How are the Dates for Mardi Gras and Easter Determined?
Have you ever wondered why the dates for Mardi Gras and Easter can fluctuate so much from year to year? As a dedicated fan of both holidays, I had the same question a few years back. I didn't understand why some Mardi Gras seasons only last six weeks and others were literally double the length. I got the chance to get some clarity from the past Captain of Captains for NWLA, Brian Landry. He's a lawyer, so he's pretty smart;)
Check out what Brian had to say. I guarantee even the most dedicated Mardi Gras reveler will learn something new!
Although we call it the Mardi Gras season, “Mardi Gras,” literally only applies to Fat Tuesday. The most appropriate term would be Carnival season, from the Latin, carne vale, or farewell to meat, referring to fasting during the Lenten season which begins on Ash Wednesday, in preparation for Easter. This year Fat Tuesday is February 17, but next year it is February 9. Why does it keep jumping around? To know that you have to have a little knowledge of history, a lunar calendar, and some math skills.
You start with calculating when Easter will fall, count backward through the season of Lent to find Ash Wednesday, and you are there… Fat Tuesday! Seems simple enough… but wait.
The Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325), in addition to writing a very popular Creed, set the date of Easter as the Sunday following the paschal full moon, which is the full moon that falls on or after the vernal (spring) equinox. Following so far? It’s about to get tricky.
The Church does not use the exact date of the paschal full moon but an approximation, because the paschal full moon can fall on different days in different time zones, which would mean that the date of Easter would be different depending on which time zone you live in. For calculation purposes, the full moon is always set at the 14th day of the lunar month (the lunar month begins with the new moon). Likewise, the Church sets the date of the vernal equinox at March 21, even though it can occur on March 20. Both approximations allow the Church to set a universal date for Easter. Universal in a sense for Western Christianity, because the Eastern Orthodox apply the same basic formula, but they use the Julian Calendar instead of the Gregorian Calendar. That usually makes a big difference in when the vernal equinox appears.
So, if you did your calculations correctly you will know that Easter Sunday is April 5, 2015, and March 27, 2016. We have all heard the tune, “These Forty Days of Lent,” but the song could be misleading, as there are actually 46 days that must be accounted for. The extra six days are the six Sundays that fall within the Lenten Season. Thus, 40 days for Lent, plus six Sundays, equal 46. For 2015, do the math and you will get Fat Tuesday on February 17. In 2016, you start a week sooner for Easter, so you end up a week sooner for Fat Tuesday, too…. February 9.
Keep in mind, I got this explanation from Brian several years ago. Fat Tuesday this year is Tuesday, March 1st with Easter falling on Sunday, April 17th. Do the math that Brian explained above and you'll see that it all lines up perfectly!
In the words of the late great Paul Harvey, 'Now you know the rest of the story!' Now get out there and eat your weight in king cake and let the good times roll!