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 2020?
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.
|Year||Easter Sunday |
Eastern Orthodox Church
|2020||April 12||April 19|
|2021||April 4||May 2|
|2022||April 17||April 24|
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. Yes, it’s a bit confusing at first glance!
Let’s break it down: In 2020, the spring equinox will happen on Thursday, March 19. The first full Moon to occur after that date rises the night of Tuesday, April 7. Therefore, Easter will be observed on the subsequent Sunday, April 12.
On religious calendars, the first full Moon of spring is called the “Paschal Full Moon” (which we’ll explain further below). So, to put it another way, Easter is observed on the Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon.
What Happens When the Full Moon and Spring Equinox Occur on the Same Day?
Generally, if the full Moon occurs on the same day as the spring equinox, Easter is observed on the subsequent Sunday. However, there is a caveat:
Long ago, the Christian Church decided to simplify the process of calculating Easter’s date by always observing the spring equinox on March 21, despite the fact that the equinox can actually occur on March 19, 20, or 21.
This discrepancy between the astronomical equinox date and the Church’s observed equinox date can sometimes cause confusion, as it did in 2019, when the full Moon and the astronomical equinox occurred on the same day—Wednesday, March 20.
According to the formula above, this should have meant that Easter would be observed on Sunday, March 24. However, because the Church observes the equinox on March 21, the full Moon technically did not occur “on or just after” the equinox, meaning that the next full Moon would determine Easter’s date instead. Thus, Easter was held on Sunday, April 21, after the full Moon on Friday, April 19.
What Is the Paschal Full Moon?
The word “Paschal,” which is used in the ecclesiastical (Christian church) calendar, comes from “Pascha,” a transliteration of the Aramaic word meaning “Passover.”
In reference to the full Moon, Paschal refers to the 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. See past and future Easter dates here.
Want to read more about Easter and the Paschal Full Moon? See our article on their curious connection here.
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 2020, we take 2020 and add 1, resulting in 2021, then divide it evenly by 19, giving us 106 with a remainder of 7. Therefore, the Golden Number for 2020 is 7, meaning 2020 is the 7th 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.
We have all the traditional Easter recipes and more! Check out our Best Easter Recipes.
From all the Editors here at The Old Farmer’s Almanac, we wish you a Happy Easter and a joyous spring season!