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Seasonal Resources: The Church Year   Tags: christmas, church_year, easter, halloween, liturgical_year, seasonal, thanksgiving, worship  

Guides to Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Halloween, and other special occasions in the Church Year.
Last Updated: Feb 19, 2014 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

The Church Year Print Page

About Seasonal Resources

This research guide recommends resources for learning about the liturgical year, "The Church Year," along with special occasions such as Christmas, Easter, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. It includes books available at Emory libraries and elsewhere, articles, and web sites.

Click on book titles to see the record in Emory's DiscoverE catalog search engine (or in WorldCat, if the book is not available at Emory). Clicking on a book cover takes you to Amazon. Article titles link to the ATLA Religion database record, including the full text when available (only for Emory affiliates). Clicking on web sites opens the site in a new window.


The Liturgical Year

The liturgical year or “Church Year” is made up of the festivals and seasons that proclaim the great events of the Christian faith. The year centers on two feasts: Easter, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ; and Christmas, which celebrates his birth. Christmas, of course, is always December 25, but the date of Easter varies from year to year, which adds some complexity to the Christian calendar.

The liturgical year in the Western Church begins four Sundays before Christmas with the season of Advent (technically, the First Sunday of Advent is always the Sunday nearest to St. Andrew’s Day, November 30). Advent, which means “coming,” celebrates the impending coming of Jesus, both in his birth (Christmas) and his second coming (or “parousia”). It is a penitential season (though not as solemn as Lent), and is usually indicated by purple or blue liturgical colors. An “Advent Wreath” often marks the progression of Sundays in Advent by the lighting of four candles, a fifth reserved for Christmas.

Christmas Day is always celebrated on December 25, and the Christmas season always continues for twelve days (as in the popular song) until the Day of Epiphany (January 6). There will be one or two Sundays in the Christmas season. The date reflects an observance of the churches of Rome in the fourth century, and while often thought to correspond to a pagan Roman feast, it may have been due to an early calculation of the date of Jesus’ crucifixion as March 25, considered to be the same as the date of his conception (count back nine months). No one knows for sure, but the date stuck, even in Orthodox churches, which originally observed Jesus’ birth on January 6. Christmas season’s color is white.

Epiphany is celebrated on January 6, and commemorates the “appearance” of Jesus to the magi; in many places, it is celebrated as “Three Kings Day.” However, it was originally connected to the baptism of Jesus, and the First Sunday of Epiphany now typically celebrates that event. The Day of Epiphany is colored white, while the season following, which will continue for four to nine Sundays, depending on the date of Easter, is green.

Lent consists of the forty days before Easter, beginning on Ash Wednesday. It always includes six Sundays. It is a highly penitential season, as it arose from the preparations of new converts for their baptism at Easter. Its color is purple. It climaxes in the solemn celebrations of Holy Week, including Maundy Thursday (celebrating the Last Supper) and Good Friday (the death of Jesus).

Easter Day celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, and is thus the most important date in the liturgical calendar. It is also the hinge on which the rest of the year swings, as it is observed on a variable date—in the Western church, always on the first Sunday after the full moon following the Spring equinox (understood as March 21, which is not necessarily the astronomical equinox). The date of Easter therefore varies between March 22 and April 25. Easter Season extends for fifty days, includes eight Sundays, and its color is white. It includes Ascension Day (the Thursday forty days after Easter). The final day in the Easter Season is Pentecost Sunday, which celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church; its color is red.

After Pentecost begins “Ordinary Time,” which lasts until the next Advent. Sundays in Ordinary Time are usually designated by numbers “after Pentecost” or “after Trinity.” The First Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday, which celebrates the Triune God; its color is white. The rest of the Sundays after Pentecost are green.

The other major component of the liturgical year consists of saint’s days and special occasions such as All Saint’s Day (November 1). Different denominations observe different saints days or none at all. Protestant churches may celebrate Reformation Day on or on the Sunday before October 31, and transfer All Saints Day to the Sunday after November 1.

Protestant churches may not observe all the occasions of the Church Year, as the Reformers had varying positions on which feasts and festivals should be celebrated. Some Protestant churches are “non-liturgical,” and omit all observances except Sunday; others observe only the principal feasts such as Christmas and Easter. “Liturgical” churches such as Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran tend to have similar liturgies for Sundays and feast days, and read the Bible from a “lectionary” of passages chosen to fit the season.

In Orthodox churches, the date of Easter is usually different, because it is calculated according to the older Julian calendar. Also, the Orthodox liturgical year begins September 1, the beginning of the tax year in the Byzantine Empire, and observes a longer Advent with a less preparatory orientation, beginning in mid-November. One Orthodox body, the Armenian Church, still observes Christmas on January 6.

See also our research guides on Christian Worship, Denominational Studies, and Preaching: Lectionary Resources.


Books on the Liturgical Year

Cover Art
The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship - ed. Paul F. Bradshaw
Call Number: REFERENCE BV173 .N49 2002
See articles on "Year, Liturgical," and individual feasts and seasons such as "Easter," "Christmas," etc.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church - ed. F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone
Call Number: REFERENCE BR95 .O8 2005
Another authoritative source for brief overview articles on the liturgical year, feasts, and seasons. Good bibliographies.

The Liturgical Year: Its History & Its Meaning After the Reform of the Liturgy - Adolf Adam
Call Number: CIRC-DESK BV30 .A313
Popular explanation of the liturgical year, based on the changes in Roman Catholic practices after Vatican II.

The Church at Prayer: An Introduction to the Liturgy - Aimé Georges Martimort
Call Number: BX1970 .E313 1987
Another good one-volume Roman Catholic introduction.

The Origins of the Liturgical Year - Thomas J. Talley
Call Number: BV30 .T35 1991
Detailed examination of the historical development of the liturgical year, by an Episcopalian.

The Liturgical Year - Adrien Nocent
Call Number: BV30 .N634 1977
Extensive four-volume work by a Roman Catholic liturgical scholar.

American Methodist Worship - Karen B. Westerfield Tucker
Call Number: BX8337 .T83 2001
Excellent scholarly examination of the development of Methodist worship practices. Touches on the liturgical year and uniquely Methodist variations.

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