A note on calendar dates. The earliest times for which we have archaeological and historical evidences are those of Babylon and its empire. The Babylonians, or an earlier civilization, noted that the Sun took 360 days to complete its cycle; this has always been known as the “solar year” but today we view this as the time taken for the Earth to orbit the Sun. The Babylonians divided this orbit, the circle, into 360 degrees, one for each day. The Moon’s orbit around the Earth is 29.530588 days, may originally have been 30 days with exactly 12 moon cycles or months every solar year. The Babylonians regarded the number 12 as sacred and in any case more readily divided than, say, the number 10. Each degree, that is, each day was divided into 12 X 2 hours and each hour into 12 X 5 minutes. At some very early time, it is thought that the Earth’s orbit increased slightly so that it took 365 days plus a fraction of a day to orbit the Sun. Possibly, this was at the time of the Genesis Flood. The Babylonian year eventually became badly out of line with the seasons and succeeding empires developed their own calendar systems. In 45 A.D., and with the power and authority of Rome, Julius Caesar introduced a new calendar of 365 and a quarter days (it is actually 365.2422 days). The quarter day was introduced as a full day once every fourth year – the “leap year.” The new calendar began the year on January 1st retained the twelve months, was known as the “Julian Calendar,” and adopted throughout the old Roman Empire. It became absorbed into Western Christendom.
By the 16th century, European astronomers had established that the “quarter day” of the Julian calendar was just a bit too long. In fact, the error amounted to 11 minutes and 14 seconds too long each year and that added up to one day in 128 years or, by 1582, almost 11days ahead of the solar year. This was noticeable by the seasons and important for planting crops. Pope Gregory XIII introduced calendar reform by setting the solar year at 365.242 days rather than 365.250 days as in the old Julian calendar. Every fourth year was still a leap year except for three of every fourth century years ending in 00. The year 2000 was a leap year but the one before that was 1600. The new calendar, the one in use today, is extremely accurate and known as the Gregorian calendar; it was accepted by all the European Catholic countries without question in the year 1587. In that year, they all leaped forward by ten days. However, Britain was staunchly Protestant, refused to accept any popish decrees and for the next 165 years were 11 days or more behind European calendars. This situation changed, but not without a fuss, in 1752 when King William II of England ordered adoption of the Gregorian calendar. The British leaped from September 2nd to the 14th in 1752. The Eastern Orthodox Church i.e. the Russian, Romanian, Ukrainian and Greek Churches still do not recognize the Gregorian calendar simply because of its source. The result is, for example, that the Latin Christians i.e. Western Christians whether Catholic or Protestant, celebrate Christmas Day on December 25th whereas Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas Day on January 6th a day known to the West as Twelfth Night. Finally, while the Roman calendar began the New Year on January 1st there were a number of influential Christian sects who regarded Lady Day, March 25th as the first day of the Christian calendar. The argument went that without the conception of Christ in the first place, His birth, death and resurrection could not follow. By the 12th century the Christian year had been changed to begin on March 25th. This date for the year change persisted until the Gregorian calendar was adopted and the beginning of the New Year changed back to January 1st.
The Christian Festivals. These can be divided into those relating to the birth of Christ on fixed calendar dates and those relating to the death of Christ on moveable dates. Those on the fixed dates are Lady Day and Christmas Day and the Saint’s Days in the Catholic calendar. These fixed dates were set by the early Church councils who were very mindful that many days in the pagan year had been long established for ungodly festivals. Rather than try to abolish such festivals there was much wisdom in syncretism, that is, adopting the same dates for Christian celebrations. The object of the Christian festivals was to preserve throughout each year the memory of the major events in the foundation of the Christian faith. Until recent times, those pagan festivals had been completely supplanted by Christian festivals. Today, there is a trend to see the old pagan festivals revived as knowledge of the Christian festivals fall onto obscurity.
Lady Day. Otherwise known as the Feast of the Annunciation, this celebrates the announcement by the angel Gabriel to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus, the “Son of the Highest”(Luke 1:26-38). The date of this celebration is strictly March 25th and was established by the date agreed upon for the birth of Christ. It is exactly nine months before Christmas Day and celebrated mostly in the Catholic Church. In the Anglican Church “Mothering Sunday” relates to the Mother Church rather than the Mother of God and is held on a nearby date governed by Easter. Mother’s Day is recent, and not related.
Christmas Day. The Nativity of Christ was not celebrated until the 4th century while there is nothing in Scripture to tell us the exact day or for that matter even the year of the Nativity. Luke 2:1-2 tell us that there was a census while Quirinius was governing Syria and scholars today are of the opinion that this took place in 3 B.C. The early Christian scholars, who were certainly closer to the events of the time, settled upon December 25th arguing that this was just after the pagan celebration of the Winter solstice on December 21st. Thus, the pre-Christmas season of Advent would nicely cover this period and hopefully subsume the pagan festivities of new beginnings into the new beginnings offered by the New Covenant. Scholars since that time have disagreed with the Nativity being in December. They point to Luke 2:8-11 where the shepherds were “living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night” then the angel spoke to them and said, “there is born to you this day etc.” They argue that this indicates lambing season in March or April but not mid-winter. It is possible that the early scholars even considered this but by adopting December 25th this nicely covered both the Spring Equinox and the Winter Solstice pagan festivals whereas if the Nativity were say, March 25th then only one pagan festival would be covered. In the early Church, Easter Sunday was the principal feast day of the Christian calendar. The Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries discouraged all forms of joyous festival but through the Victorian efforts of Prince Albert and Charles Dickens there was a great upsurge in sentimentality and “Christian socialism.” Now, less than two centuries later, Christmas Day has superseded Easter as the principle Christian festival.
Advent. This is the first season of the Church year, its starting date depending upon which day of the week Christmas Day occurs but always includes the four Sundays before Christmas Day. It is intended to be a time for repentance and preparation for the celebration of Christ’s birth. Jesus Himself said that He was the “Light of the world” (John 8:12) and by adopting December 25th as the Nativity, the ‘Light of the World” was heralded in by adoption of the old Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah. The Advent candles are part of this syncretic symbolism.
Saint’s Days. In the UK Protestant Church the following are celebrated as patron saint days: England: St. George’s Day April 23rd; Wales: St. David’s Day March 1st; Scotland: St. Andrew’s Day November 30th and Ireland: St. Patrick’s Day March 17th. However the celebrants today, particularly the Irish, are more often expatriates.
Easter Sunday. This is a moveable feast linked to the Passover that must fall upon the first full moon of the Jewish New Year; it takes 19 years for the phases of the moon to return to the same calendar dates. Easter may thus fall on any of the 35 days from March 22nd and April 25th and celebrates the Resurrection of Christ. Scripture does not actually say that Jesus’ resurrection took place on the first day of the week but rather that the tomb was found empty on that day. Tradition has always considered that day to be Sunday. The Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 decreed that Easter be celebrated on, “the first Sunday after the full moon which happens on or next following the 21st of March, the Spring Equinox; and if the full moon happens upon a Sunday, Easter-day is the Sunday following.” The date set for Easter then determines all the dates of the other festivals that are related to it. According to the 8th century English historian, Bede, the English name for Easter itself derives from a pagan festival of the goddess Eostra, a spring and dawn deity. A common emblem of Easter is the egg; it has the appearance of a lifeless object but nevertheless contains the source of new life; a powerful symbol not only of the Resurrection of Christ’s dead body but also our own in the general resurrection. The chocolate egg has since replaced the real egg losing the symbolism since it has no source of new life.
Good Friday. Tradition commemorates the Friday before Easter Sunday as the day of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. It is a solemn day nevertheless is in expectation of the following Sunday. The three days and three nights in the heart of the earth foretold by Jesus (Matt. 12:38-40 and Jonah 1:17) more than suggest that there is something very wrong with the days of Christian tradition.
Palm Sunday. This is a happy occasion recalling the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and occurs on the Sunday prior to Easter Sunday. Churches were at one time decorated with palm leaves; these were later burnt and the ashes kept for Ash Wednesday the following year. This custom is principally confined to the Anglican and Catholic Churches today.
Lent. Lent commemorates the 40-day wilderness experience of Jesus as reported in the synoptic gospels. It originally consisted of four Sundays within a 34-day period of self-imposed fast immediately before Easter. The fast meant a total abstinence from sexual relations and from meats and fats. The week before the Lenten fast was Shrove-tide intended to be a season of confession, absolution and reconciliation, but by the time of Pope Gregory the Great (died 604) it had become corrupted by the old pagan Spring fertility rites. After Pope Gregory and certainly by the tenth century, the Church had introduced Ash Wednesday as the beginning of Lent right in the middle of Shrove-tide. This confined those pre-fast festivities merely to the Monday and “Shrove Tuesday.” Shrove Tuesday is called “Pancake Day” or, in French, “Mardi Gras” – Fat Tuesday. Without refrigeration any fat had to be consumed before Lent and pancakes were an ideal means to this end. The word “Shrove” was derived from the word “shrive” meaning to confess.
Ash Wednesday. This is a festival peculiar to the Roman Catholic Church but is also practiced by Anglo-Catholics i.e. those of the High Anglican Church. The ceremony marks the first day of Lent. However, it added “supplementary fast days” and caused some liturgical difficulties i.e. Lent now consisted of 44 fast days instead of 34. In Scripture, use of ashes is a sign of mourning and there would appear to be no good reason for mourning at the beginning of Lent. However, repentance may well have been called for after two days of virtual Bacchanalia during Medieval days! On the morning of Ash Wednesday in a ceremony called “imposition” the priest places the sign of the cross on the forehead of each penitent. In the Roman Church penance is stressed rather than repentance. The ashes are the burnt palm leaves from Palm Sunday of the previous year. During the “imposition” the priest quotes from Genesis 3:19, “Remember man, that thou art dust and unto dust you shall return” and Joel 2:12-13, “… with fasting and with weeping and with mourning [and ashes]; so rend your heart and not your garments.” The bracketed words have been added in the Catholic text. The priest then quotes the verses from Matthew 6:16-21, “… anoint your head and wash your face etc…” Rather oddly, this very Scripture would appear be at direct variance with the business of the “imposition.” Nevertheless, the ceremony nicely establishes in the mind of the penitent that dust and ashes are one and the same thing thus they may, with the Church’s blessing, depart in the fires of purification and finish as ashes. Cremation was not introduced into the Christian West until 1884 and is now accepted.
Ascension Day. This day occurs 40 days after Jesus rose from the dead and the early church celebrated this as “Holy Thursday.” In later years it has been celebrated on the following day, Friday. This might seriously suggest that Jesus rose on Saturday and not Sunday. It commemorates the bodily ascent of Jesus Christ into heaven after His resurrection.
Whitsunday. This celebrates the day of Pentecost, meaning fifty. Just as Moses received the Law fifty days after the first Passover in Egypt, so the disciples of Jesus received the Holy Spirit to enable them to keep the Law fifty days after Passover. The early Christians, on Pentecost Sunday, required new converts to Christianity to be dressed in white and be baptized. This particular Sunday then became known as “White Sunday” or Whitsun and for some time the early Church considered that this was the only time in the year that a person could become a Christian.
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