Early Modern Holiday Calendar

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Dutch Proverbs, 1559

I created this calendar to help my students make connections between Church and Folk/Pagan traditions, feast days, and holidays, particularly for literature like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare’s plays. I’ve used a variety of sources (listed at the end); any errors are my own.

DateEcclesiastical RitualsPagan and Folk Traditions
November 1All Hallows, All SaintsSamhain (pagan new year) — the gates of the otherworld open, allowing communion with ancestors and their wisdom.
November 2All Souls — the church feast of the departedChildren beg for “soul-cakes” in villages and mumming or “souling” dances are performed with the hobby-horse, a symbol of the Cailleach, the earth Mother who governs death and rebirth
November 11Martinmas — the feast of St. MartinTraditional day for slaughtering livestock for winter storage; one of the four “term” days for schools and law courts.
late NovemberAdvent (year begins; four weeks before Christmas; color: purple) — penance and preparation for Christmas 
Nov. 30St. Andrew — patron of Scotland 
Dec. 6Feast of St. Nicholas, patron saint of children and thieves — on this day, the election of the Boy Bishop took place, who reigned until Holy Innocents or Childermas Day (Dec. 28) 
Dec. 13St. Lucy’s DayIn the old calendar*, the shortest day and longest night of the year.
Dec. 17-23 The Roman Saturnalia festival honored the Solstice by celebrating the home, friendship, gift-giving, and masked dancing.  In Rome, masters and servants ate together, and the spirit of Misrule was welcomed.  Both Saturn (god of Planting and Time) and Ops (goddess of Plenty) have their feasts in this period.
Dec. 21 Astronomical Winter Solstice — feasts with candles and bonfires call back the light of the sun, which is at its lowest point this day, creating the longest night in the year.
Dec. 24Christmas EveGreens are put up around the house, especially holly and mistletoe, sacred to the Druids. Bells are rung, the Yule log is burned — Mummers dance in great halls, enacting the story of St. George and the Dragon by dancing with swords.  Mock-beheadings represent the cycle of death and rebirth.
Dec. 25Christmas (birth of Christ; birth of Christ; moved to Dec. 25 in 336 A.D. to take advantage of the Roman festival of Saturnalia; color: white)It was believed that the rooster crowed all night, beginning at midnight, preventing any evil spirits from walking the earth.  After mass at midnight, the Lord of Misrule holds court for the 12 days of Christmas revels  until Jan. 6 (Epiphany).
Dec. 26St. Stephen, the Proto- (first) martyrBoxing Day — the day in England for gifts to servants and service workers, and also the day on which the rich were obligated to feed the poor. also the day for the Hunting of the Wren, the King of Birds (called so by the Druids for his wisdom).
Dec. 27St. John the Apostle 
Dec. 28Holy Innocents or Childermas— Herod has all the children in Israel slaughtered in attempt to kill Christ 
Dec. 31New Year’s EveHogmanay in Scotland — ritual eating and drinking and the ceremony of “first-footing” — it was believed that if the first person to enter and bless a house after midnight was a handsome young dark-haired man, good luck would come the rest of the year.
Jan. 1Circumcision (of infant Jesus), New Year’s Day 
Jan. 6Epiphany (12 days after Christmas, hence “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a season of gift-giving in honor of the Wise Men or Magi, who visited Jesus 12 days after his birth; symbolically, the “epiphany” or “appearance” “manifestation” of Jesus to the Gentiles)The eve of Epiphany (Jan. 5) marks the last of the Christmas feasts and the exchange of New-Year’s gifts in memory of the gifts of the Three Wise Men.  In the English court, masques were often held on this night. 
Jan. 13St. HilaryThe beginning of Hilary Term runs from Jan. 11 to the Wednesday before Easter.  This is one of the four “terms” for schools and law courts.
Jan. 20St. Agnes’ EveYoung maids, by observing certain rituals before retiring on this night, ensure that (if they take care to sleep on their backs) they will dream of their future husbands.
Jan. 25Conversion of St. PaulThe weather on this day was believed to predict the coming year: if fair, then the year would be prosperous; if snowy or rainy, an unfruitful year; if cloudy, a hard year for cattle; and if windy, it prophesied war. 
Feb. 1 Imbolc — the Irish Goddess Brighid brings light and art to the people, along with the first intimations of spring — candles are lit.
Feb. 2Candlemas — the feast of the purification of Mary (after the birth of Christ) — blessing of candlesAll greenery from Christmas/Solstice celebrations is taken down. The weather on this day (sunny or rainy) is thought to predict the length of the remaining winter (the American Groundhog Day is related to this tradition).
mid-late February (movable)Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent starts—celebrations, and in England, traditionally pancakes for dinner, followed by  Ash Wednesday, first day of LentShrove Tuesday is also Apprentice’s Day in London, when the boys in work and in school have a holiday.
mid-February – late March (movable)Lent (40 days before Easter; a period of penance; memorializes Christ’s 40 days wandering in the wilderness, at the end of which time Satan appeared to tempt him; this event in Christ’s life in turn symbolized by the 40 years the Israelites wander in the wilderness before God brings them to Israel, a penance for having worshipped false gods after God brought them out of Egypt) color: black and purple 
Feb. 14St. Valentine’s DayLetters and presents are exchanged by young and old alike.  Tradition also has it that birds chose their mates on this day.
Mar. 1Feast of St. David, patron of Wales 
mid-March (movable) Third Sunday of LentMid-Lent or Mothering Sunday — the Sunday on which young men and women in service were allowed to go home to visit their mothers. Gifts of sweets or cake were traditional, as was a sweetened, spiced oatmeal dish called frumenty — the original comfort food. 
Mar. 17St. Patrick’s Day, the patron of IrelandPeople of Irish descent wear the shamrock and the color green.
March 21 Astronomical Spring Equinox — the strengthening sun is welcomed with songs and chanting.
March 25Annunciation (Lady Day) — The calendar year during the Middle Ages (and down to 1752) began on March 25, Ladyday, the date of the Annunciation (by Archangel Gabriel) to Mary that she would bear Christ. 
April 1Pope Julian moves the New Year from this day to Jan. 1, confusing many for years to come.All Fools’ Day — practical jokes are played on the unsuspecting.
late March-early April (movable)Palm Sunday (Sunday before Easter; memorializes Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, riding on an ass, greeted as though in triumph by the people, who spread palm branches in his path)Although Henry VIII abolished the traditional decoration of homes with palms on this day, young people would still surreptitiously go “a-palming” and find slips of willow in the woods to wear in their hats and on their clothes.
(movable)Maundy Thursday (memorial of Last Supper, held on Passover Thursday before Crucifixion)Baskets of food or maunds are distributed to the poor; the nobility perform ceremonies in which they also wash the feet of the poor.
(movable)Good Friday (Crucifixion of Christ)Monarchs bless rings which are distributed as cures for the cramp.  Crumbs kept from bread baked on this day were thought to cure many ailments, including diarrhea.  Hot-cross buns are sold and eaten.
(movable)Easter (color: white; Christ rises from the dead)This holiday may be named for the pagan goddess of fertility, Aestre; symbols of new life such as eggs are exchanged.  Children in Ireland try to catch the sun’s light in bowls of water placed on the floor.
(moveable) Hock-Tide or Hock-Tuesday occurs two weeks after Easter; women would go out and tie themselves to men on the street, demanding a “hock” or payment of money to be released.
April 23Feast of St. George — patron of England;  The legends concerning his conquest of the Dragon  (symbol of Satan) make him an analogue to Christ.Bonfires and St. George-plays celebrate this day; Shakespeare’s birthday has been assigned to this day as well.
April 25Feast of St. MarkOn the eve of this day, it was believed that those who watched from the church porch from 11pm to 1am would see the shades of those who would be buried there in the coming year.
April 30 Bonfires are kindled on the eve of Beltane; the people and domestic animals of the village processed between two of these fires to purify them from winter diseases and ensure a healthy coming year.  The fires were brought into households and used to kindle the hearths.
May 1 Beltane (May Day) celebrates the coming of summer, and is also a fertility festival — unmarried young people traditionally pair off and go into the woods and fields to court.  Girls were encouraged to “receive a green-gown” — the grass-stains on skirts that were proof of amorous activity.   Garlands of flowers are also collected on these outings to decorate people and houses.  The fairest boy and girl of the village are crowned May King and Queen; feasting and dances around the May Pole are common.  Other traditions include dancing around the Jack-in-the-green, a man dressed in an elaborate framework of greenery and flowers, referring to the Green Man — the ancient symbol of fertility — of pagan belief.
mid-late MayAscension (Christ rises to Heaven, in sight of his disciples; 40 days after Easter, symmetrical with 40 days of Lent before Easter) 
late May – June (movable)Whitsunday or Pentecost (color: red; flames of fire appear over the heads of the Apostles while they are preaching, and they speak spontaneously in tongues-i.e., everything they say is miraculously understood by whoever hears it in his own language) — 10 days after AscensionThe Whitsun-ale or festival featured the Morris Dancers — men wearing ribbons and bells who performed dances with staves and sometimes swords.  Such performances often took place in the local lord’s hall.  Robin-Hood games and dances are also traditional, as well as dances featuring the hobby-horse, a fertility symbol.
late MayTrinity Sunday — feast of the mystery of the Holy Trinity (color: green)Trinity Term, one of the four “term” days for schools and law courts, begins in early June and ends July 31. 
late May – mid-JunFeast of Corpus Christi (Thursday after Trinity Sunday)The Corpus Christi play cycle dramatized the whole of the Old and New Testaments over three days.  These plays were performed by craft guilds and combined sacred re-enaction with secular comedy.
June 11St. Barnaby’s DayIn the old calendar*, the shortest night and longest day of the year.
June 20 Midsummer’s Eve — young girls gather yarrow to place under their pillows and dream of their future husbands.  Bonfires are lit and folk jump over them to purify themselves of illness and to ensure fertility.
June 21 Astronomical Summer Solstice (Midsummer) — people collect branches and flowers from the wood and fields to deck their houses. 
June 24St. John the Baptist 
July 15St. Swithin’s DayIf it rains on this day, 40 days of wet weather will ensue.  If it is fair, the next 40 days will be fair.
July 25Feast of St. James, patron of Spain and of pilgrims, whose symbol is the shellShells are collected in memory of this saint; eating oysters on this day is supposed to guarantee wealth all year. 
August 1 Lughnasadh begins, the season of harvest presided over by the sun-god Lugh.  Marriages are often performed at this time of year, in homage to the marriage of the land and its people.  A bull was often sacrificed by pagan peoples.
August 24St. BartholomewThe great St. Bartholomew’s Fair in London was the occasion for feasting and street entertainment.
September 22 Astronomical Autumnal Equinox — the feast of Ingathering or Harvest-Home is held around this time.  Huge outdoor suppers are held for the field laborers.  The last grain from the field was brought in on the Hock-Cart, which also carried the figure of a person made of wheat sheaves – either the goddess Ceres or “John Barleycorn,” whose death was celebrated in song.  Local people entertain with morris-dances and songs, and ask the attending gentlefolk for “Largess” or gifts of money.
September 29Feast of St. Michael and All AngelsThe beginning of “Michaelmas Term,” one of the four traditional periods of activity for the courts of law, and also of schools.
October 25Sts. Crispin and CrispinianCelebrations of England’s victory at Agincourt and also of shoemakers and their craft occur on this day.  
October 31Halloween, i.e., Eve of All Hallows or All SaintsThe Morrigan or Sheela-na-Gig is the Celtic Triple Goddess whose aspects are destruction, fertility, and rebirth.  She is associated with battlefields but also with the preparation of the land for its winter sleep.  Halloween is celebrated with both harvest- and death-related images.  Nuts and apples are traditional foods.  The tradition of disguising comes from the belief that malevolent spirits could be tricked if they couldn’t recognize their prey; jack-o-lanterns are made from hollowed gourds to provide light to scare away evil spirits.  Begging for treats by children is probably related to the tradition of begging for soul-cakes (see Nov. 2).  The door between the worlds is open on this night, which makes it New Year’s Eve in the pagan world.

* The “old calendar” or “Old Style” as it’s called, refers to the change from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar.  Pope Gregory modified the calendar in 1582 by ten days to adjust for a previously-too-long Leap Day; however, this style of dating was not adopted officially in England until 1752.  By that time, the difference amounted to 11 days, so in 1752, September 2 was immediately followed by September 14.  Scholars who need precise dating for events during the Renaissance period must take this gap into account
The English Year, Roy Strong and Julia Orman (Selecta Books, 1992).
The Celtic Book of Days, Caitlin Matthews (Destiny Books, 1995).
The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 5th Edition, ed. Margaret Drabble (Oxford UP, 1985).
A valuable resource, R. Chambers’ 1869 The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities, is now online and fully searchable.
My article on “Shakespeare’s Folklore and the English Holiday Cycle,” originally appearing in Realms of Fantasy Magazine (August 2003), is now reprinted on the Endicott Studio’s online Journal of Mythic Arts
You might also be interested in my article, “Carnivale on Shakespeare’s Stage,” which also talks about the early church’s festive calendar and its reflection in Shakespeare’s plays. It appears on the webzine Mythic Passages (February 2007), the monthly newsletter of the Mythic Imagination Institute.

© Kristen McDermott, 2020. Please do not reproduce without permission.