Liturgical year

Years of celebration and reflection

Western Christian tradition

The following table contains various Christian “High Days and Holy Days”. They form an annual cycle, the so called liturgical year. It always starts with Advent, the expectation of the coming of Christ. Not all festive days are necessarily kept by each local Church. The order of the festive days may vary slightly, due to the fact that fixed and variable dates have been combined in one table.

Feast Significance Time
Advent Preparation for the (second) coming of Christ Period from 4th Sunday before Christmas up to Christmas
History: In Gaul in 367 (and Spain in 380), a 3 week period of preparation for Epiphany existed. In the 5th century this became 40 days calculated back from Christmas. In the 12th century Advent was still a festal season (with white vestments & Gloria in excelsis). As the theme of the 2nd Coming came to dominate the season, it approximated more and more to Lent. Note that the Dies Irae was originally written for the Sunday before Advent. The fact that in Rome Advent was related to the December Ember (fasting) Days, also contributed to this development. Today the period “is to be kept in a spirit of joyful expectancy”.
Christmas Nativity (birth of Jesus) 25 December
Like Epiphany, Christmas was at least partly an attempt to counter pagan festivals connected with the winter solstice. It originated in the West, possibly north Africa. The date was appropriated by Constantine within 62 years after 274, when it had been appointed as the birthday of the sun-god Mithras. 25 December is also 9 months after 25 March, the Western date of the passion, as calculated by Hippolytus and Tertullian (cf. Epiphany date)
Comites Christi Remembrance of the companians of Christ, members of His family, notably His mother, and the (early) martyrs 26 December up to and including 1 January
The term “Comites Christi” comes from Durandus (13th century); the custom itself stems from the 4th century.
26 – dedicated to St. Stephen
27 – St. John (at first also St. James)
28 – Holy Innocents (since 5th century)
29 – Archbishop Thomas Becket, 1170
See also under New Year
New Year, Name of Jesus and/or Solemnity of Mary Several 1 January (octave of Christmas)
According to Gregory of Nyssa, 1 January was dedicated to St. Basil. In the West it was also the most primitive feast of our Lady (Mary). By the 7th century, 1 January was observed as the octave (8th day) of Christmas and later still as the Circumcision (becoming off age and a Jew) of our Lord.
Epiphany or 3 Kings’ Day Revelation of Jesus to non-Jews; light and baptism are also important themes 6 January or 2nd Sunday of Christmas (and may be preceded by a vigil). Parts of Epiphany, the baptism of Christ and miracle at Cana, can be celebrated on the Sunday after 6 January
Before Christmas was introduced, Epiphany celebrated the nativity and connected events. It may have existed as early as the end of the 2nd century and came from the East. It reached Rome by the early 5th century. As Christmas took over, the focus of Epiphany shifted to Jesus’ baptism and first miracle at Cana. The date (6 January) is 9 months after 6 April (the date of the passion according to an old Asian calendar). This is because the primitive Pascha also celebrated the moment of conception. Attempts have been made to see Epiphany as the Christianization of the (3rd great Jewish) Feast of Tabernacles. In the East, 6 January also happened to be connected with the virgin-birth of Dionysus (Greek religion). Thus, pagans could easily be introduced to Christianity.
Baptism of the Lord Baptism of Jesus Sunday immediately following Epiphany
See under Epiphany. The commemoration of the Baptism of our Lord can be included in Epiphany.
Candlemas Presentation of Christ in the Temple 2 Februari or the Sunday between 28 January and 3 February
First celebrated in Jerusalem at the time of Egeria on the 40th day after Epiphany. Then as solemn as Easter. Emperor Justin ordered its observance in 542 as thanksgiving for the end of a plague. The Candlemas Procession is first mentioned in 602. It was accepted soon after in Rome, as the Christian counterpart of the Amburbale, an ancient expiatory procession, which accounts for its penitential character (violet vestments) until 1960.
Ash Wednesday Start of Jesus’ fast in wilderness for 40 days (Mat. 4); Christians live soberly and may try to give up something during Lent 39 + 7 days before Easter, because Easter counts as part of the 40 days of Lent (Quadragesima), but then all Sundays are excluded, for they are festive days
Lent is first mentioned in Canon 5 of the Council of Nicea. It was an extended (3, 6, 7 or 8 weeks) fast before the Pascha and a period of preparation for baptism. By the ninth century its penitential character prevailed. Lent has been a closed season for marriages since the 4th century and for feasts (except the Annunciation) since the 5th. Ash Wednesday itself is named in the Gelasian Sacramentary.
Annunciation The angel Gabriel telling Mary she would give birth to Jesus 25 March
First appears in the Gelasian Sacramentary (with the same lections as for the ancient feast of Mary of 1 January). Universally observed by the 8th century.
Mothering Sunday 4th Sunday of Lent
Not really a Christian feast, but related to Lent
Passiontide Start of Jesus’ passion From second Sunday before Easter ( = 5th Sunday of Lent)
Traditionally the last two weeks of Lent observed as a period of devotion to the Passion of Christ. It was customary to veil in purple all crucifixes, pictures, and images, and to omit the Gloria Patri during this period.
Palm Sunday + Passion Sunday Celebration of entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as Messiah and heir of David Sunday before Easter; start of Holy Week
Present in 4th century Jerusalem, it came to Spain in the 5th century, Gaul by the 7th, England around 700, Rome in the 12th century.
Wednesday of Holy Week Same as Holy Week in general Wednesday before Easter
Monasteries celebrated Tenebrae offices on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Saturday at 3 in the morning. In parish churches these were moved to the previous evening, so that the Thursday service became that of Wednesday. Tenebrae (darkness) refers to the gradual extinguishing of the lights as the service unfolded, to represent the darkness accompanying the crucifixion.
Maundy Thursday (Dutch: White, German: Green Thursday) Commemoration of the Last Supper Thursday before Easter (end of Lent)
The first weekday in Holy week to have a Eucharist. Also a day for reconciliation and various preparatory rites for Holy Saturday baptisms, notably footwashing and the consecration of oils. The name comes from the footwashing (originally on Saturday). Maundy money = alms given to the poor on this day.
Good Friday Commemoration of the crucifixion. Friday before Easter
Widely kept by the end of the 4th century, especially in Jerusalem, but unknown in Rome until after 450. A service of readings and hymns is mentioned in Egeria 37:1-7. Augustine writes of the Triduum, the 3 most sacred days. The Syrian Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September) goes back to Jerusalem’s Good Friday.
Holy Saturday Preparation for Easter Saturday before Easter
Day of fasting. By the time of Hippolytus, a 2 day fast, starting on Good Friday, had become the accepted rule. Footwashing took place in Milan at the time of Ambrose.
Easter vigil Preparation for Easter Night before Easter (Easter Eve)
The whole history of salvation was rehearsed in readings and song. In the Byzantine rite the readings start Saturday afternoon. As early as Tertullian, Easter Eve became the time per excellence for baptisms. In the West, this continues as the blessing of the font. The lighting and blessing of the Paschal candle stems from the Jewish blessing of the lamp on the eve of the Sabbath.
Easter (Pascha) Annual celebration of the resurrection of Christ, originally also of his death. The first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox (March 21).
Easter is the only Christian feast that goes back to apostolic times, reflecting the Jewish influence of a lunar calendar. The name comes from Eastre, the goddess of spring. The old Teutonic spring festival took place in her month, April. At first the Easter vigil was precede by a single day’s fast.
Easter Octave Idem. Celebration of new life in Christ. Easter up to and including the the Sunday after Easter (Low Sunday). Sometimes only up to and including Low Saturday.
Easter was too important to be celebrated on just one day, so a week (+ 1 day) was appointed. Most modern calendars have abandoned the octave, but it is certainly not extinct! Christian initiates used to receive a white robe upon their baptism on Holy Saturday night and would wear it for the rest of the week. They would take off these symbols of their new life on the following Sunday, which in Latin is called Dominica in albis depositis as a result of this practice. Several of the weekdays within the Octave assumed a special importance: Easter Monday – The Emmaus Walk, “drenching” and “switching.” Easter Thursday – Commemoration of the departed (Slavic). Easter Friday – A favorite day for pilgrimages.
Low Sunday Idem. New life is integrated in every day life. First Sunday after (= second Sunday of) Easter
The Sunday after Easter was called “Low Sunday” in the UK, because it could never match Easter. It is often considered as separate from the octave. This makes no sense, as the octave would no longer have 8 days and ceases to be an octave. For centuries the first Sunday after Easter was the day when children would receive their first Holy Communion. So meaningful was this event that in Europe it was referred to as the “most beautiful day of life.” For Roman Catholics, this “second Sunday of Easter” has recently become the “Feast of Divine Mercy” and it is related to the sacrament of confession. To prepare for it, one can pray St. Faustina’s Divine Mercy Novena. A novena is prayed on 9 consecutive days, in this case from Good Friday to Low Saturday. Faustina, a Polish nun who died in 1937, was admired and canonized by the late Pope John Paul II.
Eastertide (Paschaltide) Resurrection and glorification of Christ Period of 50 days starting with Easter
The Easter Season isn’t just Easter Sunday. It’s 50 days long, and the last of those days is Pentecost, marking the birth of the Church and the coming of the Holy Spirit with power. During Eastertide it is customary to include extra sentences in the liturgy and to have more “Hallelujah’s”.
Ascension day Commemoration of Christ’s being taken up into heaven 39 days after Easter (40th day when including Easter), therefore a Thursday
Before the 2nd half of the 4th century it was combined with Easter or Pentecost. When the ascension acquired its own day, Pentecost was more clearly associated with the Holy Spirit. On Ascension day, the Paschal candle is extinguished.
Pentecost (WhitSun(day)) Commemoration of the descent of the Holy Spirit 7 weeks after Easter (50th day when including Easter)
Acts 2 describes the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (from a Greek word for “fiftieth”). This was the Jewish Feast of Weeks, also called Feast of First Fruits or Harvest. Thus it acquired a new meaning for Christians. Tertullian and Athanasius considered the 7 weeks to be one long Sunday. Therefore no fasting or kneeling was allowed in it.
Trinity Sunday Feast to consider the Holy and Undivided Trinity Sunday after Pentecost
Votive masses of the Holy Trinity were popular in the Middle Ages in the West. Encouraged by the Benedictine Order, a formal feast was set up instead. In 1499 the rank of the feast was raised. In the Sarum Use and most of northern Europe, the Sundays were numbered after Trinity rather than after Pentecost. This “eccentric” tradition [C. Jones] still exists.
Corpus Christi Day of Thanksgiving for Holy Communion Thursday after Trinity = Two weeks after Ascension Day
Occasioned by the vision of Juliana, an Augustinian nun, in 1246. A universal feast from 1264 (by Urban IV). Really a commemoration of a memorial!
Nativity of John the Baptist Nativity of John the Baptist 24 June, dependent on the date of Christmas (St. Luke 1:36)
According to St. Augustine its purpose was to replace the ancient pagan rites in connection with the summer solstice.
Transfiguration Glory of Christ 6 August
No historical data
All Saints’ Day Saints 1 November or Sunday after
The eastern rite of Chrisostom (4th century) speaks of an All Saint’s Sunday, to be observed one week after Pentecost. In the West Boniface IV (608-15) has promoted it by rededicating the Roman Pantheon to God, and associating it with Mary and all other saints. The day is also partly a Christianisation of the old Celtic feast of Samhain, the day when the New Year was heralded. It was believed that the spirits of those who had died during the year then moved into the underworld. Halloween (evening before the holy day) and the Guy Fawkes bonfires also stem from these roots. In 835, Gregory IV ordered the universal observation of All Saints’ Day.
In the Roman Catholic Church All Saints’ is followed by All Souls’ Day. This feast to remember the souls in “purgatory” was introduced into the Benedictine Order in 998 and 8 years later in the entire Roman Catholic Church.
Christ the King Victory of Christ over evil; Judgement Day Sunday before Advent
See under Advent

Sources: The Study of Liturgy, ed. Cheslyn Jones, 1992;
Virgin Veritas CD of Charpentier’s Leçons de Ténèbres, Office du Mercredi
Saint (Il Seminario Musicale, Gérard Lesne); The Lectionary 2000, SPCK (Common
Worship Calendar); Summa Encyclopedia (Standaard/Kluwer);
http://www.anglicancatholic.org/liturgy/litdescp.htm (no longer available);
http://breviary.net;
http://catholic-ew.org.uk;
http://www.holytrinitygerman.org/Paschaltide.html.