WHY DOES THE DATE OF EASTER CHANGE EVERY YEAR?
Why do we celebrate Easter? And why is Easter so late this year? We’ll explain—plus, find out how the date of Easter is determined and why it changes every year!
WHY WE CELEBRATE EASTER
Easter is the most important feast day on the Christian calendar.
Regularly observed from the earliest days of the Church, Easter celebrates Christ’s resurrection from the dead, following crucifixion. It marks the end of Holy Week, the end of Lent, and the last day of the Easter Triduum (starting from the evening of Maundy Thursday, through Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday), as well as the beginning of the Easter season of the liturgical year.
The resurrection represents the triumph of good over evil, sin, death, and the physical body.
WHEN IS EASTER 2019?
Easter is a “movable feast” and does not have a fixed date; however, it is always held on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25.
Many Eastern Orthodox churches follow the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian. In this case, the observance of Easter can occur between April 4 and May 8.
|Eastern Orthodox Church
|2019||April 21||April 28|
|2020||April 12||April 19|
|2021||April 4||May 2|
HOW IS THE DATE OF EASTER DETERMINED?
Would you believe that the date of Easter is related to the full Moon?
Specifically, Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday following the full Moon that occurs on or just after the spring equinox.
Interestingly, in 2019, the full Moon and the spring equinox fell on the SAME day—Wednesday, March 20. The full Moon—cresting at 9:43 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time—followed the spring equinox by less than four hours.
On religious calendars, the first full moon of spring is called the “Paschal Full Moon” (which we’ll explain below). Traditionally, Easter is observed on the Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon. (If the Paschal Moon occurs on a Sunday, Easter lands on the subsequent Sunday.)
WHY IS EASTER SO LATE THIS YEAR?
Following the general rules above, the full Moon on March 20 (the first full Moon of spring) should have been the “Paschal Full Moon.” So, why wasn’t Easter on Sunday, March 24?
As it turns out, to make things a little simpler for the Christian Church calendars, the spring equinox was determined to always be fixed on March 21. (In reality, the equinox can happen on March 19, 20, or 21.)
Given this, the first full Moon after March 21 doesn’t occur until April 19 this year. That means … Easter will be celebrated on Sunday, April 21.
As mentioned above, Easter can fall as early as March 22 and as late as April 25. So, now we have a rather late Easter!
The full Moon in April (on the 19th) will occur on the Good Friday this year. Passover also begins at sundown on the 19th.
For those who want to dig a little deeper:
The word “Paschal,” which refers to the ecclesiastical (Christian church) calendar, comes from “Pascha,” a transliteration of the Aramaic word meaning Passover.
We are referring to a date of the full Moon determined many years ago as the 14th day of a lunar month. Ancient calculations (made in a.d. 325) did not take into account certain lunar motions.
So, the Paschal Full Moon is the 14th day of a lunar month occurring on or next after March 21 according to a fixed set of ecclesiastical calendar rules, which does not always match the date of the astronomical full Moon nearest the astronomical spring equinox.
It sounds complicated, but the basic idea is to make it simpler for modern calendars. Rest assured, the dates for Easter are calculated long in advance.
WHAT IS THE GOLDEN NUMBER?
Readers often ask us about the Golden Number, which was traditionally used in calculations for determining the date of Easter.
The Golden Number is a value used to show the dates of new Moons for each year, following a 19-year cycle.
The Moon repeats the dates of its phases approximately every 19 years (the Metonic cycle), and the Golden Number represents a year in that cycle. The year of the cycle can then be used to determine the date of Easter.
To Calculate the Golden Number:
Add 1 to any given year and divide the result by 19, ensuring that you calculate to the nearest whole number; the remainder is the Golden Number. If there is no remainder, the Golden Number is 19.
For example, to calculate the Golden Number for 2019, we take 2019 and add 1, resulting in 2020, then divide it evenly by 19, giving us 106 with a remainder of 6. Therefore, the Golden Number for 2019 is 6, meaning 2019 is the 6th year of the Metonic cycle.
WHERE DID THE WORD “EASTER” COME FROM?
Easter, also called Pascha or Resurrection Sunday, is a festival and holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Let’s start with Pascha (Latin) which comes directly from Pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover. Going back to the Hebrew Bible and the story of the first Passover, Moses tells the Israelites to slaughter a passover lamb and paint its blood on their door. The Lord protected the Israelites from death by passing over their doors and would not “allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down” (Ex. 12:23).
In the New Testament (1 Corinthians 5:7), Paul connects the resurrected Christ to Passover. He refers to Jesus as the paschal lamb who has been sacrificed for his people’s salvation. Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples during Passover, so it makes sense that the Feast of the Resurrection is connected with the Jewish holiday. Today, Christians celebrate the “Paschal mystery.”
So, where did the word “Easter” come from? The exact origin of the word “Easter” is unclear. It’s not as simple as saying it has religious origins or pagan origins.
Some historians suggest that it came from the phrase hebdomada alba, Latin for “white week,” used to describe the white garments new Christians wore when they were baptized during Holy Week. In Old German, the word became esostarum and, eventually, Easter.
The Venerable Bede, a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon historian also known as Saint Bede, writes that the word Easter comes from the Anglo-Saxon dawn goddess of fertility Eostre, also the goddess of the dawn, who originated in what is now Scandinavia. Over time, early Christians started referring to the Feast of the Resurrection by the name of the month in which it was celebrated—Eosturmonath (what we now call April).
Alternatively, Easter may have from an old German word for “east,” which in turn is derived from a Latin word for “dawn.” In the past, the word easter could mean “to turn toward the east” or “rising” and didn’t necessarily have any implied religious meaning. (Note: It was the Germans who invented the “Easter Bunny” who visited “good” children’s homes, much like they invented Santa Claus.)
Bottom line, no one knows the etymological origins of the word, “Easter.” It is one of the oldest Old English words.
In the end, it is unimportant whether Easter comes from the goddess of the dawn or the Latin word for dawn. In whatever language, Easter today is a Christian holiday to celebrate Christ’s resurrection—and the reminder that death brings life.
Traditional Easter dishes include seasonal produce as well as symbols of spring such as lamb, ham, eggs, asparagus, spring peas, hot cross buns and sweet breads, and a carrot cake.
From all the Editors here at The Old Farmer’s Almanac, we wish you a Happy Easter and a joyous spring season!