While admiring the full moon on Wednesday evening, I was reminded that the dates of Easter and Passover are largely determined by the timing of full moons in spring. And it also crossed my mind that Easter seemed a little "early" this year.
Easter can fall just about anywhere between March 22 and April 25. Over the years, there have been a number of proposals to develop a more standardized -- less variable -- date for Easter Sunday, with most suggesting that the holiday fall in early to mid April. Obviously the date can never be fixed, like a birthday, since it must fall on a Sunday. But some traditions, especially religious traditions, are especially resistant to change and for now least, Easter Sunday will continue to "float" through a more-than-one-month-long window of dates.
So how did a "floating" Easter evolve? Frankly, a complete story would require an encyclopedia of information to cover all of the details, so let's stick to some key points.
The really simple answer is that "Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) after the spring equinox."
This rule works just about all of the time, but there are exceptions. If the Paschal Full Moon falls on a Sunday, Easter will be the following Sunday. (By the way, even the Paschal Full Moon requires a series of calculations to define its date precisely!)
But it even gets a little crazier as we dig deeper.
For one thing, from an astronomical perspective, the spring equinox can vary between March 19-21 (in the Western Hemisphere, at least). To resolve the variance in equinox dates, the Church long ago set March 21 as its fixed "first day of spring." Then the Church establishes Easter from that date. At first glance, this looks like a simple solution to the "floating" equinox, right?
But what happens if the astronomical spring equinox and the first full moon after the astronomical equinox both occur on or before March 21? It's uncommon, but that's exactly what will in the spring of 2019 -- the astronomical equinox arrives March 20 and the full moon will occur on March 21. The result for 2019: we'll have to wait another full lunar cycle for Easter's arrival, which will be a rather late April 21.
Of course, a "floating" Easter also means a "floating" date for Carnival Season! That got me thinking: how does the Church arrive at the date for Ash Wednesday? Lent is a period of 40 days of fasting, yet the period from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday is 46 days long. Why?
By tradition, Christ's Resurrection occurred on a Sunday, making ALL Sundays holy days in the eyes of the Church. In fact, this essentially explains why Christians see Sunday as the seventh day of the week -- a day of worship and rest -- while the Jewish tradition retains Saturday as the Sabbath.
So, back to Ash Wednesday: according to Church doctrine, Christians may not fast on Sundays. Therefore, to reach 40 full days of fasting before Easter Sunday, the Lenten period must extend through six full weeks -- accounting for 36 days (excluding each Sunday) -- plus the additional four days of Ash Wednesday through that following Saturday.
Once Ash Wednesday is established, Mardi Gras and the Carnival Season follow. ‘Fat Tuesday' occurs 47 days before Easter -- which means it can occur between February 3 and March 9 -- accounting for the wide range of Carnival weather that occurs during New Orleans' biggest street party from year to year.
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