Holiday Histories: Why does Ash Wednesday change dates every year?

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent for Christians who follow the liturgical calendar, but it can be a little hard to plan for as it changes dates every year.
A female devotee receives ash marking on her forehead...
A female devotee receives ash marking on her forehead... / SOPA Images/GettyImages

For Catholics and other Christians following the liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday is an important day to seek penance and contemplate your place in the Christian community. Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent, a six-week period usually characterized by fasting and abstinence from various activities.

In 2024, Ash Wednesday has the curious timing of falling on Valentine's Day. While the holiday may technically be named after a saint, it's usually considered one of the most secular celebrations in modern society. This prompts the question: why is Ash Wednesday on Valentine's Day?

The truth is, that's just a coincidence. Ash Wednesday can take place anywhere between February 4 and March 10. But what exactly causes that wide of a deviation? It has a lot to do with what Ash Wednesday is and how it fits into the Christian liturgical calendar and the Hebrew calendar.

What is Ash Wednesday?

As previously stated, Ash Wednesday is the official start of the season of Lent. While it has been part of Christian tradition for centuries, Ash Wednesday does not go as far back as many other Christian holy days. In fact, it only started around the 11th century. However, it has a great deal of importance to those who participate in it.

The most well-known part of Ash Wednesday is for churchgoers to receive a cross in ashes on their foreheads. These ashes usually come from the previous year's palm leaves from Palm Sunday. But in addition to having this highly visible display of faith, believers are reminded to think of death and how it fits into their faith journey.

This is an important introduction to the season of Lent, as it is primarily concerned with ideas of repentance. Many people fast on Ash Wednesday (which is part of the reason why it is preceded by Mardi Gras—Fat Tuesday), while others just take it as a chance to get their minds in the right place for the next six weeks.

How is the date for Ash Wednesday decided?

Similar to holidays like Thanksgiving, Ash Wednesday doesn't fall on the same date every year. But rather than being scheduled by a certain week out of the month, it has a slightly more complicated method of scheduling. To understand it, you need to know a decent bit about both the Bible and the Hebrew calendar.

A critical component of Lent is that it lasts 40 days (excluding Sundays), which is intended to mirror Christ's 40 days in the wilderness, where he faced temptation from Satan. Because Easter always falls on a Sunday, the beginning of Lent will always fall on a Wednesday.

Because of this, the date of Ash Wednesday is based on the date of Easter, another celebration which does not have a set date. Understanding how and why Easter changes date requires a little bit of knowledge about Jesus's journey in the gospels.

Jesus came to Jerusalem to take part in the Jewish holiday of Passover. On the first day of Passover (a Thursday), he and his disciples took part in the Last Supper. That evening, he was betrayed, leading to his crucifixion on Friday. Finally, he rose on the following Sunday, which is now known as Easter.

Because Passover is an integral part of Jesus's death and resurrection, Easter's date is partially determined by when Passover would be celebrated. Passover (Pesach) falls in the first month of the Hebrew calendar, called Nisan. It traditionally begins on the 15th day of Nisan, which must fall on a Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, or Thursday.

However, the day of the week matters more for Easter and other parts of Holy Week than it does for Passover. So instead of strictly following the Hebrew calendar, Easter must fall on a Sunday. The specific designation in modern times is that Easter will take place on the Sunday after the first full moon of Spring.

The vernal equinox generally takes place on March 20, though there can be slight changes based on modern time slippage. Easter will then take place sometime between March 22 and April 25, depending on when the moon is full next.

That can be incredibly hard to follow, so it can be helpful to use an example.

  1. In 2024, the vernal equinox takes place on March 20.
  2. The moon is going to be full on Monday, March 25
  3. This means that Easter will be the following Sunday: March 31.
  4. Knowing that, it's possible to jump back 46 days to find when Ash Wednesday will fall: February 14.

Looking forward the next five years, we can see the same pattern playing out.



Next Full Moon

Next Sunday (Easter)

Back 46 days (Ash Wednesday)


March 20

April 13

April 20

March 5


March 20

April 2

April 5

February 18


March 20

March 22

March 28

February 10


March 20

April 9

April 16

March 1


March 20

March 30

April 1

February 14

While there have been some shifts thanks to changing to the Gregorian calendar, the timing of Ash Wednesday is rich in tradition and provides a strong foundation for the Lenten season.

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