Christianity · History

The Ember Days, Part One

In Part One of my posts on Saint Germain of Auxerre, I mentioned and briefly digressed on something called the Ember Days. This is a phenomenon not widely known nowadays, but I suppose hardcore Catholics might still get the reference.

The Ember Days refers to a grouping of three days — Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday — that happens four times per year in the Catholic liturgical calendar. The weeks in which they fall are called (unsurprisingly) the Ember Weeks, and the Wednesday-Saturday arc is called the Embertide.

Historically, and in theory still today, the Ember Days are held to be days of fasting and abstinence. Due to their kindasorta being spread evenly around the calendar, it’s felt they originally had an agricultural connection. I’d like to explore this phenomenon in some detail, as I think that connection might run deeper than it appears on the surface.

The timing of the Ember Days, according to the Medieval Christian liturgical calendar is: after December 13 (Saint Lucia’s Day!), Ash Wednesday (which marks the end of Carnivale, and can happen anytime between February 4 and March 10, average February 22), Pentecost (some Sunday between May 10 – June 13, average May 28), and September 14.

Taking those average dates, it’s fairly consistent with an agricultural calendar. The largest gap (109 days) is between the May and September Embertides, when people would be too busy in the fields to do or need a holiday, while the shortest (71) is between the December and February Embertides, when people are cooped up indoors and a holiday and diversion is more welcome.

Of course, those explanations make more sense for a pre-Christian view of what a holiday is meant for. Celebration and feasting, rather than fasting and abstaining. Like much else, this presumes the Christians appropriated Heathen and Pagan holidays for their own devices, which the Catholic Encyclopedia itself fortunately gives as the exact motive for the establishment of these holidays:

The Romans were originally given to agriculture, and their native gods belonged to the same class. At the beginning of the time for seeding and harvesting religious ceremonies were performed to implore the help of their deities: in June for a bountiful harvest, in September for a rich vintage, and in December for the seeding; hence their feriae sementivae, feriae messis, and feri vindimiales. The Church, when converting heathen nations, has always tried to sanctify any practices which could be utilized for a good purpose. At first the Church in Rome had fasts in June, September, and December; the exact days were not fixed but were announced by the priests.

Might there be anything to suggest that is this case, other than the dates themselves being coincident with Roman agricultural holidays?

Turns out, there might well be.

Originally, there seem to have only been three Embertides; the Ash Wednesday one in the middle/end of winter wasn’t there (source). That was as of at least the early 3rd century CE, when they were ascribed to Pope Callistus. By the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I mentioned four. So what happened in between the early third and late fifth centuries? Why would the Catholic church feel the need to expand the Embertides from three to four?

The Germanic peoples invaded and toppled the western Roman Empire.

Once the Vandals, Goths, Huns, etc. had broken through the Roman frontiers and either outright conquered or culturally infiltrated the western half of the Empire, the Church had no choice but to adopt its own ways in order to better appeal to the newcoming Germanic peoples. Just as they mapped their three Embertides to the existing Roman Pagan calendar, so did the introduction of the Germanic Pagans necessitate the addition of a new holiday, to complete the set of four.

This points to the existence of a late-February/early March holiday that could or could not mark the end of some long period of merry-making (the aforementioned Carnivale). Setting aside the latter for a second, do we have any indication of a Germanic holiday in that time-frame?

Of course we do; the Dísablót, which takes place exactly then. I submit that the dominance of Germanic culture brought about the introduction of a fourth Christian holiday to map to the Germanic “agricultural” calendar. The Roman festivals of the Parentalia et al, and the Lupercalia, don’t seem to have warranted inclusion as a full-blown quarterly festival, but the introduction of a new fourth Embertide to correspond to the Germanic Dísablót points to its importance in the Germanic calendar.

The mere fact that these holidays aren’t evenly spaced, but are irregular, corresponding to these important Germanic holidays, points to their nature as having their origin in something less systematically organized than the solar-based calendar we know today, depending as it does on precise astronomical measurements of solstices and equinoxes, rather than the more irregular but organic Pagan and Heathen holidays that arose as a result of observations of local conditions.

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