A Summary of Christian Holy Days

Easter Vigil.JPG

This is a summary of the history and practices of significant days on the traditional church calendar. It is intended as supplemental appendix to this article on the theology of the church calendar for Langhorne Presbyterian Church. Days that are underlined are the evangelical feast days.

 Advent. By at least 480 AD there was an understanding in some Christian churches of a season of preparation for Christmas. Starting at the Council of Tours in 567, monks in French churches were required to fast the entire month of December until Christmas. Throughout the medieval period, Advent was a season of fasting comparable to Lent. However, Advent was only sporadically recognized or practiced in Western Europe until the 13th century, when it became more common. Advent fasting fell out of practice by the 14th century, though it remained part of official Roman Catholic guidance until the 1950s. During the Reformation, only the Anglicans and Lutherans retained Advent. Among the Lutherans there were diverse practices and liturgies, depending on region and congregation, which remains the case. For Anglicans, Advent is practiced in specific prayers and homilies being used during the season. It was only in the mid-20th century that Presbyterian churches began commonly recognizing Advent.

Advent has several practices associated with it, such as liturgical colors and Christmas carols, both of which vary across denominational traditions. The Advent wreath was invented by a German Lutheran teacher in the mid-19th century. Originally it had 24 candles for each day of December to help the school children count down the days until Christmas, much like Advent calendars, which were also invented by German Lutherans around this time. The Advent wreath was first added to worship services by American Lutherans in the 1930s, and only started being used among American Presbyterians and evangelicals in the 1970s-1980s. The identification of the different candles with Advent weeks (e.g. hope-peace-love-joy with a final “Christ candle”) followed, and gained wider prominence in the 1990s, though there remains a great variety in what each candle represents to each congregation. Rather, beginning in 15th century Western Europe, the “four last things” were the themes preached on the four Sundays of Advent: Death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

Christmas. An annual celebration of the birth of Jesus is one of the oldest extra-biblical practices of the church. There is much debate and many books written about the origins of Christmas (its relationship to the winter solstice, pagan religions and traditions, and the date it should be celebrated), but by at least the 2nd century there were annual celebrations of Jesus’ birth. By 200, debates arose over when it should be observed, and by 336 December 25th was widely practiced in the Western church. The Eastern church celebrated the birth of Christ from December 25th to January 5th (the day before Epiphany), which is the source of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

In the early years of the church, Christmas was overshadowed by Epiphany in importance, though Christmas grew in prominence through the medieval period. It was not until 13th century France that celebrations of Christmas took on forms recognizable to the modern church. Christmas was often associated with wild partying prior to the Reformation, much like Saint Patrick’s Day is currently.

During the Reformation, Anglicans and Lutherans both retained the celebration of Christmas as part of their church calendar, for the Anglicans as one of their principal feasts. Among the Reformed, Christmas was retained in the German Palatinate, approved of by the church of Dordt, and commended as an evangelical feast day by the Second Helvetic Confession. Its observance was banned as superstitious in the Scottish First Book of Discipline. Among American Presbyterians, as late the 1890s the church was encouraging its members to not observe Christmas. It was only in the early 20th century that Christmas celebrations became commonplace among Presbyterians. However, many Presbyterians still do not alter their worship practices for Christmas itself and opt instead for either regular worship services or for special Christmas Eve services.

Circumcision of Christ. The feast of the circumcision of Christ takes place eight days after the Christmas celebration of his birth, on January 1st, in recognition of Christ’s circumcision in Luke 2:21. January 1st had seen church celebrations since the 4th century as the “eighth day of Christmas”, but starting in the 13th century the Roman church began celebrating the circumcision of Jesus on it. In the 16th century, Roman Catholics began emphasizing the day as the naming of Jesus instead, which is now their official practice. During the Reformation, the celebration of the circumcision of Christ was retained by the Anglicans (a red-letter day) and Lutherans, though in both traditions it has now been replaced, overshadowed, or combined with the celebration of the Naming of Jesus. Among the Reformed, it was commended by the Church Order of Dort and as an evangelical feast day by the Second Helvetic Confession. Its observance was banned as superstitious in the Scottish First Book of Discipline. The Revised Common Lectionary completely replaced it with a celebration of the Holy Name of Jesus and New Year’s Day, the latter of which has functionally supplanted it in any American churches which had ever recognized it in the first place.

Epiphany (Theophany). In the Western church, Epiphany, which means “manifestation”, primarily celebrates the Magi visiting Jesus, with secondary celebrations of Christ’s baptism and first miracle turning water into wine. In the Eastern church, the celebration of Theophany (which also means “manifestation”, just using a different word) exclusively celebrate the baptism of Jesus. Both traditions celebrate this on January 6th. January 6th is speculated to be the date of the celebration because early Christian churches would begin reading the Gospel of Mark together on January 1st and arrive at the baptism of Jesus by January 6th. This is probably the oldest Christian celebration, and goes back to at least 200 AD. By the mid-4th century its practice was well established, and in both Western and Eastern churches it had greater prominence than Christmas. While still practiced by both the Roman and Eastern churches throughout the medieval period, its importance had faded by the Reformation. Of the Protestants, only the Anglicans retained it, which they did as a principal feast. Its observance was banned as superstitious in the Scottish First Book of Discipline. In the modern era, churches following the Revised Common Lectionary sometimes celebrate it.

The Presentation of Christ (Candlemas). This celebration of the presentation of Jesus in the temple takes place 40 days after Christmas, on February 2nd. It is also known as the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, recognizing her conforming to the Mosaic law in presenting Jesus at the temple. The feast began being celebrated in Jerusalem in the 4th century, and gained importance in the 6th. In the 15th century an icon of the Virgin Mary was found on the seashore during the feast, and so the celebration took on association with her purification. A tradition associated with the feast is to bring candles to the church for a blessing, which is where “Candlemas” is from. Of the Protestants, only the Anglicans retained it. For them it is a red-letter day, initially as a celebration of the purification of Mary, but now of the presentation of Jesus. Its observance was banned as superstitious in the Scottish First Book of Discipline.

Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, 46 days before Easter. During the medieval period in the Roman Catholic church, people who were grievous sinners and penitent would begin the season of Lent by dressing in sackcloth and being sprinkled with ashes until Maundy Thursday. By the 9th century, this practice had begun to disappear, and eventually in the 11th century there emerged the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of all the congregation to begin Lent. The Eastern Orthodox, who follow a different calendar for Lent, have never observed Ash Wednesday. Ashes in the Bible are associated with death and repentance, and so were applied to people to represent those themes in their lives during the season of Lent. The use of the previous year’s palms from Palm Sunday to make the ashes was not a common practice until the 20th century. During the Reformation all of the Protestant churches either heavily modified or rejected Ash Wednesday. The Lutheran churches left it up to each congregation, and often did not apply ashes. The Anglican church retained a worship service for Ash Wednesday, but eliminated the application of ashes until the 20th century. Even today the application of ashes is optional in Anglican liturgies. The Reformed universally rejected Ash Wednesday, both as a specific service and in the application of ashes. The observance of Ash Wednesday among American evangelicals only began in the 1970s and still remains uncommon.

Lent. Lent is the season of preparation preceding Easter, lasting 40-week days before Easter Sunday. It is a season of repentance and self-denial through fasting in preparation for Easter, with the timeframe meant to imitate Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert before being confronted by Satan. The term comes from Old English, from before the 10th century, and literally means “lengthening of days”, referring to the season of Spring when Lent occurs. The earliest records of Lent are from the 4th century. In the earliest centuries of the church, Easter was often the annual worship service when people would be baptized. A season of fasting, with varying lengths depending on congregation and region, was required for the baptismal candidate. Lent partially evolved out of this practice. A 40-day fast preceding Easter was established in 325 at the First Council of Nicaea. By the Council of Laodicea in 367, the 40-day fast preceding Easter became a requirement for all Christians. This eventually became known as the season of Lent. Christians were to only eat one full meal a day throughout Lent. In the 14th century this was amended to allow for an additional small meal in the morning, which was again modified and loosened in 1966 by the Roman Catholic church. Since the fast of Lent is not absolute, traditions arose of Catholics voluntarily selecting a pleasure or luxury to additionally fast from during this season, which is called a Lenten Sacrifice. This practice became much more common in the mid-20th century. 

Among the Protestants, Anglicans and Lutherans both retained the season of Lent, though neither mandated fasting like the Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox. All of the Reformed churches rejected Lent as superstitious and sinfully binding the church. It was only with the rise of the ecumenical movement in the 20th century, and especially the adoption of the Revised Common Liturgy, that some Reformed churches began recognizing Lent. Among American evangelicals, the 1970s saw the first practices of Lent, with recognition picking up by 2010. Evangelicals typically do not fast, but rather follow the tradition of the Lenten Sacrifice.

The Annunciation. The announcement (“annunciation”) to Mary by Gabriel that she was pregnant with Jesus is celebrated on March 25th, nine months before the celebration of his birth at Christmas. The celebration is first referenced in the Council of Toledo in 656, and 692 it was ruled as the only day beside Sunday upon which Christians in Western Europe were allowed to break their Lenten fast. By the 13th century its celebration was well established in both Eastern and Western churches. The day continues to be celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, and is a Principal Feast in the Anglican communion. The other Protestant churches did not acknowledge or celebrate the Annunciation during the time of the Reformation.

Palm Sunday. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, there was a reenactment in Jerusalem of Christ’s triumphant entry. This celebration was repeated sporadically over the next few years. In 8th century Francia local practices of blessing branches and palms as part of the celebration grew, and were later incorporated into official Roman Catholic liturgy. Palm Sunday was not a significant celebration among the Roman Catholics, though for the Eastern Orthodox it is one of their 12 Great Feast Days. During the Reformation, Palm Sunday was not included by any Protestant tradition in their liturgical calendars, with even Martin Luther and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer rejecting the waving of palms as adding an nonbiblical ceremony without historic pedigree into the worship of the church. In the 19th century the Anglican Communion began recognizing Palm Sunday, adding it to their prayer book in the early 20th century. It was only in the 20th century that the celebration of Palm Sunday and the waving of palms became commonplace in both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.

Maundy Thursday. The day is often referred to as “Holy Thursday”. The word “maundy” comes from the Latin word “commandment”, referring to the special commandment Jesus gave his disciples to love on another as he had loved them given by him on the Thursday before his resurrection as he washed their feet. Maundy Thursday began as a celebration of the Lord’s Supper in Jerusalem in 4th century. The practiced was endorsed by the Roman Church by the 7th century. In 694 the Council of Toledo added the washing of feet into the liturgy of the service. By the 8th three different masses had developed on Holy Thursday. By the 12th foot washing was part of the formal Roman rite for the day, as was the “Chrism Mass”, when priests would be ordained by the anointing of oil. In 1570 the Roman Church modified the day’s worship into a single service, but has kept the foot washing and anointing. Beginning with this reform, the stripping of the communion altar of all colorful vestments became a common tradition. The Eastern Orthodox celebrate Holy Thursday, but with very little different from their typical liturgy. Among the Protestants, only the Anglican retained the service, with it included as a general Holy Day in their prayer book, and the only special instructions related to the scripture readings for the day. Maundy Thursday starting to become a common Protestant practice in the United States in the late 20th century, often as a replacement to Good Friday services.

Tenebrae Services. “Tenebrae”, which is Latin for “darkness”, is not a day on the church calendar, but rather a way in which certain days in the week leading up to Easter have been conducted. Tenebrae services have their origin in Western Europe in the 9th century. The tradition in the services for the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday leading up to Easter was to conclude those late-evening services past midnight, with the candle light slowly being extinguished throughout the service so that it ended in darkness. This tradition was haphazardly followed in the Roman Catholic church until 1955, when liturgical reforms eliminated the Tenebrae services. Some Roman Catholic churches still practice this, however. Since the Tenebrae service was intimately connected to Roman Catholic liturgies of the mass, no Protestant group in the Reformation adopted the practice. Starting in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, some American Protestant groups began using the Tenebrae format during their services on either the Wednesday preceding Easter, Maundy Thursday, or Good Friday.

Good Friday. The earliest recording of a distinct day commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus is from the 4th century in Jerusalem. Starting in the 15th century, Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem would visit the 14 stations of the cross on Good Friday. This practice quickly became mimicked in local Roman Catholic parishes. Good Friday services are typically held around 3:00pm, in order to align with the time of day of the death of Jesus. The celebration of Good Friday was implicitly rejected by the Scottish Presbyterians and Westminster Assembly, while maintained by the Anglican church, Lutherans, and commended in the German Palatinate and as an evangelical feast day in the Second Helvetic Confession.

Easter. Easter is the annual celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. The title comes from an old English word referring to the spring month in which the day fell, named for the Germanic goddess Ä’ostre. The day is also sometimes called Pascha, from the Hebrew word for “Passover”, or Resurrection Sunday. The Sunday on which Easter is celebrated is the Sunday following the full Moon which falls on or after the spring equinox, which is always between March 22nd and April 18th. Easter has been celebrated since the 2nd century, and the appropriate way to date it was debated and resolved at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Beginning at least in the 3rd century, Easter was traditionally the service when people would be baptized and receive their first communion. In preparation for this, those receiving the sacrament were expected to fast. This practice evolved into Lent. Even today in Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and among some Anglicans and Lutherans, there is a special fast the week preceding Easter that is not broken until Easter Sunday. Typically in these churches there is an Easter Vigil on the Saturday evening before Easter. In this service the church gathers in the darkness and then is brought into the light to worship, with the sacraments then administered. In many Protestant churches the Easter Vigil has been replaced by a sunrise service, a practice that began in the 18th century. Easter as a specific and special celebration of the resurrection of Jesus was implicitly rejected by the Scottish Presbyterians and Westminster Assembly. It was affirmed by the German Palatinate and Church Order of Dordt, and commended as an evangelical feast day by the Second Helvetic Confession with the title “Resurrection”.

Ascension. The service celebrates the ascension of Jesus 40 days after his resurrection, which is always a Thursday. Sometimes the ascension is liturgically celebrated on the Sunday following Ascension Thursday. The celebration of the ascension is first recorded in the 5th century. In Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox liturgies the day is intended to be commemorated with a vigil. The day was maintained as a principle feast by the Anglican church, was implicitly rejected by the Scottish Presbyterians and Westminster Assembly, was affirmed by the German Palatinate and Church Order of Dordt, and commended as an evangelical feast day by the Second Helvetic Confession.

Pentecost. Pentecost is a title that comes from the Greek word for 50, since the celebration occurs 50 days after Passover. In the Old Testament a celebration of God’s provision was established (sometimes called the Festival of Weeks, sometimes the feast of harvest, sometimes the day of first fruits). This celebration became known as Pentecost by the time of the New Testament. Pentecost is always a Sunday that occurs 50 days after Easter and 10 days after the Ascension. In Acts 2, God pours out his Holy Spirit upon the church on the day of Pentecost.

Pentecost was regularly celebrated by the 2nd century. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is second only in importance to Easter. In the west it was firmly entrenched by the 11th century. The day was maintained as a principle feast by the Anglican church, was implicitly rejected by the Scottish Presbyterians and Westminster Assembly, was affirmed by the German Palatinate and Church Order of Dordt, and commended as an evangelical feast day by the Second Helvetic Confession.

Trinity Sunday. Trinity Sunday is the first Sunday following Pentecost in the Roman Catholic Church. While a feast was held by the Roman Catholic Church on this date beginning in the 14th century, it was only made a chief celebration in 1911. During the Reformation, the Lutherans and Anglicans recited the Athanasian Creed on Trinity Sunday, but that was the extent of the acknowledgement of the day by the Protestant churches. Trinity Sunday was added to the Revised Common Lectionary in 1983, and from there became a much more common and prominent feature in Protestant liturgical calendars.

All Saints’ Day and Reformation Day. Beginning in the 4th century, the church began holding days of celebration and commemoration of its martyrs and other deceased saints. These services were sporadic and the date shifted constantly. In the 5th century, the Eastern Church fixed the date to the Sunday following Pentecost, but it was not a prominent celebration until the 9th. In the Western Church, it was not until the 9th century that November 1st became the fixed day celebration. A vigil was added to the commemoration, taking place the night before on October 31st, which became known as All Saints’ Eve or All Hallows’ Eve. By the 11th century All Saints’ Day became focused on the saints and martyrs of the church, while the day following on November 2nd became focused on all the deceased Christians. The commemoration on November 2nd was called All Souls’ Day, and the three days together were labelled Allhallowtide (all saints time). Only Lutherans and Anglicans retained All Saints’ Day during the Reformation. While the Scots Confession and Second Helvetic Confession both denounced having days of worship devoted to saints, both the Westminster Directory for Public Worship and the Second Helvetic Confession commended setting aside time in worship services, through sermons and prayers, to acknowledge the saints of God. Starting in the 20th century other Protestant groups started acknowledging All Saints’ Day, often on the Sunday closest to November 1st instead of the day itself.

All Hallows’ Eve was eliminated in the Roman Catholic’s liturgy in 1955, and throughout the 19th and into 20th century that day has evolved into the secular holiday of Halloween. Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses on October 31st in 1517, and beginning in 1667 Lutheran churches have celebrated Reformation Day on October 31st. A significant number of other Protestant churches now celebrate Reformation Day on the Sunday closest to October 31st, in many cases supplanting All Saints’ Day, though in some instances celebrating both together.

Christ the King. In 1925, in the face of growing secularism, the Pope instituted the feast of Christ the King to affirm that Jesus is king over all the world. Initially it was observed on the last Sunday in October, but the Roman Catholic Church moved it in 1969 to the last Sunday prior to the start of Advent. The celebration was added to the Revised Common Lectionary in 1994 and has since become a common practice in Protestant churches that utilize that calendar.