Archive for computus

Yesterday was nearly Easter

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on March 29, 2021 by telescoper

As as Astronomist I am often asked “How do they calculate the date of Easter?”, to which my answer is usually “Look it up on Wikipedia!“.

The simple answer is that Easter Sunday is on the first Sunday after the first full Moon on or after the Vernal equinox. The Vernal Equinox took place this year on March 20th and the more observant among you will have noticed that yesterday was (a) Sunday and (b) a Full Moon. Yesterday was not Easter Sunday because the rule says Easter is on the first Sunday after the first full Moon on or after the Vernal equinox, which does not include a Full Moon on the first Sunday on or after the vernal equinox. Accordingly Easter 2021 is next Sunday 4th April. If the Full Moon had happened on Saturday, yesterday would have been Easter Sunday.

That is just as well really because next weekend is when the holidays and sporting events have been arranged.

I say “simple” answer above because it isn’t quite how the date of Easter is reckoned for purposes of the liturgical calendar.

For a start the ecclesiastical calculation of the date for Easter – the computus – assumes that the Vernal Equinox is always on March 21st, while in reality it can be a day or two either side of that. This year it was on March 20th.

On top of that there’s the issue of what reference time and date to use. The equinox is a precisely timed astronomical event but it occurs at different times and possibly on different days in different time zones. Likewise the full Moon. In the ecclesiastical calculation the “full moon” does not currently correspond directly to any astronomical event, but is instead the 14th day of a lunar month, as determined from tables (see below). It may differ from the date of the actual full moon by up to two days.

There have been years (1974, for example) where the official date of Easter does not coincide with the date determined by the simple rule given above. The actual rule is a complicated business involving Golden Numbers and Metonic cycles and whatnot.

I’m grateful to Graham Pointer on Twitter for sending this excerpt from the Book of Common Prayer that sheweth how to determine the date of Easter for any year up to 2199:

I don’t care what happens after that as I’ll be retired by then. If you apply this method to 2021 you will find it is an 8C. Next year will be a 9B. Further calculations are left as an exercise to the reader.