Revised April 17, 2021 to include “Reformation Day.”
People of Medieval Europe related to time differently than we do. The twelve month Roman calendar was formally in use, but the more popular means of keeping an annual time table was to see the present day in light of preceding or following religious holidays. So, rather than say, “Today is January 23,” one might say, “Today is the Monday following St. Vincent’s day,” or again, “On the eve of the Assumption of the Virgin” instead of “August 15.” Years were typically counted by the year of the reign of whoever was in power. Within a single day, the chiming of church bells was used, rather than hours and minutes. (Jeffrey L. Singman, Daily Life in Medieval Europe [Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999], 213-219)
Generally speaking, this systemization of time seems much closer to the Biblical framework than the modern tradition. When our fathers were under the Covenant of Sinai, their calendar operated under a rich system of feasts and sabbaths (e.g. Deuteronomy 16). They were to keep track of days within the year by counting in reference to these feasts and sabbaths (e.g. “You shall count seven weeks. Begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God…” [vv.9-10]). The special days and weeks were not arbitrary, but reflected certain acts of God (e.g. “Observe the month of Abib and keep the Passover to the Lord your God, for in the month of Abib the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt by night” [v.1]). Naturally, the purpose of these times was to remember those acts of God or to consecrate life to Him.
With regard to regular times of observance, every society has its own elaborate system of holidays, secular and religious. The question seems to be not whether there should be special times for feasting, resting, and reflecting, but which times these shall be. In fact, holy days are an organic part of any religious or corporate identity. Holy days commemorate the marvelous works that make us who we are, the remarkable deeds that form us. They also consecrate us to our God/gods. Truly, a people may be understood by means of their holy days.
Uncle Sam’s Holiday
Thus, change and control will often involve a manipulation of holy days. It is not a neutral, amoral decision to close public schools on a Muslim holiday, for example. Let us apply this principle to the United States. What does the American calendar say about who we are? We have different types of holy days, of which the most sacred are federal holidays. These are days formally codified in law, and they are the following:
- Friday, January 1 – New Year’s Day
- Monday, January 18 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
- Monday, February 15 – President’s Day
- Monday, May 31 – Memorial Day
- Sunday, July 4 – Independence Day
- Monday, July 5 – Independence Day (observed)
- Monday, September 6 – Labor Day
- Monday, October 11 – Columbus Day
- Thursday, November 11 – Veterans Day
- Thursday, November 25 – Thanksgiving Day
- Friday, December 24 – Christmas Day (observed)
- Saturday, December 25 – Christmas Day
- Friday, December 31 – New Year’s Day (observed)
What marvelous works do these holidays commemorate? The turning of a new year (New Year’s Day), the Civil Rights Movement (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day), the life and work of Presidents (mainly George Washington and Abraham Lincoln) (President’s Day), the ultimate sacrifice made by soldiers (Memorial Day), the Declaration of Independence (Independence Day), the regular work of citizens (Labor Day), the discovery of the Western Hemisphere (Columbus Day), service in the military (Veterans Day), the settlement of America (Thanksgiving Day), the birth of Christ (Christmas Day). One could argue that Thanksgiving Day is a consecration of America to God, and I think it is truly celebrated in this way by many. By and large, this is not what the day is used for or intended to mean, but I acknowledge this argument.
Overwhelmingly, our identity is centered around nationalism, and by that I mean a commitment to the history of the United States. The discovery, settlement, independence, protection, and leadership of America concerns 70% of our holy days. The remaining three are divided between Christ, nature, and the civil rights movement. It would take too long for this article, but I would argue that MLK Day is actually a commemoration of statism, in which the framework of our holy days overwhelmingly favors worshiping and serving the government.
This calendar should teach us that the United States only ever a superficially and informally Christian nation. The deification of the state was inevitable from the beginning through the subtle assumption that neutral, moral, fertile ground could be found between Christ and pagans. Free Masonry’s solid footing in the founding of the U.S. is a glowing example of this. In time, Thanksgiving will be thoroughly stripped of Christian connotation, and Christmas will either be formally abandoned or gutted of the manger.
Also, notice how short-sighted our holy days are. The only commemorative day that reaches before America itself is Christmas, and most holidays deal only with the national narrative. This represents a tendency towards historical pride, which is clearly reflected in many Protestant churches where church history is all but forgotten. Our present abandonment of history also seems to have been inevitable.
In terms of what should be done about this holiday idolatry, I do not suggest simply changing the calendar. America should observe days holy unto God only if it serves God. If the United States is not a Christian nation, whether formally or informally, then the calendar is not where we need to start. Reformation needs to come to the people before it may come to the calendar.
I am so keen to critique our calendar, but what alternative(s) do I propose? First, that we should observe a calendar akin to the Old Testament or the Medieval’s. I mean “we” ideally, and not on a national level. Families and churches, perhaps cities and counties, should overhaul the American calendar to commemorate acts of God rather than acts of man – more specifically, advancements of God’s kingdom rather than man’s. I am open to discussing some holy days particular to our national identity.
Second, that we think twice about the concept of a “federal holiday.” The United States did not have federal holidays until the late 19th century. What is the purpose of codifying subjective festivals, feasts, and sabbaths into law? I understand instituting the Sabbath day, because that is a creational day of rest God has given to us in the New Covenant. Other than that, I don’t believe any holy day should be mandated by law.
Third, that we exercise charity in the identification and observance of holy days. One of the first great controversies in church history concerned the date of Easter. At one point, the bishop of Rome threatened to excommunicate many Eastern churches who pinpointed Easter according to a Jewish calendar, leaving the Western and Eastern church split in observance. Ignatius rebuked the bishop of Rome for his harshness, claiming that the issue was important but peripheral to the faith. That another Christian commemorates the resurrection of Christ on a different day than you should not cause you to question the validity of their confession. This principle of charity, of treating the calendar as adiaphora, is reflected in the Medieval system. Holy days differed somewhat depending on what geographic location you found yourself in (for a general list, see below).
Of the Old Covenant in the New Covenant, Paul wrote, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). The laws of Sinai concerning festivals, sabbaths, and feasts were shadows of Christ to come. When Christ came, fulfilling those temporal regulations of the body (Hebrews 9:10), the national framework had served its purpose and therefore was no longer binding (for example, our baptism is circumcision for us [Colossians 2:11-12]). This does not prohibit or discourage the observance of holy days, festivals, new moons, sabbaths, feasts, etc. in the New Covenant. Further, it does not mean that systemizing our calendar in observance of certain holy days is a bad idea. What Colossians 2:16-17 demands of us is a principle of charity and liberty when it comes to the church’s relationship to the calendar. In the New Covenant, God has only required one holy day: the Sabbath that remains in Christ (Hebrews 4:9).
To contribute to the conversation in a further constructive way, I’d like to offer my skeletal list of holy days which should be on our calendar. The means of determining Easter I have included is typical for the Western tradition, but I am open to using a different means (note that another dating system for Easter would affect the dates of holy days afterward). Also, I am simplifying this list by mapping it onto the Gregorian calendar, though I am open to incorporating a lunar model. The importance of the following list is primarily in what I am suggesting be observed, not when it will be observed.
- Easter (Feast) // The first Sunday after the first full moon on or after March 21; if the full moon is on a Sunday, Easter is the next Sunday.
Commemorating the resurrection of Christ. In my conception, Easter is the beginning of the year, but the Gregorian Calendar can still be used.
- The Day of Ascension // Thursday after the Fifth Sunday after Easter
Commemorating the Lordship of Christ, His coronation.
- Safeguard’s Day // May 20, or Thursday after the Sixth Sunday after Easter
This holy day would commemorate God’s work in girding the church with the true faith in its infancy. At the Jerusalem Council, the integrity of the New Covenant was preserved. At the Council of Nicaea (which this specific date is based off of, May 20, 325), Trinitarian doctrine was articulated. At the Council of Chalcedon, Christology was preserved (451). The name “Safeguard’s Day” is taken from 2 Timothy 1:14, “Guard the good deposit entrusted to you,” in reference to sound doctrine, which is a ministry these councils perform for the church.
- Pentecost Sunday // Seventh Sunday after Easter
Commemorating the giving of the Spirit.
- Milvian Day // October 28, or Thursday after the twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
This holy day would commemorate the first flourishing of Christendom into the public, cultural, and civil sphere. On October 28, 312, Constantine won a crucial victory after converting to Christianity. His conversion would prove historic for the advancement of God’s kingdom in the world. Milvian Day is a holy day with many post-millenial flavors.
- Reformation Day // October 31, or Sunday after Milvian Day (in which case, Reformation Sunday)
This holy day would commemorate the Protestant Reformation. This day is ecumenically debatable because it alienates Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy. It seems to me that Protestants should be able to celebrate this day in spirit and truth as the reforming of the church from Gospel and moral abasement.
- Thanksgiving Day // Last Thursday in November
This holy day would be a consecration of the United States to God. This would be mostly a hold-over from our current holidays.
- The Nativity of Christ (Feast) // December 25
Commemorating the incarnation of God the Son and the birth of Christ. The feast of Christmas follows the day, emphasizing the change His birth brought.
Note: “Feast” denotes the inclusion of a week-long celebration, before or after.
Also Note: A weekly Sabbath is observed every Sunday.
What I’m arguing for in this article, through all the noise of historical information and musings, is simply a reformation of holy days. I want us to see the power of a calendar, and the significance of holy days. This seems like a conversation that needs many more voices and much more input; I’m just chiming in what I see. And, I expect that I’m coming to the conversation quite late. There are probably many resources on this topic that I don’t know about. When I do get my hands on them, I’m sure a follow-up piece will follow this one.
Appendix: Medieval Holy Days
Below is a general list of such days, with major religious feasts in bold, which would be considered holidays in Medieval Europe and before which a fast would be held. There were many more religious holy days, but these are the major ones. Observance of these days varied somewhat depending on geographic location. (Singman, 219-223)
1 The Circumcision of Christ
6 Epiphany (Twelfth day)
13 Sts. Hilary and Remigius
15 St. Maurus
16 St. Marcellus
20 Sts. Sebastian and Fabian
21 St. Agnes
22 St. Vincent
25 The Conversion of St. Paul
1 St. Bridget
2 The Purification (Candlemas)
3 St. Blase
5 St. Agatha
10 St. Scholastica
14 St. Valentine
16 St. Juliana
22 St. Peter’s Chair
24 St. Matthias the Apostle
Shrove Tuesday: The day before Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday: The Wednesday before the sixth Sunday before Easter. This day marked the beginning of Lent, a period of penitence observed by abstinence from meat.
1 St. David
2 St. Chad
7 Sts. Perpetua and Felicity
12 St. Gregory
20 St. Cuthbert
21 St. Benedict
25 The Annunciation
4 St. Ambrose
14 Sts. Tiburcius and Valerian
19 St. Alphege
23 St. George
25 St. Mark the Evangelist
26 St. Cletus
28 St. Vitalis
30 St. Erkenwald
Maundy Thursday: The Thursday before Easter.
Good Friday: The Friday before Easter.
Easter: The first Sunday after the first full moon on or after March 21; if the full moon was on a Sunday, Easter was the next Sunday. Lent ended at Easter. The days after Easter were often observed as holidays as well.
1 Sts. Phillip and James
3 The Discovery of the Cross (Holy Rood Day)
6 St. John at the Lateran Gate
19 St. Dunstan
25 St. Urban
26 St. Augustine
31 St. Petronilla
Rogation Sunday: Five weeks after Easter.
Ascension: The Thursday after Rogation Sunday.
Pentecost (Whitsun): Ten days after Ascension. There was often a holiday for several days after Pentecost.
Trinity Sunday: One week after Pentecost.
1 St. Nichomedus
11 St. Barnabas the Apostle
15 Sts. Vitus and Modestus
17 St. Botolph
18 Sts. Mark and Marcellus
19 Sts. Gervase and Protase
22 St. Alban
24 St. John the Baptist (Midsummer)
29 The Death of Peter and Paul the Apostles
30 The Commemoration of Paul the Apostle
15 St. Swithun
17 St. Kenelm
20 St. Margaret
22 St. Mary Magdalene
23 St. Apollinarius
25 Sts. James the Greater and Christopher
26 St. Anne
31 St. Germanus
1 St. Peter in Chains (“St. Peter ad Vincula” or Lammas)
5 St. Oswald of Northumbria
10 St. Lawrence
15 The Assumption of the Virgin
24 St. Bartholomew
28 St. Augustine of Hippo
29 The Beheading of St. john the Baptist
1 St. Giles
8 The Nativity of the Virgin
14 The Exaltation of the Cross
21 St. Matthew
22 St. Maurice
29 St. Michael (Michaelmas)
1 Sts. Germanus and Remmigius
2 St. Leger
9 St. Denis
14 St. Calixtus
18 St. Luke
21 The 11,000 Virgins
24 St. Magloire
25 Sts. Crispin and Crispianus
28 Sts. Simon and Jude
31 St. Quentin
1 All Saints (Hallowmas)
2 All Souls
6 St. Leonard
11 St. Martin of Tours (Martinmas)
13 St. Brice
20 St. Edmund
22 St. Cecilia
23 St. Clement
25 St. Katherine
30 St. Andrew
6 St. Nicholas
7 St. Ambrose
8 The Conception of the Virgin
13 St. Lucy
21 St. Thomas the Apostle
25 The Nativity of Christ (Christmas)
26 St. Stephen
27 St. John the Evangelist
28 The Holy Innocents (Childermas)
29 St. Thomas of Canterbury
31 St. Silvester