Growing up in Boulder Creek, I lived right between the elementary school and St. Michael’s Catholic Church. Father Kelly would toll the one large bell in the tower on holy days. As a participant of ‘Religious Retreat’, school staff would walk us from the campus to the Methodist church a few blocks away for religious education. And when winter had past, every fellow youngster looked forward to ‘Easter Vacation’. We’d never heard of ‘Spring Break’ before; it hadn’t been invented yet.
Easter vacation in those days were the weeks before after Easter; and the dates of that school break shifted yearly as it followed the calculation of the Easter celebration. You see, the holiday of Easter (the Christian celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ) was established at a time when the holistic experience of the reality behind a symbol was much more important than our contemporary obsession with efficiency and convenience. So, the dating of Easter wasn’t developed for organizational purposes but for the fullness of spiritual experience.
It’s helpful to know that the words ‘Easter’ (the actual holiday) and ‘Lent’ (the traditional 40-day period of fasting before Easter) both simply mean ‘spring’; the death-like season of winter coming to an end, and the spring’s season of life beginning. ‘Easter’ is old English for ‘spring’ or ‘dawn’ from the name Eastre, a Germanic goddess of springtime fertility. And ‘Lent’ is from old English for ‘long’, as in the days getting longer. In the eastern hemisphere, Christians have generally always used the term ‘Pascha’, rather than ‘Easter’, meaning the Christian ‘passover’.
In 325AD, finally freed from political oppression, Christians formally organized a date for Easter in order to celebrate a manifest unity with one another. Although three centuries of persecution had resulted in different practices, it was ultimately agreed upon that Pascha (Easter) would be celebrated after the spring equinox (nature’s observable end of winter), and after the Jewish Passover, for the resurrection of Christ was considered its fulfillment.
By 387AD, the feast of Pascha was formally celebrated over a three-day period (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) and thereby ‘Good Friday’ was born. The famous theologian and bishop, John Chrysostom, communicated clearly in that year that without the fullness of this three-day celebration, “it is impossible to fulfill the Pascha” (Paschal Homily 7). Or as today’s Oxford lecturer and Orthodox bishop, Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, puts it, “Just as the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are one action, so also are the ‘three holy days’ - Great Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday” (Lenten Triodion).
Being that Pascha was traditionally a day for baptizing new believers into the Church, and the preparation for baptism occurred over the 40 days prior, over time the practice of fasting for 40 days before Pascha very naturally became universal and the Lenten season was fully established for all Christians.
However, in 1054AD, when the patriarchate of Rome broke its union with the other four patriarchates (Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch) and declared itself the universal (‘catholic’) authority, a divergence in the calculation of Easter began developing again and in 1582AD Rome officially changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar and, unknown to most Westerners, there have been two ‘Easters’ ever since; the Catholic and Protestant ‘Easter’ (April 21, this year), and the Orthodox Christian ‘Pascha’ (April 28, often called ‘Orthodox Easter’).