradition.


In some of these countries, all the Christians follow the same Easter. For example in Macedonia, where there is a sizable historic Methodist minority, the Protestants will follow the Eastern Easter on 5 May like their Orthodox brethren. By contrast, in Finland which is mainly Lutheran, there is a sizable Orthodox minority, which follows the Western calendar and has Easter on the same date as their Protestant and Catholic brethren.

Orthodox Communities in the West

5 May 2024 is also Easter for Orthodox Christians in diaspora, in places like the UK, Australia and North America. A small Orthodox community has existed in England since the late 1600s. The first Christian Orthodox church building was built in London in 1677. The largest Orthodox community in the UK is the Greek Orthodox community, which largely stems from those people from Cyprus who fled the Turkish invasion in 1974.

Determining the Date of Easter

The history of determining a date for Easter dates back to the Early Church. By the end of the second century AD, Christians from a Jewish heritage celebrated Easter on the day of the Jewish Passover, regardless of the day of the week, while others from a Gentile heritage celebrated it on the following Sunday. By the fourth century, there were different regional ways of reckoning a date for Easter. The early Christian world then agreed on a complicated formula for determining when Easter Sunday fell, which was approved in AD 325 by the Council of Nicea. This criteria reflected the story of the crucifixion in the Gospel accounts.

One criteria for dating Easter was that the tomb was found to be empty at the start of the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1) i.e. Sunday, and Christians had adopted Sunday as their day of meeting, so the Early Church wanted the celebration to be on a Sunday.

Another criteria was that Jesus celebrated Passover before his death, so the Early Church wanted Easter after the Passover, which is 15th of the month of Nisan in the Jewish calendar. Passover is a spring festival, so the 15th day of Nisan typically begins on the night of a full moon after the northern vernal equinox.

Many people now believe that the crucifixion took place on 3 April AD 33, based on calculations for when a full moon associated with the Jewish Passover feast might have fallen followed by a lunar eclipse as implied by the daytime darkness which fell at the crucifixion (Matthew 27:45 and Luke 23:44-45).

Criteria for Easter

So when the Early Church discussed how to date Easter they effectively wanted it to be on the first Sunday after the first full moon, after the northern vernal equinox (which falls on 20 or 21 March), and effectively after Passover ends. The problem then arose that by the fourth century most Christians were no longer from a Jewish background and did not know when the Jewish Passover was. It was decided to make it 'easier' by fixing the date of the equinox as 21st March. In order for Easter Sunday to follow a full moon, if the first Sunday is a full moon then Easter is the following Sunday. This effectively decreases the chances of it falling on the same day as the Jewish Passover.

Lunar Tables

There arose a minor difference between the Eastern and Western Church in the interpretation of the rules and the determining of a full moon. Lunar Tables were developed to calculate when the full moon occurred, but neither the Eastern Orthodox nor the Western Catholic tables were fully accurate. The difference between them is such that the Eastern Orthodox full moon was four or five days later than the Western Catholic full moon, depending on the month and year. So, when the full moon is on a Friday for example, the Western Easter was the following Sunday, but the Orthodox full moon was on the next Tuesday or Wednesday, so Orthodox Easter was often a week later. If there is a full moon between 21st March and 3rd April, the Western Church used the full moon to calculate Easter, while the Eastern Church waited for the next one, creating a month-long gap between the Easters. However despite this complication, most years the date for Easter was the same in the Eastern and Western Churches.

The Problem

The Roman calendar used across most of the Christian world, was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, and it is named after him hence it is called the Julian calendar. The calculations behind this, which were very good for the time, overestimated the length of the solar year by about 11 minutes. This became more noticeable as the error accumulated over the centuries, and by mediaeval times it was clear that the spring equinox was slowly moving out of synch with the natural year. As such, Easter had drifted away from the natural calendar, so that in the late 1500s it was wrong by ten days. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Gregory XIII, convened a group of astronomers and proposed a new calendar, now known as the Gregorian calendar, which was named after him.

The Gregorian Calendar

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII issued a decree, called a papal bull, which reformed the calendar. That year, in many Catholic countries, Thursday 4 October was followed by Friday 15 October, with ten days skipped. Other European countries followed suit over the following years.

Suspicion of the Pope and Catholicism meant that non-Catholic countries in the Orthodox east and the newer Protestant north were wary of the change. Orthodox Christians do not recognise the authority of the Pope, and Protestant countries which had had their own Reformation to free themselves from papal power, were not inclined to do so either.

Actually, the Pope's reason for changing the calendar were good. Protestants slowly came to realise that the Gregorian calendar was not a Papal plot at all. Britain used Eastern Easter, until it adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer used to include a table for determining the date of Easter. However, Orthodox countries continued to use the Julian calendar. The Julian calendar as it currently stands now diverges from the astronomical calendar by thirteen days.

The Orthodox World

So basically the two dates for Easter come down to the different Lunar Tables, exacerbated by the fact that most Orthodox Churches use the Julian calendar, while Catholic and Protestant churches use the Gregorian calendar.

Eastern and Western Easter are essentially the same celebration marking the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but Eastern Easter is a little later in the calendar, being between 4 April and 8 May. Occasionally the two Easters are on the same date as happened in 2017, and will happen again in 2025.

Attempted Resolution

There have been attempts to resolve the difference and make Easter the same date every year. In 1920, the question was addressed by an encyclical from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, and it was discussed at the 1923 Pan-Orthodox congress. In 1961, it was discussed in the context of preparations for the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. In 1963, it was discussed in the context of Vatican II. Since 1965, it has been discussed a number of times at the World Council of Churches.


In 1997, a proposal was made by the World Council of Churches (WCC) to solve the Easter date difference. The proposal was to maintain the basic definition made by the Council of Nicea, that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first vernal full moon. However the idea was to calculate the astronomical data of the vernal equinox and the full moon by the most accurate possible scientific means. The idea was to use as the basis for reckoning the meridian of Jerusalem, being the place of Christ's death and resurrection. This idea keeps the spirit of the original agreement made at the Council of Nicea.

So far, this reform has not been adopted. So, until there is some interconfessional ecumenical agreement, most years there will remain two different dates for Easter. In one sense it is a shame, but in another sense it does not really matter. For most Christians, the remembrance of the resurrection is the most important festival in the calendar, regardless of the date it is celebrated on.