The Moveable Feasts of Easter


Easter is strictly an English term, developed from Old English with its roots, like so many Christian traditions, in paganism.  The word Easter appears to have originated from Ēostre, an Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess who was annually celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox but of whom not much else is known as Anglo-Saxons were notoriously bad record keepers.  She may have been borrowed from Ostara, a German goddess from the early Middle Ages that gave us the term asteroid.

In other languages, Easter is known by many names, most of which are derived from the Latin form of Pascha, which in turn was taken from the Hebrew word Pesach, which means Passover.  Easter also goes by other names, such as Resurrection Sunday or Resurrection Day.

From Easter Day, many other holy days and feast days in the Christian liturgy are calculated, both prior to and following Easter.  These holy days are known as moveable feasts, because their dates are tied to Easter and, like Easter, they are not fixed to a specific calendar date, but move around each year.

Easter marks the end of Lent (technically, Lent ends on Holy Saturday, the day prior to Easter), and with Easter Day the Easter season or Eastertide begins (also called Paschal tide).  Traditionally, Eastertide lasted forty days, balancing the season of Lent and ending on Ascension Day, but in modern times, Eastertide is extended for fifty days until the Pentecost.  Because Ascension Day is exactly forty days following Easter, it is always held on a Thursday and is sometimes known as Ascension Thursday.  Ascension Day is the celebration of Christ’s ascension into heaven following his crucifixion.  It’s unclear exactly why this celebration was separated from Easter and held forty days afterwards, but references to this day go back to the fifth century, so it’s a long-held Christian tradition.  The Sunday prior to Ascension Day is known as Rogation Sunday, and the three days immediately prior to Ascension Day are the Rogation days.  Rogation comes from the Latin meaning to ask, and comes from John 16:24, “Ask and ye shall receive.”

As noted, the Pentecost marks the end of Eastertide and is celebrated exactly fifty days from Easter (the count includes Easter day, so the Pentecost always falls on a Sunday).  The Pentecost celebrates the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles, as told in the second chapter of Acts, although the term is much older and comes from the Jewish tradition of the fiftieth day following the Exodus in which God presented the Ten Commandments to Moses.  The term Pentecost comes from the Greek, and fittingly, means fifty days.  The Pentecost is also known, especially in the U.K., as Whitsunday, and other derivative names including Whisun and Whitty Sunday.

In 1246, the Roman Catholic Church began celebrating Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi. Trinity Sunday falls on the Sunday following Whitsunday, and is held in honor of the Holy Trinity, and is by some considered the true end to Eastertide, rather than the Pentecost. The Thursday following Trinity Sunday is the feast of Corpus Christi, honoring the Eurcharist.  However, for the first time in 2017, Pope Francis moved the celebration of Corpus Christi from the Thursday following Trinity Sunday to the following Sunday.

Lent is the forty-day period leading up to Easter, and in the Western Church, traditionally begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, the day immediately prior to Easter.  If you’re doing your calendar math, you will note that adding forty days to a Wednesday doesn’t land you on a Sunday.  That’s because the Sundays leading up to Easter are omitted in the calculation.  Lent is traditionally a time of sacrifice, repentance, charity, and prayer, and the forty-day period is symbolic of the forty days Christ spent in the wilderness with Satan prior to his ministry.  In the Eastern Church, the forty-day Lent, sometimes known as Great Lent, begins on Clean Monday, and Sundays are counted, and the ending date is the Friday immediately prior to Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter.  Clean Monday, also known as Ash Monday, Pure Monday, or Green Monday, occurs at the beginning of the seven week period prior to Easter and is all about asking for forgiveness.  The first week of Great Lent is known as Clean Week in which worshipers not only symbolically clean their souls, but traditionally houses are given a clean sweep, as well.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent in the Western Church and its name comes from the tradition of using ashes to mark a cross on the forehead of worshipers as a sign of repentance.  The actual ashes are from the burnt remains of the palm crosses handed out during the prior year’s Palm Sunday services.  The symbolism is twofold: a remembrance of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem prior to his crucifixion, and that we all come from and return to ashes.  In the Church of England, there’s a special penitential office, called the commination, that recites the litany of God’s anger and judgments against sinners on Ash Wednesday; a fitting way to begin Lent.

Since Lent is a time of self-sacrifice, the period immediately prior to Lent is traditionally a time of celebration and revelry – a sort of letting one’s hair down before getting down to the serious business of Lent.  This period of time is not officially recognize by the Christian churches but is closely tied to the Easter calendar.  Probably the most recognized celebrations are Mardi Gras and Carnival.  Technically, Mardi Gras occurs on the day immediately prior to Ash Wednesday.  It’s a French term and literally means Fat Tuesday, hence a secondary name for the day.  Through the years, the celebration has been extended and can begin as early as the Friday before Ash Wednesday.  Carnival is a close cousin to Mardi Gras.  Carnival, like Mardi Gras, ends on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday but can begin as early as the end of Twelfth Night (January 6).  Carnival’s history is closely related to Roman pagan celebrations associated with Saturnalia.  The word carnival probably is rooted in the Greek term carn, meaning meat-eater.  The exact meaning is unknown and may have come from various Latin terms that refer to the removal of or farewell to meat, as the eating of meat is forbidden during Lent.

The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is also known as Shrove Tuesday in the U.K. and other English-speaking countries.  Shrove is an English word that in the verb tense means to obtain absolution through confession and penance, which was the tradition by English Christians prior to Lent.  The day is also known as Pancake Day or Pancake Tuesday from the traditional eating of pancakes made from fat and eggs, which were also prohibited during Lent.  German Americans had their own name for the day – Fastnacht Day, fastnacht being a fried potato with added syrup – definitely a no-no during Lent.  As mentioned above, the celebration prior to Lent didn’t always begin and end on Tuesday, so the days prior to Ash Wednesday are also appropriately called Shrove Sunday and Shrove Monday.

The Sundays of Lent, leading up to Easter, also have special relevance.  The first Sunday is known as quadragesima, and the second as Reminiscere Sunday which deals with the testing of faith.  The third Sunday is Gaudete Sunday; gaudete meaning rejoice.  The fourth Sunday of Lent is known as the Laetare Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday or Mothering Sunday.  Traditionally, services included the reading of the story of the loaves and fishes.  This Sunday was also historically known as Rose Sunday from the tradition of popes sending a rose to Catholic sovereigns at this time.  The fifth Sunday of Lent, just prior to Palm Sunday, is Passion Sunday, with the final two weeks of Lent known as the Passiontide.  This is time that Christ removed himself from his disciples and is marked in various countries by the veiling of church statues with purple cloth.

I hope you have enjoyed this posting, and that you and your family enjoy this special day of celebration.


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