Holy Days and Celebrations
Festival occasions in the main Christian Churches are basically centred around the life of Jesus as portrayed in the gospels. The principle festivals are Christmas which is preceded by Advent, Easter which is preceded by Lent and Passion Week, and Whit Sunday or Pentecost, fifty days after Easter Sunday. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, Easter remembers the death and resurrection of Jesus, and Whit marks the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church.
Advent, which means coming, is the period including the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, and is the beginning of the Christian year. During this time Advent and Christmas Carol Services take place. The theme is God’s relationship with his son, the messenger of hope, Jesus. Nativity plays based on the theme of Jesus’ birth are performed in primary schools and churches.
Christmas is a corruption of the term Christ’s Mass and celebrates Jesus’ birth. Most churches celebrate this festival on 25th December although Eastern Orthodox Christians prefer 7th January. Many Christians attend a midnight Mass or Christmas day service, and manger scenes are placed in the church to remind worshippers of Jesus’ lowly birth. Christmas is a time for family gatherings and presents are exchanged in remembrance that God gave his son (‘a gift’) to the world. Many children are told that their presents are brought by Santa Claus, or St Nicholas, the patron saint of children.
Lent reminds Christians of Jesus’ temptations during his forty days in the wilderness. It begins on Ash Wednesday when Christians traditionally deny themselves luxuries. The day before Ash Wednesday, called Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day, was traditionally the day when a feast of pancakes used up the luxuries in the house ready for a period of abstinence. During the last week of Lent, called Passion Week, Palm Sunday, Holy (Maundy Thursday) and Good Friday are especially important days for Christian observance. Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with Palm crosses given out. Maundy Thursday remembers the institution of the Last Supper and in many churches feet are washed by the priest. Good Friday is the day upon which Jesus was crucified. Often there are long services, passion plays or processions. Easter Sunday marks the end of Lent and celebrates the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection. This is probably the most important day of the year for practicing Christians. Whit Sunday comes 50 days after Easter and marks the time when the gift of the Holy Spirit came to the believers of the early church.
Festivals are important to both individual believers and the faith community as events which mark out the religious and worshipping year. For Christians these are public occasions when the whole community of faith expresses its religious commitment. For individuals it provides an opportunity for learning more deeply about the faith and, through the nativity and Easter stories enable children to be nurtured in the central Christian texts. For many, these festivals have become extremely secularised, but they nevertheless indicate the deep hold they have over people in the United Kingdom.
Central to most Christian festivals is the sharing of worship – whether it is enacting a Nativity Play at Christmas, participating in the Lord’s Supper on Easter Sunday or sharing meditations on the Cross on Good Friday, the importance of congregational worship and ritual is paramount to the Christian faith.
Festivals are a distinctive part of all religions and through its festivals Christianity is able to plot a calendar for the religious year. Many churches have a lectionary based around the Christian year in order for the faith community to learn scripture and grow in knowledge of the faith. Festivals hold a public place in the imagination of most people, and for Christianity they bind many – participating Christians, non-active Christians, secularised post-Christians, families and individuals into a community of faith.