Christian Holy Days
The Western Christian Church Year consists of two cycles of feasts and holy days: one is dependent upon the movable date of Easter Day; the other upon the fixed date of December 25, Christmas Day.
Easter Day is always the first Sunday after the full moon that falls on or after March 21. It cannot occur before March 22 or after April 25.
The sequence of all Sundays of the Church Year depend on the date of Easter Day, but the Sundays of Advent are always the four Sundays before Christmas Day, whether it occurs on a Sunday or a weekday.
Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and is the start of the liturgical year in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, the Western Rite of the Orthodox Church, and the Anglican, Lutheran, Moravian, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches. In other traditions, Advent begins on the sixth Sunday before Christmas.
Many Christian churches observe Advent as a season of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of Jesus’s birth at Christmas and also His return at the second coming. The term comes from the Latin adventus, or “coming,” a translation of the Greek parousia, commonly referring to the second coming of Christ. Customs include keeping an Advent calendar, lighting a wreath, special daily devotions, and setting up Christmas decorations.
Christmas – December 25
Christmas is an annual festival marking the birth of Jesus Christ. Usually observed on December 25 on the Gregorian calendar, it’s a public holiday in many nations and celebrated by billions worldwide, both religiously by Christians and culturally by non-Christians. Some Eastern Christian churches celebrate on December 25 of the older Julian calendar, which is January 7 on the Gregorian calendar.
Christmas traditions worldwide are a mix of pre-Christian, Christian, and secular. In one of the best known, a figure variously called Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, or Christkind is said to bring gifts to children during the Christmas season. Other traditions include exchanging gifts and cards, Christmas music and caroling, lighting a Christingle (“Christ Light,” a symbolic candle), special church services, a feast, and decorations including Christmas trees, lights, nativity scenes, wreaths, mistletoe, and holly.
Epiphany (also called Theophany or Three Kings Day) is a Christian feast celebrating the revelation of God to humankind, embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. The feast originated in the Eastern Christian churches, and included Christ’s birth, the visit of the three Magi to see him in Bethlehem, and his life up until his baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. It was initially based on and viewed as a fulfillment of the Jewish Feast of Lights, on January 6. Western churches associate Epiphany with the Magi’s journey to the infant Jesus, while the Eastern churches associate the day with Christ’s baptism and the Armenian Orthodox Church celebrates his nativity.
Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), taking place in February or March. The name “Shrove” comes from the old middle English word “shrive,” meaning “absolve.” It was the day of self examination, when people went to confession to repent of wrongdoing before Lent began.
In a number of countries, the day is known as Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”) and celebrated with a carnival and feasting on rich foods for one last day before the Lenten season of fasting begins. In Commonwealth countries and Ireland, the day is known as Pancake Tuesday or Pancake Day. The name comes from the old English custom of preparing for Lent by using up the fattening ingredients in the house, often eggs and milk, by making pancakes
For Western churches, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day (excluding Sundays) period of prayer, self-denial, and repentance leading up to Easter. The name Ash Wednesday derives from the traditional rite in the priest places ashes on the forehead of worshippers in the shape of a cross, accompanied by the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Lent recalls the 40 days and 40 nights that Jesus fasted and suffered in the desert before beginning his ministry. According to Scripture, he was tempted by Satan three times during this period, but refused the temptations. During the Lenten season, believers strive to follow Jesus’s example by fasting or giving up vices or other temptations, in order to become less attached to material things and instead grow closer to God.
The last week of Lent preceding Easter, Holy Week comprises several important events: Palm Sunday, Tenebrae, and the Triduum—the three days of Jesus’s final journey: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Easter Vigil.
One week before Easter, Christians celebrate Jesus’ triumphal return to Jerusalem several days before his death. According to the gospels, the people of Jerusalem spread tree branches (identified as palm branches in John’s gospel) on the road to welcome Jesus as he rode a donkey into the city. Many Christian churches today offer congregants palm fronds as they enter the church on Palm Sunday.
The name Tenebrae (Latin for “darkness” or “shadows”) was used for centuries to describe the monastic night and early morning services of the three days of Holy Week. In recent times, it has been revised into one service on Wednesday night. Tenebrae’s unique and haunting features include readings from Lamentations and the gradual extinguishing of candles and other lights until a single candle remains, symbolic of Jesus. Near the end of the service the candle is hidden, symbolizing the apparent victory of evil. At the end of the service, a loud noise is heard, recalling the earthquake at the time of Jesus’s resurrection (Matthew 28:2). The hidden candle is restored to its place, and by its light all depart in silence.
The oldest of the Holy Week observances, the Feast of Maundy Thursday (also known as Holy Thursday or Covenant Thursday) commemorates the institution of the Eucharist. It recalls Jesus’s washing of feet and Last Supper with the 12 apostles. “Maundy” is an Anglo-French word rooted in the Latin mandatum, “commandment.” In many churches, Christians gather for a simple meal and ceremonial foot washing as a symbol of Jesus’s mandate to the disciples to serve others with humility. The date always falls between March 19 and April 22.
On Good Friday, Christians commemorate the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. This important event in the faith represents the sacrifices and suffering in Jesus’s life and culmination of the events of Holy Week. Many churches hold special services or organize prayer vigils for various causes on Good Friday.
The Great Vigil of Easter is the most important worship service or mass of the year for liturgical Western churches. Also called the Paschal Vigil, it’s the first celebration of Easter, held between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Day. In Eastern Orthodox and other Eastern churches, the Easter Vigil includes the Divine Liturgy and festive ceremonies unique to that night.
The most important Christian holy day, Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his crucifixion at Calvary, as described in the New Testament. The day symbolizes forgiveness, rebirth, God’s mercy and redemption, and victory over sin, death, and evil. Easter is followed by a 50-day period called Eastertide or the Easter Season, ending with Pentecost Sunday.
The Feast of the Ascension is one of the great festivals in the Christian liturgical calendar, commemorating Jesus’s bodily ascension into Heaven. Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, 40 days after Easter. A number of U.S. ecclesiastical provinces (or groups of dioceses) have moved the celebration from Thursday to the following Sunday, 43 days after Easter.
Originally, Pentecost was one of three major feasts in the Jewish faith, held 50 days after Passover in thanks for harvested crops. For Christians, Pentecost celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit 40 days after Easter. Before his crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come after him. The Book of Acts describes how that promise was fulfilled, 40 days after his resurrection, when Peter and the early church were in Jerusalem for Pentecost:
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Acts 2:1–4
Trinity Sunday falls on the first Sunday after Pentecost in the Western liturgical calendar. The day celebrates the Christian doctrine of God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Matthew 28:19 is seen as the most influential New Testament text implying the teaching of the Trinity, where Jesus commands the Apostles to baptize disciples “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
The Feast of the Transfiguration takes place August 6 for Western churches following the Gregorian Calendar. (For Orthodox churches on the Julian Calendar, the day is celebrated on August 19 of the Gregorian Calendar.) The feast recalls the Gospel of Luke’s account of Jesus going to a mountaintop to pray with his disciples Peter, James, and John. While they were there, Jesus’s face was transfigured by the glory of God and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” (Luke 9:35).
November 1 is the Feast of All Saints for Roman Catholics and Western Protestant churches. (The Eastern Orthodox Church and related Eastern Catholic churches observe the day the first Sunday after Pentecost; other Eastern churches celebrate it the first Friday after Easter.)
Also known as All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Day, the festival honors Christian saints throughout the ages, both universal (such as the Apostle Paul) and personal (those who personally led one to faith). In many countries, families bring flowers to the graves of deceased relatives and light candles. English-speaking countries traditionally celebrate the day with the hymn “For All the Saints.”