Religious Festivals and Holy Holidays

It may surprise even devout Christians to learn that there are more than a dozen holy days of obligation in the Catholic Church. It is not Easter and Christmas that command the attention of the faithful; there are holy days in every season of the calendar.

  • Christmas Day: Christmas is the feast of the nativity of Jesus, celebrated in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches on December 25. The observance of Christmas did not become widespread until the fourth century. The date was likely chosen for its proximity to the Epiphany, which in the East originally included a commemoration of the nativity.

  • Epiphany: The word “epiphany” refers to a sudden understanding of something, usually of divine power. It is a prime Christian feast celebrated on January 6, also called Twelfth Day or Little Christmas.

  • Ash Wednesday: Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a period of preparation for Easter. On this day, ashes are placed on the foreheads of the faithful to remind them of death, the sorrow they should feel for their sins, and the necessity of changing their lives.

  • Palm Sunday: Palm Sunday in the Christian calendar is the Sunday before Easter and the first day of the holy week. The palms recall the time of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, riding upon an ass, when his followers shouted, “Hosanna” and scattered palms in his path.

  • Easter: Easter is the chief Christian feast, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion. In the West, Easter is celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The Orthodox Eastern Church calculates Easter differently; thus, the Orthodox Easter comes several weeks after that of the West.

  • Ascension Day: The Ascension signifies the departure of Jesus from the earth as related in the Gospels according to Mark (16) and Luke (24) and in Acts (1.1–11). The commemoration of Ascension Thursday, forty days after Easter, is one of the principal feasts in most Christian churches.

  • Pentecost: Pentecost is a commemoration of an event that happened fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus (the word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek meaning “fiftieth”). The Holy Spirit, according to the Acts of the Apostles, descended on the disciples in the form of tongues of fire, accompanied by the sound of a rush of wind, and gave them the power of speaking in such a way that people of different languages could understand them. Pentecost is observed as the birthday of the church and the feast of the Holy Spirit.

  • Assumption of the Virgin Mary: The Assumption is one of the principal feasts honoring Mary. It celebrates the Christian belief that, at the end of her life, Mary was physically taken into heaven.

  • All Saints' Day: All Saints' Day is a feast day — celebrated on November 1 in the West — of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches to honor all saints, known and unknown. In medieval England, the festival was known as All Hallows', hence the name Halloween (meaning “All Hallows' eve”) for the preceding evening.

  • All Souls' Day: On All Souls' Day, a feast of the Roman Catholic Church celebrated November 2, the church on earth prays for the souls of the departed faithful still suffering in purgatory.

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