The major festivals such as Advent, Christmas and Easter were the highlights of a calendar which developed during the Middle Ages and would be familiar to many people in the Western world today.
Advent and Christmas in the Middle Ages
The feast of Advent marked the beginning of the church’s year, looking ahead to the birth of Jesus Christ. The weeks of Advent (which began on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and ended on Christmas Day) were a period of fasting when meat, cheese and eggs were forbidden.
The feast of Christmas was a twelve-day celebration which began on Christmas Day and ended at the Feast of the Epiphany, the celebration of the Three Kings. There were several major feasts during this period including those of St Stephen (26 December), The Holy Innocents (28 December) and Ephiphany (6 January).
The Medieval Feast of Candlemas
The Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, held on 2 February, was the origin of the English feast of Candlemas, a celebration of the returning of light to the world after the dark days of winter. This was a church feast in which the whole community could participate, with people bringing in their candles to be blessed for the year ahead.
The Observance of Lent and Easter in Medieval Times
The period of fasting known as Lent began forty days before Easter and was a time of abstinence and prayer in preparation for Easter, one of the highlights of the church’s calendar. Christians were supposed to abstain from a range of foods including butter, cheese and meat, and from sexual intercourse.
After the abstinence of Lent, the prayers of Holy Week culminated in the celebration of Easter Sunday, remembering the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On Easter Sunday, the church was revealed to the parishioners in all its splendours, with flowers, statues and the Paschal Candle. The Easter Mass was usually the only service of the year at which the parishioners took the Eucharist.
The feast of Easter was followed by Rogantide (when the faithful asked God’s blessing on the growing crops), Ascension Day, Pentecost (a time of religious parades) and Corpus Christi – an important festival which took place on the second Thursday after Pentecost, from the early fourteenth century onwards.