The Christian year.

by K.W. Leslie, 30 November 2020

A Christian newbie once told me he found it strange how Jews and Muslims have their own calendars, but us Christians don’t.

We do, I pointed out. The western calendar, the one the entire world uses (Jews and Muslims included, as their secular calendar), is the Gregorian calendar, formalized by Gregorius 13, bishop of Rome, sovereign of the Papal States, and head of the Roman Catholic Church, from 1572 to 1585. It’s an update of the Julian calendar, proposed by Gaius Julius Caesar in 46BC (or to use the ancient Roman era, 708AUC) which is also a Christian calendar, in use by Orthodox churches who didn’t care to have Catholics update their calendar. (A number of ’em use the Revised Julian calendar, updated in 1923, which conveniently syncs up with the Greogian… till the year 2800.)

So yeah, the Christian calendar has become everybody’s default calendar. Which means it’s no longer a special religious calendar anymore, unlike the Jewish and Muslim ones.

Various people, Christians included, will insist it never was religious. The pre-Julian calendar was put together by ancient Roman pagans; the Julian calendar was simply that old pagan calendar, updated by Greek mathematicians. Note all the months named for pagan gods and dead Caesars. Even the weekdays are named for pagan gods; in Latin-speaking countries they’re named for Roman gods, in Greece for Greek gods, and for northern European countries all but Saturday are named for Norse gods. Pope Gregory adjusted the leap years a little so they’d sync up with the equinoxes, and moved New Year’s Day from 25 March to 1 January (’cause it was a little weird how 24 March 1570 was immediately followed by 25 March 1571; shouldn’t we switch months first?). Of course moving New Year’s Day means mensus September/“seventh month” became the ninth month, so that’s weird too. But the only thing overtly Christian about the Gregorian calendar is the anno Domini, the AD, marking the age: “the Lord’s year.” Which is gradually being replaced by the secular CE for “common era.”

Hence various Christians, particularly folks in liturgical churches, have created sort of a shadow calendar. It’s “the Christian year,” a variant of the Gregorian calendar which is meant to be more Christ-focused, which begins on Advent Sunday. Other churches call it the “church year,” the “liturgical year,” or the “kalendar” with a K; it’s basically their church calendar, but extra-special.

The Christian year’s structure.

Eastern Christians have their own variants of the Christian year, and often they vary widely from the western Christian year. The East Syriac Rite, fr’instance, splits the year into eight 7-week blocs, and celebrates a different theme each bloc (Jesus’s birth, epiphany, resurrection, Pentecost, transfiguration, the cross, and the second coming). Which is cool, but only they do that. I’m not writing about what individual churches do; I’m going with what most churches do, and the majority of them tend to follow western liturgical custom. Yeah, the Roman Catholics inaugurated it, but Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, formal Reform churches, national churches, and many united denominations do it too.

Liturgical churches have color-coded the Christian year, so if you go to their churches you can see what time of year it is based on how they’ve decorated the place: The banners, the priest’s robes, and the other decorations all match the holidays. If everything’s purple, it’s Advent; if red, it’s Holy Week. Green’s the default; green means it’s “ordinary time,” in which no special feasts or fasts are going on.

  • ADVENT (purple): The four weeks before Christmas.
  • CHRISTMAS (white): The twelve days of Christmas; ends at Epiphany.
  • Common time (green); however many days it is between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday (which moves around, so it’s not a fixed time).
  • LENT (purple): Namely the 40 days before Holy Week, which is also part of Lent, but Holy Week gets its own deal.
  • HOLY WEEK (red or black): The week before Easter.
  • EASTERTIDE (white): The 40 days from Easter to Pentecost.
  • PENTECOST (red): Just the one Sunday.
  • Common time (green); however many days till the next advent season.

There are also saints’ days throughout the year, reminding us of various great Christians who notably served Jesus; and for any saints which didn’t get a day there’s always All Saints Day. (Which is better known for the day before, Halloween.) Typically a saint’s day falls on the day they died, but more recent saints get honored on their birthdays, and for some saints we don’t know when they died, so any day will do.

Pagans like to accuse us Christians of swiping pagan holidays and Christianizing them. Supposedly we took the winter solstice and pasted Christmas over it; we took a day in honor of the Saxon goddess Eostre and turned it into the Christian day of Easter; we swapped every god’s festival with a saint’s day.

It’s part true, and part not.

Swiping is actually part of the history of religion. Whenever a new religion became dominant in a culture, the new religion typically took over anything of the old religion. Like their temples, cultural events, and sometimes even their gods; the Greeks and Romans particularly did that. It’s why Baalists tried to worship their gods in the LORD’s sacred sites; even the temple itself. Or why Romans later built pagan shrines over Jewish and Christian sites to antagonize Jews and Christians. It’s also why the Dome of the Rock is located precisely where the Hebrew temple once stood; why the Christian church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is now a mosque; why old mosques in Spain and Russia were likewise turned into churches. In the middle ages, missionaries would regularly put up churches where pagan temples once stood.

But as every educated Christian knows, Christians swiped Jewish holidays. Not pagan ones. Easter is the Christian Passover. (Non-English-speaking countries still call it Pascha, after the Hebrew word for Passover, פֶּ֥סַח/Pesákh. We even borrowed the eggs from Passover.) Pentecost used to be שָׁבֻעֹת֙/Shavuót, the feast of Weeks.

But the rest of the holidays? Christian inventions. We didn’t steal the winter solstice and make it Christmas: We created the feast of Epiphany in January, then worked it backwards 12 days and made those days Christmas, then worked it backwards four weeks and invented the advent season. And as Christianity grew and pagan religions receded, the locals transferred their customs to the new holidays: Yule logs, mistletoe, and decorated trees aren’t Christian inventions, but what’s wrong with doing those things for Jesus? Their pagan purposes and origins have been forgotten; the only people who try to dig ’em back up are dark Christians or jealous pagans.

Christianizing time itself.

Every so often I’ll read articles by liturgical Christians who are so happy they observe the Christian year. Because before they had a detailed church calendar like this one, they just weren’t feeling like the seasons and holidays reflected Jesus enough. Now they do.

Which is cool. That’s the point. Much like the LORD originally did with the Hebrew calendar, the times, seasons, and holidays weren’t just family times centered on big meals and barbecues. They were rituals to remind everybody of their formal relationship with God. The purpose of the Christian year is to do likewise: Remember what Jesus did for us in the past, acknowledge what he’s doing for us now, and meditate on what he’s gonna do for us in future. Advent, fr’instance, isn’t just about Jesus’s first coming, but his second. Easter isn’t just about Jesus’s resurrection; it’s about how someday we will be resurrected same as he was.

Focusing on the Christian year immerses us in “Christian time,” and reminds us on a regular basis of our relationship to God through Christ. Is it a time for fasting or feasting, and why? How ought our relationships with others change because of what Jesus has done, and will do, in our lives?

Some Christians love how the Christian year connects all of us Christians with one another—that regardless of where we live or what our culture is like, Christians the world over are contemplating Jesus in the same way because we share the Christian calendar. Other Christians just love the orderliness and regularity.

Some Christians overdo it, of course. They turn holidays into mandatory functions and fasts into mandatory observances. It’s why I should point out Christian holidays aren’t in the bible. (Nope, not even Easter; the KJV’s one instance of it Ac 12.4 KJV is a mistranslation. Supposed to be “Passover.”) Nowhere does God command we observe our holidays; they’re entirely manmade human customs. They’re optional. A good option, but don’t go turning ’em into commands!

And of course there are Christians who take the other extreme, and want nothing to do with it. They wanna celebrate sacred days, but entire on their terms, where they set what to observe and when. Like the anniversary of their church’s founding, and their annual functions—the potluck, the cleanup day, the rummage sale, the Baptism Sunday and Communion Sunday and so forth. Anything beyond these days, they have no emotional connection to—and don’t want one, and will complain about the dead religion of it all.

Of course it can become dead religion; it has for lots of people. But the reason Christians keep rediscovering the Christian year and practicing it, is because they want to dedicate every day of the year to God. This is one useful and practical way of doing so.