As it grew dark on Christmas Eve and people filed into church for the Vespers service, the late afternoon/evening service now held around 4 pm, the Christmas season officially began for medieval folk, at least for those in the Christian West.
Unlike us, who begin our Christmas season before the holiday, at Thanksgiving or even earlier, our medieval counterparts began the season with the religious events surrounding Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Decorations were put up right before Christmas, often on Christmas Eve. I imagine our medieval alter-egos would have frowned on the concept of decorating to celebrate the birth of Jesus before Advent even began.
We live in a secular country that notes holidays like Ramadan and Yom Kippur on its calendars. It’s hard to truly comprehend how much religion and the Christian liturgical calendar were part of everyday medieval life. For the common folk the liturgical calendar was more important than the Julian calendar. Letters were dated by the holy day or week, for example “written on St. Catherine’s Day” or “on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday.” Few used the complicated Roman calendar to date personal correspondence (“vij kalendas Februarias”). Everyone knew when Holy Rood Day or Michaelmas was.
The first day of Christmastide, December 25, was followed by the second day, the Feast of St. Stephen, then the third day, the feast of St. John the Evangelist, and so on. On the evening before the twelfth day of Christmas, January 5, the celebration of Epiphanytide began. The Feast of the Epiphany, which celebrated the visit of the three wise men, or three kings, to the baby Jesus, also celebrated the baptism of Christ during SCA period and to a lesser extent, the miracle at the wedding at Cana. It ended eight days later, on January 13.
Christmas, Epiphany, Lady Day, All Saints’ Day, the feasts of the Ascension of Christ and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary are some of the most important Church holy days, known as Solemnity Days. These days outrank regular saints’ days and memorials. The celebration of Solemnity Days always began the day before, at Vespers.
All these Christian holy days, which is, of course, where our word holiday comes from, were part of the liturgical calendar for the year. Some, like Christmas, were fixed dates. Others, like the first Sunday of Advent, were moveable dates that were computed from when another Church holiday fell on the calendar. Easter, that most complicated Church holiday, determined when many of the other church events took place. I suspect that most people didn’t worry about computing each year’s calendar and simply let their churchmen tell them when to feast and when to fast.
When exactly did Christmas end? Christmastide ended on Twelfth Night. Shakespeare mentions people taking down the Christmas decorations on Twelfth Night. If you include Epiphanytide, you extend the holiday season another week. But in some places they remove Christmas decorations on Candlemas Eve (Feb. 1), and some calendars describe Feb. 1 as the end of the Christmas season. Christians believe February 2 is when Jesus was presented in the Temple and when Mary was purified, so continuing the season of the birth of Jesus until February 2 has some logic to it. However, it seems to be more of a post-SCA period practice.
So what happened after Epiphanytide? The weeks between major Church events were known as Ordinary Time. These weeks were numbered, from one to 34, and usually began the Monday after a significant church time period. For example, Ordinary Time begins on January 14, the day after the end of Epiphanytide, with the first Sunday of Ordinary Time on January 20 this year.
Below is part of a reconstructed medieval liturgical calendar. Since my persona is 12th century English, it represents the holidays and saints’ days my persona would have known.[i] It covers the time from the birth of Jesus to his presentation in the Temple.
Reconstructed Medieval Liturgical Year
Constructed Using 2018-2019 as the Example
Dates marked with (M) are moveable feasts or days of worship. Dates in bold are Solemnity feasts[ii], Church events deemed more important than regular feast days. Optional or obligatory memorial observances are in italic.
|Christmastide (beginning of a week off for the peasantry)|
|Christmas/Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ||Dec. 25, 2018|
|Feast of St. Stephen||Dec. 26|
|Feast of St. John the Evangelist||Dec. 27|
|Childermas (Feast of the Holy Innocents)||Dec. 28|
|St. Thomas Becket (from 12th century)||Dec. 29|
|Feast of the Circumcision (eight Roman days after Christmas)||Jan. 1, 2019|
|Twelfth Night (eve of the 12th day of Christmas/end of Christmas)||Jan. 5|
|Feast of the Epiphany (Visit of the Magi/Baptism of Christ)||Jan. 6|
|End of Epiphanytide||Jan. 13|
|Ordinary Time (ordinal – the counted weeks)[iv]||Jan. 14|
|(Begins on January 14 this year)|
|First Sunday of Ordinary Time||Jan. 20|
|Second Sunday of Ordinary Time||Jan. 27|
|Candlemas/Feast of the Presentation of Christ/Feast of the Purification of the Virgin||Feb. 2|
[i] Modern liturgical calendars have additional holy days or have removed or added saints’ days. For example, the celebration of the baptism of Jesus is now held on the Sunday after Epiphany in the Roman Catholic Church.
[ii] Solemnities replace Sunday services when they fall on a Sunday. Celebration of Solemnity feasts begins the night before at Vespers.
[iii] Modern church calendars consider Epiphanytide a subset, or part of, Christmastide.
[iv] Ordinary Time runs from the Monday after the Sunday that follows Epiphany (January 13 this year) to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (March 5 this year), then resumes on the Monday after Pentecost Sunday (June 10 this year) and concludes before First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent (Dec. 1 in 2018).