I tried to calculate the exact date of Easter – you won’t believe what happened next!


Did you know that Easter and Passover overlapped this year? I learned this from a report on NPR that left me with the impression that this is an unusual circumstance, but when I researched the matter further I learned that it’s more common than not. Through 2030, it only won’t happen in 2024 and 2027, so update your calendars and prebook your matzoh and ham and ham-flavored matzoh orders accordingly.

Somewhat more notable is the fact that the Western and Orthodox Easter Sundays fell on the same day this year. (Gregorian versus Julian calendars, and all that.) Although not as rare as blue moons, such a coincidence won’t occur again until April 20, 2025, when of course the day will align with yet another high holiday, albeit a secular or at least nondenominational one.

I’m glad that all of this information is readily available online, because I’d have been at a loss to figure any of it out myself. I’d always had the vague sense that there seemed to be no simple rule about exactly when Easter falls each year, but apparently I didn’t know the half of it.

There is a simple sounding rule—“Easter falls on the Sunday following the full moon that follows the northern spring equinox”—but because this full moon is “ecclesiastical” rather than “astronomical” (which is to say, a full moon you can’t see but have to take the church’s word for, like religion in general), that’s the last simple thing about pinning Easter Sunday down.

Since the Middle Ages, succeeding generations of godly folk have been figuring this out by scratching away at a calculation with the formal name of “Computus,” the algorithms for which have been rearranged and rejiggered over the centuries but apparently have always required coming to grips with language like “for the first, third, fifth, seventh, ninth, and eleventh months, which are called impares menses, or unequal months, have their moons according to computation of thirty days each, which are therefore called pares lunae, or equal moons: but the second, fourth, sixth, eighth, tenth, and twelfth months, which are called pares menses, or equal months, have their moons but twenty nine days each, which are called impares lunae, or unequal moons.”

Computers make all of this easier now, of course: in case you start to suspect that www.wheniseastersunday.com has started publishing fake news, you can double-check their calculations by running your own local Date::Easter Perl module; any number of Python, BASIC, Java, or MS-SQL scripts; or even Excel formulas.

Once upon a time, though, “computer” was a job title, not the class of gadgets that will one day take all of our jobs away from us, and all of that figuring was once performed by a room full of monks, tonsured heads bent low over parchment scrolls, squinting to read handwritten tables in dusty old tomes by flickering candlelight. Actually, I have no idea if that’s really how it was done, but I enjoy picturing it that way, because I like old stuff and traditions.

This year, the Stokes family tried a mix of old and new Easter traditions, although, in the way of these things, we will always remember Easter 2017 as the year when both kids marched through a pile of large, squishy dog turds on their way to the car. They were sitting in their car seats awaiting buckling when my son observed, with what by that point amounted to considerable understatement, “it smells terrible in here.”

It took me twenty minutes in the backyard with a screwdriver, a nailbrush, and wad of paper towels before the shoes were clean enough to then toss in the washing machine. I took another minute to post on Facebook a $1,000 reward for the guilty creature’s head on a stick, then headed back out to the car so we could get on with Easter.

The excrement-related mishap had occurred as we were on our way to my parents’ house to observe this holiday in what has been our tradition ever since my wife and I decided to join my parents in Elkins: sacramental smoked fish and mimosas for the adults and, for the kids, ritualized foraging for plastic egg-shaped fetish objects containing various form factors of extruded corn syrup.

That was the old; the new (potential) tradition came into being when we realized we couldn’t take the children for a promised immersion in the waters of the YMCA pool, for reasons that in retrospect should have been obvious, and so instead headed to Elkins Cinema 8 for what turned out to be a private screening of the (speaking of excrement) new Alec Baldwin-voiced baby-that-talks-like-a-grownup movie, a genre that frankly should have been retired after Will Farrell put a bow on it. At any rate, the children enjoyed it and no one else seems to associate movies with this holiday, which seem like as good reasons as any to turn it into a regular Easter Sunday afternoon activity.

As you can see, there are Easter traditions we hold with and Easter traditions we don’t. For example, although it’s true that the shoes my son was wearing when he trundled through that dog’s leavings were brand new—as in, being worn outside for the first time that very minute—this was only a coincidence. New clothes on Easter have never been one of our traditions, although I suppose I might have been nodding to this one when I’d put on a clean shirt with a collar that morning.

We do seem to be stuck with the Easter Bunny for the time being, although perhaps for the last year. “How do we know the Easter Bunny is real?” my seven-year-old suddenly asked a few days ago. I’d lately been making noises to my wife about pulling the plug on this particular imaginary magic creature, but she had expressed the worry that a resulting domino effect might also take down Santa Claus earlier than otherwise necessary. Speaking of corn syrup, I’d just as soon keep the old Coca-Cola pitchman around for at least another year or two, so I knew I had to think fast.

“Come on!” I barked at Coen in what I like to think of as my dad voice. “Do you really think that, if I made up the Easter Bunny, it would be bringing you a basket full of pre-diabetic crap and plastic grass?”

“Well…” he said, thinking it over.

“If it were up to me, what would be in your Easter baskets?” I prompted.

“Sardines and bottled water,” he admitted, suddenly realizing that supernatural magic actually sounded a lot more likely than his annoyingly anti-sugar father allowing his children to collect baskets full of jelly beans and M&Ms out of the goodness of his heart.

Tradition is as tradition does, I suppose. Now, make sure you don’t miss the ecclesiastical full moon. I have no idea when it will be, but that’s okay: there won’t be anything to see anyway.

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