The Development of the Christian Calendar
The Date of Easter
The Date of Christmas and Epiphany
[other sections to be added]

The Development of the Christian Calendar

[this section will give a brief history of how martyrs and other saints were commemorated in the early Church, and how calendars came to be compiled; how the local Roman calendar formed the basis of the calendar of the Western Church; how other commemorations were added, in mediaeval times; and how the calendar has been revised in modern times.]

[The following text adapted from Procter and Frere's New History of the Book of Common Prayer]

Of the immoveable feasts some depend upon Christmas, some are simply anniversaries, some are merely fixed days of commemoration. Thus The Annunciation is nine months before Christmas, the Birth of John the Baptist six months before, The Circumcision and Naming of Jesus eight days and The Presentation of Christ in the Temple forty days after. The Visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth is placed on 31 May, so as to fall before the Birth of the Baptist. The three great festivals on the days following Christmas are not anniversaries but commemorations, which were placed there so as to be in close relation to Christmas.

At the Council of Cloveshoo in 747 the English Church adopted the Roman calendar. Apart from the great cardinal festivals above mentioned, this was of a very local character, and grew up chiefly from the lists of the anniversaries of popes or of martyrs (subsequently to the second century) who belonged to Rome itself. Such lists of Roman festivals exist from the beginning of the fourth century onward,[1] and definite liturgical calendars are known from the earliest Roman Service books; and it is clear that, with the exception of a few days of extraneous saints, such as SS Perpetua and Felicitas or S Cyprian of African origin, or S Agatha from Sicily, or S Vincent from Spain, the festivals belonged locally to the city of Rome, and commemorated either Roman saints or other saints to whom churches in Rome were dedicated.

Such must have been the calendar which S Augustine brought with him at the end of the sixth century, and which in a more developed form the Council of Cloveshoo adopted in 747. Some of the festivals of specially local Roman interest still survive in our Prayer Book calendar, such as those of the Roman martyrs, S Fabian, S Agnes, S Valentine, S Lawrence, S Cicely, S Clement, S Silvester, or of the patron saints of Roman churches, such as S Prisca or S George; and in this way they bear witness to the fact that there lies hidden in the calendar an original Roman nucleus which can be traced out historically as it expands from the fourth to the eighth century.

But other festivals of more general interest also came to England in the Roman calendar, having been incorporated into it at various dates. Some, like those already mentioned, are the anniversaries of martyrs.[2] The present S Peter's day is the anniversary of the translation of the bodies of SS Peter and Paul, and S Andrew's day is probably the anniversary of his martyrdom. Others are the anniversaries of the dedication of Roman churches. Michaelmas commemorates a church on the Via Salaria, six miles from Rome; S Philip and S James's day, the dedication of a church to these apostles in Rome, which was rebuilt circa 561.[3] The festival of S Peter's Chains (Aug 1, Lammas) has reference to the dedication of the church[4] of the Apostles on the Esquiline Hill (432--440) where the relic of the chains was preserved. The All Saints' festival is of special interest. It originated in the solemn dedication to Christian worship of the old Roman Pantheon as the Church of S Mary and All Martyrs by Boniface IV. (608--614).[5]

In the seventh century various festivals of external origin had won a place in the Roman calendar. The Nativity[6] and the Falling Asleep, Repose, or Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary had come from the East,[7] the Exaltation of the Cross (the dedication festival of Constantine's Basilica at Jerusalem in 335) from Palestine, the Invention of the Cross from Gaul. A few great names of Saints had also won recognition in the Roman calendar, without being Roman or being martyrs, but purely on general grounds, such as S Augustine of Hippo on the day of his death August 28, and S Jerome or S Benedict; these were ranked as ' Confessors.' A similar movement, operating from the seventh or eighth century onwards, gradually brought in other festivals of Apostles and S Mary Magdalene's Day. The Conversion of S Paul was adopted from Gaul,[8] S James' Day seems to have been put designedly a week before S Peter's Chains, and other Apostles' days followed, mainly in the ninth century.

It would be difficult to say exactly what point of development the Roman calendar had reached when it was adopted at Cloveshoo; but it is clear that subsequently the development was continued here in England; three main impulses are observable at work in it, two of which have been already demonstrated, while the third is a novel one.

Local interest in events in Rome still continued to operate even after the calendar had been transplanted to England. Roman dedication festivals led to the adoption of S Nicomede and S John Port-Latin, and in other ways the Roman influence is still traceable. Again many additions were due to general interest, such as that of S Ambrose from Italy, S Denys, S Martin, S Crispin, S Faith, S Hilary, S Brice from France, or at a later date S Machutus, S Lucian, S Leonard, S Remigius, S Giles, S Lambert from France, and S Margaret, S Katherine, S Blaise from the East.

But further a new influence soon showed itself in the shape of the local English interest. The Council of Cloveshoo, at the moment when it adopted the Roman calendar, added to it, for local English reasons, the feasts of S Gregory and S Augustine of Canterbury.[9] On the same principle S Boniface's day was ordered, on the receipt of the news of his death eight years later, in 755,[10] and many other names were subsequently added, such as S Alban, King Edmund and King Edward, Archbishop Dunstan and the martyred Archbishop Alphege.

From the time of the coming of the Normans the interest of the English Church in matters outside herself was wider, and this had its effect upon the growth of the calendar. Meanwhile the theory of canonisation was also changing, and the power to order a festival was passing out of the hands of the local authorities into the centralised authority of Rome. The canonisation of Edward the Confessor in 1161 marks the change so far as English saints are concerned; previously to that the power had been exercised by the English Church, but thenceforward up to the time of the Reformation such additions as were made to the list of saints were made with papal authority. This did not curtail the power of the local authority to choose out for commemoration such recognised saints as seemed desirable, nor was the change retrospective, for the festivals of S Dunstan, S Alphege, etc, continued in England, though they had not received formal papal sanction.

It must now suffice to consider only the Sarum Calendar and to enumerate such additions to it from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries as are of interest from the point of view of the present Prayer Book Calendar.

S Hugh of Lincoln was canonised in 1220, S Edmund of Canterbury in 1246, and S Richard of Chichester in 1260, in each case shortly after death. S Anne's day became popular in 1383 under the influence, as it seems, of the Queen, Anne of Bohemia.

The festivals of S David and S Chad were raised to greater dignity in 1415, the two new general festivals of the Visitation and the Transfiguration[11] were adopted in England in 1480, shortly after their promulgation by Rome, and at the same time S Etheldreda's festival in October was adopted for the Sarum use.[12] Finally it is interesting to note that the festival of the Most Sweet Name of Jesus, which was already in use in England, was specially sanctioned and endowed with privileges by Alexander VI (1493--1503).[13]

This elaborate system of fast and festival, referring both to periods of the year and to single days, confronted the Revisers of the Prayer Book at the outset. No thought seems to have been entertained of abolishing the whole in the drastic manner of most continental Reformers, though doubtless there were some then, to whom such a course would have commended itself, just as there have been ever since Churchmen who disobey the Church's rules on these points. But it clearly was regarded as a matter in which some measure both of simplification and purification was desirable. The liturgical changes under Henry VIII were scarcely of a serious nature since they merely involved the erasure of the festivals of S Thomas of Canterbury and of the title 'pope' applied to various saints, but the observance of festivals as public holidays was considerably curtailed by Convocation in 1536.[14] In the preparation for the First Prayer Book a more serious and a liturgical purpose becomes evident. The general arrangement of the seasons of the year was left untouched: simplicity was attained by reducing all services to one type and by minimizing the amount of variation involved. Thus, for example, while Eastertide was still retained, its services were made the same in structure as those of the rest of the year, and Lent remained, though stripped of its own touching peculiarities of service. The simplicity was most dearly bought in the case of Holy Week: the characteristic services of that solemn and unique period all disappeared, though they were to a large extent ancient, biblical, and allied to the English devotional temper;[15] and the whole was brought into a rigid and prosaic uniformity with the rest of the year. The observance of Vigils was maintained, but the keeping of octaves disappeared,[16] no doubt because of the complications which it involved.

The process of simplification and purification is still more evident in the case of the single days of fast or festival. The Ember days, Rogation days, and Vigils, were retained, but without any variation in their services. The treatment of the festival days has a more complicated history. There are two draft calendars extant which belong to Cranmer's second scheme of services.[17] The first contains the names of biblical saints--the Apostles, S John Baptist, S Mary Magdalene, S Timothy, S Titus, S Michael, S Stephen, Holy Innocents, and the four great festivals of the Blessed Virgin--with twelve of the chief Doctors of the Church[18], about the same number of other saints who had a place in the Sarum Calendar and most of the English Calendars, and finally, a few entries which are surprising and puzzling since it is difficult to see from what source or on what ground they were selected.[19]

A later draft seems to exhibit the same project at a further state of development: three of the more surprising entries have been omitted, but on the other hand, large additions have been made. These are due, in the first place, to a zeal for Scripture which has run to excess.

For example, many of the vacant days in January have been filled up with Old Testament names in chronological order[20]--Abel (Jan 2), Noe (3), Abraham (7), Sara (9), Isaac (14), Jacob (15), Joseph (19). This is carried on into other months, and meanwhile a further series of New Testament names is begun with Ananias on the day after S Paul's conversion, and continued in February with Vidua paupercula (1O), Zacharias and Elizabeth (15), Symeon (17), Zaccheus (March 8), Fidelis latro (12), Joseph (19). The rest need not be described in detail, but two further points deserve notice. (1) Cranmer has still further added to this very long list, in his own hand, the names of other saints drawn in the main from the Sarum Calendar or from Quignon's Calendar.[21] The list of Christian writers is further enlarged by the names of Epiphanius and Cassian, while among the names taken from the Sarum Use are some which have a local English interest, viz., S George (in red), S Augustine of Canterbury, S Alban, S Edmund the King; and these make up a little for the total lack of local interest which characterizes the earlier draft. (2) In some cases Cranmer has followed Sarum in preference to Quignon, and vice versa in others.[22]

The draft calendars then abound in faults and follies which were set aside on second thoughts. They are, however, of interest as showing a real stage in the development and as further evidence of the influence of Quignon's Breviary on the course of Cranmer's mind.

When the first Prayer Book appeared, a revulsion of feeling had evidently taken place. The Calendar was far nearer to the earlier than to the later draft, and in it the policy of exclusiveness had been pushed a great deal further. Only five and twenty festivals were admitted, comprising the feasts of our Lord and of the Apostles and Evangelists with S Stephen, Holy Innocents, All Saints, Michaelmas, S John Baptist, S Mary Magdalene, and the Purification and Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin. All these were treated as greater festivals with variants provided for their services.[23] In 1552 the festival of S Mary Magdalene as a red letter day disappeared; and the numbers of those remaining became four and twenty, at which figure it still remains. On the other hand, the black letter festivals began to come into existence on somewhat the same basis as Vigils, Rogation days or Ember days, not to be observed as Holy Days, but kept as a commemoration without any change of service. In 1552 only four such names were inserted, viz., S George, Lammas, S Lawrence, and S Clement, but in the new Elizabethan Calendar of 1561, this list was considerably lengthened; S Mary Magdalene reappeared as a black letter day, and further fifty-six other festivals were added. In 1604 Enurchus was added on September 7. In 1661 these entries were continued, fuller descriptions [24] were given in the Calendar and two new names were added, viz., those of S Alban and the Venerable Bede.[25]

It is difficult to see clearly the motive which determined the selection of the black letter Saints' Days. In the case of the red letter days it clearly was the desire to bring the festivals to the test of the Bible, so that, without introducing new or extravagant commemorations, such of the old should be retained as would stand the test. But even so the test was not very carefully applied: the Assumption was rejected, while the Purification and the Annunciation were retained: so far all is natural: but the Visitation was excluded, and, like the Transfiguration, in spite of having biblical authority, only received later recognition as a black letter festival.[26] Again, the exclusion of S Mary Magdalene cannot be justified by this principle. It is probable that these last mentioned festivals were all rejected on the ground that they were recent importations into the Latin Calendar; so that it would seem that a further test for admission was applied by the Revisers, viz. that of antiquity, and that ancient festivals, such as the Assumption, failed to make good their claim for want of biblical evidence to support them, while biblical festivals shared the same fate for want of ancient prescription. 'Antiquity,' however, for this purpose was very liberally interpreted; for, as has been shown, the festivals of the Apostles were many of them unknown till the eighth or ninth century. However, it seems most likely that the Reformers were not aware of this, and that, such being the case, they applied these two principles to the best of their power in selecting the red letter Saints.

On the other hand, the principles which governed the selection of black letter Saints are not so clear. Thirteen of them are double feasts in the Sarum Calendar, and by the addition of these to the red letter days the whole of the immoveable Sarum double feasts are represented in the present Prayer Book Calendar except the Assumption and the two festivals of S Thomas of Canterbury; the reason for the exclusion of those is not far to seek.

The next class of Sarum festivals is, however, not fully represented, and though perhaps a reason might be found to account for the exclusion of the four festivals which are passed over,[27] it is evident on reviewing the next class below that the choice has been arbitrarily made. Local considerations clearly indicated the additions of 1661, viz., S Alban and the Venerable Bede--the latter the only festival which was not in the proper Sarum Calendar; but in 1561, though these considerations were clearly operative, they did not suffice to bring in S Cuthbert, S Oswald, S Wulstan, S Osmund, S Frideswide, or S Winifred, who all had a place in the Sarum Calendar, much less others who had not, such as S Aidan or S Wilfrid; on the other hand, a place was found for some who were of no special account in the Sarum Calendar, such as S Lucian or S Hilary, or even of no great intrinsic interest, such as S Brice or S Blaise. No signs survived at that date of the laudable desire shown in the early drafts to commemorate great writers who had hitherto had little or no position in English Calendars, such as S Athanasius, S Basil or S Chrysostom. Moreover the work was evidently done unintelligently; S Cyprian was placed in 1561 upon the day of an obscure namesake instead of the day of his martyrdom,[28] S Alban in 1661 upon the xvijth of June; by a misreading of the figure xxij; while the one effort of 1604, which added the name of Enurchus to the Calendar of September, is distinguished both for inaccuracy and want of judgment, since the saint intended was really named Evurtius, and at best had no claim to be rescued from the oblivion of some Sarum Primer to be set in this position.[29]

Two motives seem to underlie the provision of the black letter days. At first they took their place in 1552 as little more than calendrical notes analogous to Sol in aqua,, Equinoctium, Dog days, etc. In 1561, while this motive remained, another was added of keeping in mind the principal saints of the older Latin Calendar[30] without observing them as public holy days This double ground was definitely taken by the bishops in 1661; they replied to the Puritan attack upon Saints' days, that the black letter saints 'are left in the Calendar, not that they should be so' (as the others) 'kept as holy days, but they are useful for the preservation of their memories and for other reasons, as for leases, law days, etc.'[31] It is clear from their adding S Alban and Ven. Bede--the latter not a commonly known date--which of their two reasons they considered the more important.

[1] The earliest Roman evidence is that of the Philocalian Calendar dating from 336-354, including the Depositions of Popes and of Martyrs. Printed in Migne, P.L. XllI. 464: or better, Monum. Germ. Script. Ant. IX. p. 70 (ed. Mommsen); cp, Duchesne Liber Pont. I. pp. vi, 10 11, 12. This is given again under the title of 'Bucherian Calendar' together with the Calendars of the three early Roman Sacramentaries in Probst, Die ältesten Römischen Sacramentarien, pp. 40-45. Cp. Martyrologium Hieronymianum, edited by de Rossi and Duchesne in Acta Sanctorum, November, II. i. p. [xlviii]. back

[2] These were kept from the first. For S Polycarp see Euseb. H.E. iv. 15. back

[3] S Philip's day, however, was already kept on May 1, and this determined the date of Dedication when the church was rebuilt. back

[4] The like cause probably accounts for the festival of S Lucy. back

[5] The anniversary originally was kept on May 13, and it became the typical Dedication Festival. (Grad. Sar. xix.). The transference of the building by the Emperor Phocas and the hitherto unparalleled circumstance of the transformation of a heathen temple into a church, gave it a special importance (Lib. Pont. i. 317), and it soon became the custom to hold a festival there in honour of All Saints on November 1. (Beda Serm. Æstiv. in Hampson Kalendar ii. 147.) This spread gradually to other parts, especially when the festival was appointed for the Frankish Empire by Louis, with the assent of Pope Gregory IV, in 835. (Sigebert Chron., AD 835; Migne, P.L. CLX. 159.) But it was probably earlier in England, as it is marked by Beda in his Martyrologies. Opera, ed. Giles, 1. 53, IV. 145. back

[6] The festival of the Conception depends upon this but is of much later date, and did not begin to be commonly current in England till the twelfth century. back

[7] Probably also the two other great festivals of the Annunciation and Purification: for, though the connexion of these with Christmas makes it possible that these were of earlier date in Rome, it seems likely that only one festival of the B V M was kept in Rome till the seventh century and that on Jan 1: this was only later transformed through its relation to Christmas and through Byzantine influence into a festival of the Circumcision. For these festivals see W, M.G. 407 and ff. back

[8] The Decollation of S John Baptist is due to the same source. back

[9] Haddan and Stubbs, III. 368. back

[10] ibid. Ill. 390. back

[11] This was in some places a much older festival, especial]y among the Benedictines. back

[12] The earlier festival of S Audrey is June 23. back

[13] Thereupon there was added to the first and second lessons of Mattins an account of this transaction. See Sar. Brev. of 1531 (Cambridge reprint, III. 621). This change was not yet made in the Breviary of 1531. back

For the fuller history of the Sarum Calendar, see Frere, Graduale Sarum, Introduction, pp. xxii-xxx.

[14] Dixon, I. 83, 424. back

[15] The Veneration of the Cross, for example, goes back to the fourth century, the Reproaches are biblical, the Ceremony of the new Fire probably began in Britain, and like many of the picturesque rites and ceremonies was only later adopted into the Roman Service-books. See below, pp. 535 and ff. W. M.G. 370 and ff. back

[16] A trace may be said to survive in the Proper Prefaces and the use of thc Christmas collect for the week following. back

[17] Above, p. 34 back

[18] The selection is curious and does not include S Jerome though he was more commonly commemorated in Calendars than many of the others. The days to which they are assigned are in some cases quite unusual: e.g. S Polycarp is entered on a day unknown either to Quignon or Sarum. back

[19] Babilas, The XL Martyrs and Barbara are known, if unusual in English Calendars. Benjamin on Feb 21 seems to be the Old Testament patriarch; Phileas and Philoromus (Feb 3) shows the influence of Quignon; and Petrus, Dorotheus (July 2) seems to have been taken from the same source (Sept 9) but placed upon a different day. back

[20] The greater part of these Old Testament saints were commemorated in the old martyrologies, but not on these dates. back

[21] Only two of the additions are not traceable to one or other of these sources, viz. SS Vitalis and Agricola (Nov 4), a common festival abroad and S Mamas on Sept 1, which seems inexplicable. back

[22] Thus S Leo is put at April 11 as in Quignon, instead of June 28 as in Sarum, his translation day. On the other hand S Ambrose stands as in Sarum on April 4, not as in Quignon on Dec 7. It should be noted that the fuller Calendar prefixed to Sarum Primers has been drawn upon and not simply the true liturgical Calendar of the Missal or Breviary. back

[23] The eleventh of the abortive Royal Injunctions of 1549 (see above p 59) ordered 'That none keep the abrogate holydays other than those that have their proper and peculiar service.' Doc. Ann. xv. back

[24] Taken from Cosin's Devotions. back

[25] The list of 'Holy Days' to be observed and 'none other' as given in the Edwardian Act, 5 and 6 Edw. VI. cap. iii., or in the Elizabethan Calendar of 156l excludes Black Letter Days, Rogation Days, Ember Days, and Vigils; its object was to restrict the observance of public holidays just as had been done in Henry VllIth's time. The Edwardian Act, which was repealed by Queen Mary, was never renewed under Elizabeth (D'Ewes, Journals, p. 27), ,but the same object was brought about by the Calendar of 1561 and the Advertisements of 1566 (Doc. Ann. LXV. p. 327). back

[26] The American Church, in 1886 replaced The Transfiguration of Christ in the Calendar as a Red letter Day, with Proper Lessons, Collect, etc back

[27] Cathedra S Petri. Translation of Abp Edmund, Commemoration of S Paul, S Michael in Monte Tumba. back

[28] Possibly on purpose to avoid collision with Holy Cross Day. back

[29] Both the entry Enurchus and the assignment of S Alban to June xvij appear curiously enough in the Calendar of the Preces Privatae of 1564. See St. Paul's Eccles. Soc. Transactions, IV. 33, 46, and for S Cyprian, pp. 47 and ff. back

[30] In the Primers and in other Calendars where the entries are purely for Kalendrical purposes they show a marked contrast to the Prayer Book Calendar, for they contain the Assumption and the day of 'Becket traitor,' which were ousted from there; and also they are far larger in number, as indeed was necessary if they were to be of much use for the purpose of dates: in Edward's Primer of 1553 there are 183 entries of Saints' days, including the Assumption and Becket, besides a large number of purely Kalendrical entries and the marking of the P.B. Vigils by the entry 'Fish.' In the Orarium of 1560 and the Preces Privatae of 1564 there is hardly a day vacant, and in the latter all liturgical authority was disclaimed, and the very necessary caution was given at the end, that it is not necessarily implied that all are to be regarded as saints, or that even so they are to be given divine worship and honour, but only as notes of time and convenient dates. See Priv. Prayers of Q. Eliz. (Parker Soc.). back

[31] Cardwell, Conf 306, 314. back


The Date of Easter

[Notes on how the date of Easter is determined, explaining the Golden numbers and Dominical letters included in the calendar, and with pointers to further information and on-line calculations of Easter.]

[the following text adapted from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer ... of the Episcopal Church in the USA]

Easter Day is always the Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox on March 21, a date which is fixed in accordance with an ancient ecclesiastical computation, and which does not always correspond to the astronomical equinox. This full moon may happen on any date between March 21 and April 18 inclusive. If the full moon falls on a Sunday, Easter Day is the Sunday following. But Easter Day cannot be earlier than March 22 or later than April 25.

To find the date of Easter Day in any particular year, it is necessary to have two points of reference--the Golden Number and the Sunday Letter for that year.

  1. The Golden Number indicates the date of the full moon on or after the spring equinox of March 21, according to a nineteen-year cycle. These Numbers are prefixed in the Calendar to the days of the month from March 22 to April 19 inclusive. In the present Calendar they are applicable from A.D. 1900 to A.D. 2099, after which they will change.
  2. The Dominical or Sunday Letter identifies the days of the year when Sundays occur. After every date in the Calendar a letter appears--from A to g. Thus, if January 1 is a Sunday, the Sunday Letter for the Year is A, and every date in the Calendar marked by A is a Sunday. If January 2 is a Sunday, then every date marked with b is a Sunday, and so on through the seven letters.
In Leap Years, however, the Sunday letter changes on the first day of March. In such years, when A is the Sunday letter, this applies only to Sundays in January and February, and g is the Sunday letter for the rest of the year. Or if d is the Sunday letter, then c is the Sunday letter on and after March 1.

To Find the Golden number

The Golden number of any year is calculated as follows: Take the number of the year, divide by 19, and add 1 to the remainder. This is the Golden number.

To Find the Sunday letter

To find the Dominical or Sunday letter for any year between A.D. 1900 and A.D. 2099: Take the number of the year and divide it by four, ignoring any remainder. Add to this number the year number and subtract 1. Divide this sum by 7 and the Dominical letter is given by the remainder:

To Find Easter Day

When one has both the Golden number and the Sunday letter for any particular year, then the date of Easter Day may be found in the Calendar, for
March and April, as follows:
  1. The Golden number prefixed to a day in the month of March or April in the Calendar marks the date of the full moon in that year.
  2. Easter Day will be the next date bearing the Sunday letter of that year. But when the Golden Number of a given year and the Sunday letter of that year occur on the same date, then Easter Day is one week later. (For example, if the Golden number is 19--which appears in the Calendar prefixed to March 27--and the Sunday letter is d, then Easter Day in that year will fall on March 29. If the Golden number is 10 and the Sunday letter is A, then Easter Day will fall on April 9. But if the Golden number is 19 and the Sunday letter is b, then Easter Day will be one week later, namely April 3.)
The date of Easter can also be calculated directly by a simple algorithm which underlies the above and tables. See the appendix Calculating the Date of Easter for details.

The Date of Christmas and Epiphany

[This section is from
The Promise of His Glory]

The development of the liturgical calendar was a gradual process, though today it is no longer possible to maintain the view popularized by Dom Gregory Dix that only in the fourth century did historicization take place. From very early times there existed a tension between eschatology and history, and it was this tension which produced the liturgical calendar.

'If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain' (1 Cor. 15:14). Paul rightly saw that at the heart of Christianity lies the resurrection of Jesus, which was commemorated and celebrated weekly on the First Day of the week, and annually at Paschaltide. Sunday and Easter are the core of the liturgical calendar. Nevertheless, at an early date interest was focused on the divine nature of Jesus, both its public disclosure at his baptism, and the more private disclosure in the events surrounding his birth. This is already clear in St Mark's Gospel which begins with the baptism, and in St John with the Baptist's declaration that this is the Lamb of God; and in the complex structures of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. This dual interest in the proclamation of Sonship/Messiahship at the baptism, and the birth of the Son of the Most High seems to be the basis of two festivals in close proximtiy -- Christmas and Epiphany.

The reason why these two festivals are so close seems to be that although they have become two separate and distinct celebrations, originally they were simply the Western and Eastern dates for celebrating the one mystery of the incarnation. The West, perhaps being more concerned with history, concentrated on the birth of Christ on 25th December, whereas in the East January 6th, the Epiphany, was concerned with the wider mystery of incarnation in terms of the birth, the visit of the Magi, the baptism and the wedding of Cana -- the showing forth of the divinity through a number of events. Gradually East and West accepted each others' festivals in addition to their own, and the incarnation/birth themes tended to cluster around the 25th December. In the West, 6th January tended to concern itself mainly with the visit of the Magi, but in the East the baptism and the wedding at Cana continued to be the main themes. Even today in the Eastern Churches, 6th January is the more important festival, and the Armenian Church has never adopted 25th December; on the 6th January that Church still celebrates all the incarnational mysteries.

But why these particular dates? On this question there are two schools of thought. The older view is that these two dates represent christian adaptation of the respective winter solstice dates in the West and East, which were already important pagan festivals. Those who hold this view cite the celebrations connected with Apollo, Mithras and Dionysius with their themes of birth and rebirth, and the coming of the deity to dwell with his followers. In Rome by 274 AD the Winter solstice was a public holiday in honour of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun. In the East a slightly different calendar was followed, and the winter solstice was 6th January. It is suggested that in Egypt there was on this date an ancient festival of water, and in Alexandria, the celebration of the virgin birth of Aion from Kore; in Syria, so it is argued, there were celebrations of miracles of water changed into wine. It is argued, therefore, that these pagan festivals were taken over and christianized. The birth of the sun of righteousness (Mal. 4:2), the Dayspring from on high (Luke 1:78) replaced Sol Invictus, and in the East the Virgin Birth, the baptism and the wedding of Cana replaced (or were even suggested by) their pagan counterparts.

Although this view is still very common, it has been seriously challenged by what may be called the 'Calculation' theory. This view stresses that in Judaism, which was the cradle of Christianity, there was pressure to believe that important events in salvation history happened -- and will happen -- on the same date. Some Rabbis argued that on Nisan 14 the world was created, the patriarchs were born, the Exodus took place, and that the Day of the Lord would also happen on this date. Christians dated the Pascha to Nisan 14, but in the Roman calendar this was estimated at 25th March in the West, and in the East where there was a different calendar in use, 6th April. By a strange process of exegesis of the Bible (strange by modern methods, that is) several of the Fathers calculated that the conception of Jesus (in the six month) took place on the same day as his passion, 25th March, or 6th April. By calculating the birth as a perfect nine months (for God is perfect) they arrived at 25th December in the West and 6th January in the East. Furthermore, much of the 'evidence' for pagan festivals has been challenged. There is evidence to suggest that in the Roman Church 25th December was observed as the feast of the incarnation before that date was chosen to celebrate Sol Invictus. It is also questionable whether January 6th was the date of various Eastern festivals -- the 4th or 5th seems to be the important date for some Egyptian celebrations. Certainly recent studies on the calendar have seriously weakened the older 'adaptation' view, and need to be taken seriously.

Whatever the precise origin, the Church is left with two major festivals within the space of twelve days. The secular world greatly inflates and distorts the first and, in England at least, totally ignores the second. In order to give 6th January a separate identity, The Promise of His Glory has emphasised the older Eastern themes of the baptism of Christ and the wedding at Cana. Since the renewal of baptismal vows at Easter only dates from 1951 in the Roman Catholic Church, it is hardly an ancient tradition. Epiphany is an equally good occasion.

The origin of Advent is even more mysterious than the question of Christmas and the Epiphany, though as with the season of Lent in relation to Easter, it is a later development. A major problem is that the historical evidence relating to Advent is conflicting and inconclusive. In some traditions it had and has overtones of being a Fast, though the reason for this and the length of the season differed from place to place. At Rome in the fourth century it was the end of the year (the new year began with 25th December) and there it seems to have concentrated on eschatology. In the East it came to be concerned with biblical annunciations, leading up to that of Christ, and the length of the season varies in the Eastern Churches, some having four Sundays and others having five. In the West in some places it lasted only one Sunday, in others six or seven. At Rome itself there is evidence that it was once six weeks in duration, then five, and finally four. Most Western Churches had adopted this Roman four Sunday scheme by the tenth century, though even today the rite of Milan has a six Sunday Advent. Thus there seems to have been a mixture of themes -- eschatology, penitence, annunciation and preparation. The length of the season varies -- and thus is still variable if it is thought desirable.


Robert F Taft, 'Historicism Revisited', in Beyond East and West, Pastoral Press, Washington 1984.

Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Doubleday New York 1977.

Adolf Adam, The Liturgical Year. Pueblo New York 1981.

Thomas J Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year . Pueblo New York 1986. <hr> <font size=-1> <a href="index.html" target="_top">title page</a><br> <a href="preface.html">Preface</a> | Introduction | <a href="year.html">The Christian Year</a><br> <a href="m01/index.html">January</a> | <a href="m02/index.html">February</a> | <a href="m03/index.html">March</a> | <a href="m04/index.html">April</a> | <a href="m05/index.html">May</a> | <a href="m06/index.html">June</a><br> <a href="m07/index.html">July</a> | <a href="m08/index.html">August</a> | <a href="m09/index.html">September</a> | <a href="m10/index.html">October</a> | <a href="m11/index.html">November</a> | <a href="m12/index.html">December</a><br> Index: <a href="ix1.html">A-C</a> | <a href="ix2.html">D-H</a> | <a href="ix3.html">I-L</a> | <a href="ix4.html">M-P</a> | <a href="ix5.html">R-Z</a> </font>