Christian festivals and the beginning of the Christian year

Either from the beginning or from near the beginning Christians held some days and seasons as sacred. A few of these were taken over from the Jews, such as the observance of one day in seven for special worship and Pentecost. Several other Jewish feasts were completely disregarded, such as the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles. Because of its association with the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ, connected as they were with it, the Passover became central in the Christian calendar, although with a quite altered connotation.

Easter, the day of rejoicing, was preceded by a fast. The pre-Easter fast varied in duration. In some sections, in the second century it was for only one or two days, although in others it was prolonged to several days. In the third century the church in Alexandria fasted for the week preceding Easter. Montanists had a pre-Easter fast of two weeks. In the fourth century the forty days before Easter, Quadragesima (although it might be six weeks), became common as a period of special observance, but for many the fast was only for Holy Week, and for others possibly three weeks. We also read of Quadragesima being kept distinct from Holy Week, separating its fast from the fast of the latter. In Antioch and much of the East the addition of Holy Week to Quadragesima made a fast of seven weeks. In some places Sunday and in others Saturdays and Sundays were exempted from the Lenten fasting. The observance of the Sunday before Easter, commemorating the triumphal entry of Jesus to Jerusalem, seems to have begun at Jerusalem at least as early as the fourth century and to have spread gradually from there. Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, was observed as the anniversary of the institution of the Lord's Supper and in North Africa late in the fourth century the Eucharist was celebrated on the evening of that day, rather than in the morning, which, as we have seen, had become customary. Good Friday, quite naturally, was carefully observed, although in varying manner. The lighting of the Paschal or Easter candle became common in some sections before the end of the fifth century, and the formal blessing of the candle was fairly general as a pre-Easter custom.

By the end of the fourth century two other festivals had become widespread, the Epiphany, originating in the East, and the twenty-fifth of December, radiating from the West. The Epiphany, at first celebrated on the sixth and tenth of January, but eventually only on the former date, commemorated the birth of Jesus, the adoration of Jesus by the Wise Men, and the baptism of Jesus. Christmas, the observance of the twenty-fifth of December as the birthday of Christ, appears to have begun at Rome. The New Testament, it is scarcely necessary to say, gives no clue to the precise days of any of these events, but they were obviously of importance to Christians, and Epiphany and Christmas, although fixed conventionally, became outstanding.

The festival of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or the Purification of the Virgin, was observed in Jerusalem as early as the fourth century. That of the Holy Cross, commemorating the alleged discovery of the cross on which Jesus was suspended and the dedication of churches in Jerusalem erected by Constantine, began at Jerusalem and gradually spread. There were also feasts in honour of the apostles and others who were revered as saints, one for the Maccabees, and, at least as early as the sixth century, one for the Angel Michael. In different places various days were observed in memory of local martyrs. Some of the great episcopal sees had special periods of fasting which did not gain universal acceptance.

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