In traditional Christian churches, Christmas and Easter are celebrated as seasons of the church year. Rather than just being specific days, these are the seasons around which the Christian calendar is organized, and traditional Christian churches typically recognize these seasons as the two major centers of Sacred Time. The first season includes Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, and the second includes Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, concluding at Pentecost. The rest of the year following Pentecost is known as Ordinary Time, from the word "ordinal," which simply means counted time (i.e., the First Sunday after Pentecost, etc.).
Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, which is the Sunday nearest November 30, and ends on Christmas Eve. If Christmas Eve is a Sunday, it is counted as the fourth Sunday of Advent, with Christmas Eve proper beginning at sundown. Advent marks the beginning of the Season of Christmas, and it is the beginning of the Church Year for most churches in the Western tradition. The four Sundays of Advent represent the four centuries of waiting between the prophet Malachi and the birth of Christ.
January 6th is known in Christian tradition as Epiphany, and it is the Twelfth Day of Christmas that we sing about, sometimes called Twelfth Night. The origin of the Twelve Days is complicated, and is related to differences in calendars, church traditions, and ways to observe this holy day in various cultures. In the Western church, Epiphany is traditionally celebrated as the time the three Wise Men or Magi arrived to present gifts to the young Jesus.
In some places it is traditional to give Christmas gifts for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas. In Hispanic and Latin culture, Epiphany is known as Three Kings' Day, and in the Eastern churches it is known as the Theophany. Even though December 25th is celebrated as Christmas in these cultures, January 6th is the day for giving gifts. In Eastern Orthodox traditions, Christmas is actually celebrated on January 6, and Epiphany is January 19. The one or two Sundays between Christmas Day and Epiphany are sometimes called "Christmastide."
For many Protestant church traditions, the Season of Epiphany extends from January 6th until Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent leading to Easter. Depending on the timing of Easter, the Season of Epiphany includes from four to nine Sundays. Other traditions, especially the Roman Catholic tradition, observe Epiphany as a single day, with the Sundays following Epiphany counted as Ordinary Time.
Carnival, which comes from a Latin phrase meaning "removal of meat," is the three day period preceding the beginning of Lent, the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of the Lenten Season (some traditions count Carnival as the entire period of time between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday). The three days before Ash Wednesday are also known as Shrovetide ("shrove" is an Old English word meaning "to repent"). The Tuesday just before Ash Wednesday is called Shrove Tuesday, or is more popularly known by the French term Mardi Gras, meaning "Fat Tuesday," contrasting to the fasting during Lent. The entire three day period has now come to be known in many areas as Mardi Gras.
The season of Lent spans 40 weekdays beginning on Ash Wednesday and climaxing during Holy Week, the week immediately preceding Easter Sunday. Since Sundays celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the six Sundays that occur during Lent are not counted as part of the 40 days of Lent, and are referred to as the Sundays in
Lent. Ash Wednesday, the seventh Wednesday before Easter Sunday, is the first day of the season of Lent. Its name comes from the ancient practice of placing ashes on worshippers' heads or foreheads as a sign of humility before God.
Holy Week is observed in many Christian churches as a time to commemorate and enact the suffering and death of Jesus through various observances and services of worship. It begins on Palm Sunday and concludes on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday. Some church traditions have daily services during the week. However, usually only Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday are times of special observance in most churches.
Palm Sunday observes the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, marked by the crowds who were in Jerusalem for Passover waving palm branches and proclaiming Jesus as the messianic king. This Sunday is also known as "Passion Sunday" to commemorate the beginning of Holy Week and Jesus’ final agonizing journey to the cross. The English word passion
comes from a Latin word that means "to suffer," the same word from which we derive the English word patient
Thursday of Holy Week is known as "Maundy Thursday." It is remembered as the time that Jesus ate a final meal together with the men who had followed him for so long. The term maundy
comes from the Latin word mandatum
, from which we get the English word mandate
. The term is usually translated "commandment," from John's account of the events of that Thursday night.
According to the Fourth Gospel, as Jesus and the Disciples were eating their final meal together before Jesus' arrest, Jesus washed the disciples' feet to illustrate humility and the spirit of servanthood. After they had finished their meal, as they walked into the night toward Gethsemane, Jesus gave his disciples a "new" commandment:
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, you also ought to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34-35)
Friday of Holy Week has traditionally been called Good Friday. On this day, the church commemorates Jesus' arrest – by Jewish customs of counting days from sundown to sundown it was already Friday – his trial, crucifixion and suffering, death, and burial. Since services on this day are to observe Jesus' death, and since Eucharist is a celebration, there is traditionally no communion service observed on Good Friday.
Holy Saturday is the seventh day of the week, the day Jesus rested in the tomb. In the first three Gospel accounts this was the Jewish Sabbath, which provided appropriate symbolism of the seventh day rest. While some church traditions continue daily services on Saturday, there is no communion served on this day. Some traditions suspend services and Scripture readings during the day on Saturday of Holy Week, to be resumed at the Easter Vigil after sundown. While Good Friday is a traditional day of fasting, some also fast on Saturday as the climax of the season of Lent. An ancient tradition dating to the first centuries of the church calls for no food of any kind to be eaten on Holy Saturday, or for 40 hours before sunrise on Sunday.
The exact date of Easter changes every year, but it can never occur before March 22 or later than April 25, except in some Eastern Orthodox Churches that follow a variety of practices. It is always a Sunday, and it is usually the Sunday following the full moon that occurs on or after March 21st, the observed vernal equinox. However, the exact date for Easter in a particular year is determined by ecclesiastical rules that do not always comport with astronomical measurements. To wit, ecclesiastical tables do not account for the full complexity of lunar motion, and the vernal equinox has a precise astronomical definition that is determined by the actual motion of the sun, not the calendar date.
Easter starts when that date starts for your time zone. Astronomical phenomena occurs at a specific date and time all over the Earth at once. Inevitably, the date of Easter occasionally differs from a date that uses an astronomical full moon and the astronomical vernal equinox. In some cases this difference may occur in some parts of the world and not in others because two dates separated by the International Date Line are always simultaneously in progress on the Earth.
Following the Season of Easter comes the Season of Pentecost, from the Greek word for "the fiftieth." Pentecost was originally an agricultural festival from the Old Testament, called the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), celebrating and giving thanks for the "first fruits" of the early spring harvest on the fiftieth day after the beginning of Passover. In the Christian calendar, Pentecost falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter, and closes "Eastertide." In the Western Church there are special observances, e.g., a penitential vigil, and in ancient times neophytes were baptized at this time. From the white garments of these converts comes "Whitsunday," an English name for Pentecost.
While the Epiphany following the Season of Christmas focuses on the mission of God’s people to the world, the Pentecost season following Easter focuses on the church as the witness to the resurrection of Christ. According to the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples on the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Jesus, in the form of tongues of fire accompanied by the sound of a rush of wind, and gave them the power of "speaking in tongues." The Christian feast of Pentecost is an annual commemoration of this event, and it is solemnly observed as the birthday of the church and the feast of the Holy Spirit.
The Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday, and the weeks until Advent are counted from Pentecost or Trinity.
- Advent – Sunday November 28, 2004 through Friday December 24, 2004
- Christmas Day – Saturday December 25, 2004
- Epiphany – Thursday January 6, 2005
- Mardi Gras – Sunday February 6, 2005 through Tuesday February 8, 2005
- Ash Wednesday – Wednesday February 9, 2005
- Holy Week – Sunday March 20, 2005 through Saturday March 26, 2005
- Palm Sunday – Sunday March 20, 2005
- Maundy Thursday – Thursday March 24, 2005
- Good Friday – Friday March 25, 2005
- Holy Saturday – Saturday March 26, 2005
- Easter Sunday – Sunday March 27, 2005
- Pentecost – Sunday May 15, 2005
- Trinity Sunday – Sunday May 22, 2005