Why does Ukraine celebrate Easter on a different date than most of the world?

Leader of the Orthodo Church of Ukraine Metropolitan Epifaniy blessing Easter baskets in the St. Michael's Monastery in Kyiv. Photo: facebook.com/Orthodox.in.Ukraine  

Ukraine

Each year, thousands of our readers wonder why Easter in Ukraine is celebrated on a different day than in most of the world. In 2021, they are almost a month apart — while most of the western world celebrated the main Christian holiday on 4 April, Ukrainians are preparing their Easter baskets only for 2 May. Why is that?

Living by two calendars at the same time

In a nutshell, the answer boils down to the different calendars used by Christians. These different calendars are also the reason why most Ukrainians celebrate Christmas on January 7, not December 25 (although several years ago, an additional state holiday was introduced for 25 December, as well — it was heralded as another connection of Ukraine with the Western world).

While the Catholic Church uses the Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in the XVI ct to reform its precursor, the astronomically incorrect and outdated Julian calendar, some Orthodox Churches never made the switch. Up till now, half of the Orthodox Churches, or 6.6% of the world’s Christians, live by the Julian calendar, which has today accumulated a 13-day lag behind the Gregorian one. One of those churches is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Hence the date of 7 January for Christmas: 13 days after 25 December.

Curiously, in the Russian Empire, the Julian calendar was used by both the church and the state. This is why up till 1918, the timetable by which day-to-day life was governed in Ukraine lagged 13 days behind the western world. The Ukrainian state made the leap to the Gregorian calendar in the days of the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic — but not the Church.

And so up till this day, most Ukrainian Christians live by two calendars — by the Gregorian calendar for secular life, and by the antiquated Julian calendar for church life. Particularly, these are faithful of the country’s largest confession, the Orthodox Church, as well as the Greek Catholics and Protestants. Only Roman Catholics observe Christmas and other religious holidays in line with most of the rest of the world.

Calculating the date of Easter: a difficult task

Okay, so the Ukrainian Christmas is always 13 days behind the “Catholic” Christmas on 25 December. But why is the difference between the dates of the two Easters vary from year to year?

It’s because Easter is a “moving feast,” meaning it is celebrated on a different day each year. And the 13-day gap between the Julian and Gregorian calendars can determine whether Catholics and Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter on the same day, as it will happen in 2025 (20 April), or will have 35 days in between, like in 2024 (31 March for the Catholics and 5 May for the Julian calendar Orthodox Christians).

Back in the IV century, at the Council of Nicaea, the early Church agreed on a single day for celebrating Easter: the next Sunday after the Jewish Pesach, or 14 Nissan by the Jewish calendar. Christians believe Jesus celebrated Pesach, a holiday commemorating the Jews’ exodus from Egypt which is celebrated for eight days after 14 Nisan, with his disciples, and then was crucified. Therefore, Easter has to always be celebrated after Pesach; otherwise, the logic of the holiday is lost.

Now, calculating the date of 14 Nisan is tricky. The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, which uses one orbit of the Moon around the Earth as its reference unit, unlike the solar Gregorian and Julian calendars, which are based on one orbit of the Earth around the Sun. 14 Nisan always falls on a full moon.

Therefore, the date for Christian Easter is defined as the next Sunday after the first full moon that comes after the vernal equinox. As the date of the vernal equinox differs for the Julian and Gregorian calendars, so do the dates of Easter.

The ecclesiastical date of the vernal equinox is 21 March, as determined by the Church of Alexandria in the IV century. But this same “21 March” by the Julian calendar comes 13 days later — on 3 April. This is why there can be such a big gap between the two dates of celebrating Easter — it all depends on the date of the full moon that comes either after 21 March, for the “Western Easter” of the Catholic church, or after 3 April, for the “Easter Easter” celebrated in Ukraine.

Different dates of celebrating Easter by the Catholic church (in blue) and the Julian-calendar Orthodox Christians in red). By Cmglee – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Will the Ukrainian Orthodox Church switch to celebrating the “Western” Easter?

In Ukraine, discussions about celebrating Christmas with most of the world, on 25 December, have been going on for several years. While many are in favor, others believe it would ruin the Ukrainian church and national traditions. Others have simply gotten used to the dates of the Julian calendar.

For now, debates about switching the date of Easter are not that widespread. In any case, “switching” to the Gregorian Easter date would mean switching the entire church calendar to the Gregorian calendar. And that is a step not easily made. However, as time passes, the Julian calendar becomes even more astronomically inaccurate. By 2100, it would lag already 14 days behind the Gregorian calendar, so Ukrainians would need to celebrate Christmas on 7 January.

So sooner or later, the Orthodox Church will need to make a decision. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has suggested that the issue of a calendar reform and celebrating Easter on one day with the Catholics be brought up in 2025, the 1700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea, where the rule for Christians to celebrate the date of Easter on one day was first formulated.

In the meantime, enjoy one of Ukraine’s unique Easter traditions — its colorful and intricate pysanka Easter eggs, which vary from region to region:

And if you are inspired to make a pysanka yourself, we have the perfect guide for you:

Happy Easter to everyone celebrating, no matter the date!

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