Ember Days

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ember days

ember days, in the Western Church, traditionally the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the first Sunday in Lent; Whitsunday; Sept. 14 (Exaltation of the Cross); and Dec. 13 (St. Lucy's Day). They were days of fasting to sanctify the season, and the ember Saturdays were considered especially appropriate for ordinations. The ember days are of very ancient and uncertain origin. The dates of their celebration are now determined by national hierarchies rather than by the universal Roman liturgical calendar, and they are frequently called “days of prayer for peace.”
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Ember Days

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: Four times a year, in March, May/June, September, and December
Where Celebrated: England, France, Germany, Spain, United States, and by Christians all over the West; not observed in the Eastern Church
Symbols and Customs: Fasting, Ordination of Priests
Related Holidays: Ash Wednesday, Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, Pentecost (Whitsunday), Rogation Days, St. Lucy's Day


Ember Days is a Christian religious festival celebrated in the Western Church. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

Ember Days didn't start out as a Christian event; instead, it was created by the early Romans. They were both pagans and farmers, and they wanted to make sure that the gods looked favorably upon them at certain crucial times of the year. They held a Feast of Sowing (Feriae Sementivae) between mid-November and the WINTER SOLSTICE , a Harvest Feast (Feriae Messis) in June or July for the grain harvest, and a Feast of Wine (Vinalia) in September before the AUTUMN EQUINOX.

When Christianity came to Rome, these pagan festivals fell out of favor, but the idea of praying for God's blessing at the beginning of the various agricultural seasons persisted. The early Christians decided to introduce their own seasonal prayer festivals, which roughly coincided with the dates of the earlier pagan festivals but involved FASTING rather than feasting. It was Pope Callistus I in the third century who first issued regulations concerning this celebration of the "Three Seasons." A fourth period of prayer, occurring in March, was added not long after, probably in the fourth century. The change seems to have been motivated by the mention of four fasting periods in the Old Testament (in the Book of Zechariah), and by the fact that the year contains four natural seasons.

By the early sixth century, the celebration of the so-called Ember Days was well established, at least in Rome. The only thing that had not been set was the exact dates. It was Pope Gregory VII who decided in 1095 that the Ember Days would be celebrated on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the weeks following the first Sunday in LENT, Whitsunday or PENTECOST, the Feast of the EXALTATION OF THE CROSS (September 14), and ST. LUCY'S DAY (December 13). The custom of setting aside these four periods of time for prayer and fasting eventually spread to other parts of Italy and from there to Spain, France, Germany, and elsewhere.

Why were they called the Ember Days? The word ember appears to have derived from the Anglo-Saxon ymbren, meaning "course" or "circuit," since the Ember Days marked the four quarters of the year and thus described the revolution of time. Ember is also an abbreviation of the German Quatember, which in turn is a corruption of the Latin Quatuor Tempora, or "Four Seasons." Another theory is that the name came from the early practice of sprinkling ashes on the head on fast days as a token of humility, and from the custom of eating only cakes baked upon embers, known as "emberbread."

The weeks in which these fast days occur are called "Ember Weeks," and the Friday in each of these four weeks is known as "Golden Friday."



Over the centuries, the Ember Days lost the festive character of the early pagan seasonal celebrations and became more somber, with an emphasis on penance and abstinence. The ancient Jewish custom of fasting two days each week, usually Monday and Thursday, was changed by the early Christians to a Wednesday and Friday fast, since Christ had been betrayed by Judas on a Wednesday and had died on the cross on Friday. Saturday was added as one of the weekly fast days in Rome during the fourth century, probably because this was the day on which the Apostles fasted and mourned while Christ rested in his tomb.

The custom of fasting three days a week, which was at one time prescribed by law, was eventually confined to the four Ember Weeks by Pope Callistus I in the third century. By the ninth century, fasting during these periods was widespread throughout Europe. In 1966 the Roman Catholic Church eliminated the obligation to fast and turned the Ember Days into a period of prayer for various needs.

Ordination of Priests

In 494 Pope Gelasius I decided that deacons and priests would receive their holy orders on the four Ember Saturdays. Because candidates for the priesthood traditionally fasted and prayed for a few days before being ordained, it made sense to schedule the ordinations at the end of the four Ember Weeks, which were already established as periods of prayer and fasting.

In recent centuries, the Ember Weeks have been emphasized as a time for special prayer on the part of those who hope to become priests. But it is still traditional for priests in both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England to be ordained on an Ember Saturday.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Crim, Keith R. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989. Dunkling, Leslie. A Dictionary of Days. New York: Facts on File, 1988. Gwynne, Rev. Walker. The Christian Year: Its Purpose and Its History. 1917. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Jobes, Gertrude. Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore, and Symbols. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1962. Weiser, Franz Xaver. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958.


New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia www.newadvent.org/cathen/05399b.htm
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Ember Days

Four times a year
The Ember Days occur four times a year, at the beginning of each of the natural seasons. Traditionally they are marked by three days of fasting and abstinence—the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following, respectively, Ash Wednesday, Pentecost (Whitsunday), Exaltation of the Cross, and St. Lucy's Day. In 1966, the Roman Catholic Church replaced them with days of prayer for various needs and withdrew the obligation to fast. The Anglican Communion still observes them. The four weeks in which these days occur are called Ember Weeks, and the Friday in each of these weeks is known as Golden Friday . The word "ember" itself derives from an Old English word referring to the revolution of time.
Some scholars believe that the Ember Days originated with the old pagan purification rites that took place at the seasons of planting, harvest, and vintage. The idea of fasting on these days was instituted by Pope Calixtus I in the third century. By the ninth century it was observed throughout Europe, but it wasn't until 1095 that the dates were fixed. In the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, since the sixth century, priests have been ordained on an Ember Saturday.
BkDays-1864, vol. II, p. 687
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 163
DictDays-1988, p. 48
DictWrldRel-1989, p. 237
OxYear-1999, p. 600
RelHolCal-2004, p. 83
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 253
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.

ember days

certain days of fasting and prayer occuring in each of the four seasons. [Christian Tradition: NCE, 862]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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