Von Trapp Follow-Along: Maria writes one paragraph about this under “EMBER DAYS” toward the end of her book. She describes it as thoroughly Catholic, a day on which the parents explain to their kids the sacraments, the Catholic priesthood and pope, and even have the children participate in priestly ordination ceremonies that take place on these days.
There are four Ember Weeks roughly equidistant from each other throughout the year. This will be the first Ember Week for this year, or the second for the liturgical year (recall that the liturgical year starts in November). They roughly coincide with the four seasons, and so can be seen as periods of prayer and fasting for each season.
WHEN IS IT?
The Ember Weeks occur (Winter) between the third and fourth Sundays of Advent, (Spring) between the first and second Sundays of Lent, (Summer) between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, and (Autumn) starting the Sunday after Holy Cross Day. Advent moves no more than a week, ranging from 27 November to 3 December, and Holy Cross Day is an immoveable feast, always occurring on 14 September, so the Winter and Autumn Ember Weeks don’t move around much. However, because the “Spring” and Summer Ember Weeks are indirectly connected to Easter, they move quite a bit. The Summer Ember Week still occurs in the summer regardless of the date of Easter, but the “Spring” Ember Week may actually occur in winter. In fact, that is the case this year, where the “Spring” Ember Week occurs at the end of February.
The only Ember Days of any Ember Week are Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. For the year 2015, the “Spring” Ember Week is 22 February to 1 March (Ember Days are 25, 27, and 28 February), the “Summer” Ember Week is 24 May to 31 May (Ember Days are 27, 29, and 30 May), the “Autumn” Ember Week is 20 to 27 September (Ember Days are 23, 25, and 26 September), and the “Winter” Ember Week is 20-27 December (Ember Days are 23, 25, and 26 December).
Some Protestant and small Catholic churches observe Ember Weeks at different times of the year and some Protestant churches don’t observe them at all.
The term “Ember” either comes from Anglo-Saxon ymbren, meaning a circuit or revolution, referring to the cycle of the year, or from Latin quatuor tempora, meaning “four times” (per year). Ember Weeks have been observed since possibly the early 200s AD or even since the time of the Apostles in the first century. Initially, there were only three Ember Weeks (in June, September, and December), but by the mid-300s AD to late-400s AD, a fourth had been added. Because of the early date of their adoption, the idea that they were based on pagan practices is uneducated at best, though they may have changed over time to add pagan practices to an already-existing Christian practice. (See Footnote 1.) In modern Christian practice, Ember Days are considered major ferias (a “feria” is a weekday that has special meaning, like Ash Wednesday), which means they must have at least a commemoration, even on the highest feasts. However, they don’t necessarily have to be observed if they occur on the same day as a feast. In other words, the fasting of an Ember Day is not necessarily observed when it falls on a major feast such as Christmas—as it will this year.
By the mid-400s AD, they were called the jejunium vernum (Spring), aestivum (Summer), autumnale (Autumn), and hiemale (Winter) so that these periods of abstinence would apply to all four seasons. Although it’s not certain when or why the fourth was added, it has been proposed that the three original fasts preparatory to the three great festivals of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost required the addition of a fourth purely for the sake of symmetry—or, as Pope Leo put it, so that it would touch every season of the year. However, I find fault with this idea because these fasts are allegedly prior to Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas, but the first observance (June) could never be prior to Easter and probably never prior to Pentecost, while the second observance (September) is not calendrically related to anything. Nevertheless, the practice of fasting four times a year is also an Old Testament practice, as outlined in Zachariah 8:19. The fast days occur on Wednesday (the day Jesus was betrayed), Friday (the day He was crucified), and Saturday (the day He was entombed). (In reality, He was buried Wednesday and resurrected Saturday; see Footnote 2.) Saturdays on Ember Weeks (except the in the Summer Ember Week) are also reserved for reading the story of God’s rescue of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace (Daniel 3).
The observance of Ember Weeks spread gradually and sporadically through the Western Church. It seems to have been adopted in Britain by late-500s AD, in Gaul (France) by the 700s AD, in Spain by the 1000s AD, and in Milan in the 1500s AD. However, it did not spread much if at all in the Eastern Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church has never observed Ember Days.
Once upon a time, the Ember Weeks were set to specific dates, such as the first week of March, but that changed in 1095 to something closer to what we have now, and changed again several more times throughout the centuries. When Pope Urban II made the changes in 1095, the changes came with a mnemonic to remember the dates: “Fasting dates and Emberings be / Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie.” This referred to the first Sunday of Lent, Pentecost (a.k.a. Whitsunday, hence “Whitsun”), Holy Cross Day on 14 September (“Holyrood”), and the Feast of St. Lucy on 13 December (“Lucie”). More modern (but non-rhyming) mnemonics are “Holy Cross, Lucy, Ash Wednesday, Pentecost, / are when the quarter holidays follow.” and “Lucy, Ashes, Dove, and Cross.”
Ember Days were reserved for fasting, prayer, “to thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy.” (Reference.) This references Genesis 1:28-30, where God gives Adam and Eve the task of caring for the earth, and Psalm 8. Because these days focus on nature, they were traditional dates for women to pray for children or for safe deliveries. The weather on each of these dates were also considered to predict the weather of an entire month. The “fasting” referenced above involved eating one full meal plus two partial, meatless meals per day on Ember Days (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday) of the Ember Week. Christians were also encouraged but not required to observe the sacrament of penance (i.e., go to Confession) on these days as well. These days also came to be thought of as fortuitous days for ordination of the priests by the late 400s AD. In 1085, it was established as a law of the Catholic Church that ordination could only occur on these days.
The Spring Ember Week, which occurs during Lent, purposes to remind us to cast off vices so that “the boughs and herbs of virtues may grow in us” as plants grow in the spring. Since spring also symbolizes infancy, this Ember Week reminds us to be innocent as infants. The Summer Ember Week, which occurs after Pentecost (when we commemorate the gift of the Holy Spirit given to Christians), reminds us to be fervent and inflamed with the love of the Holy Spirit. Because summer also symbolizes youth, this Ember Week reminds us “to be young by virtue and constancy.” The Autumn Ember Week reminds us to “render to God the fruits of good works” in the same way that farmers harvest the fruits of their labors in autumn. Because autumn also symbolizes maturity and virtue, this Ember Week reminds us to “be ripe by attemperance.” Finally, the Winter Ember Week reminds us to die to the world in the same way that plants die in winter. Because winter also symbolizes old age, this Ember Week reminds us to “be ancient and old by prudence and honest life.” (From Reference.)
There are a few traditional activities potentially dating as far back as the time of the apostles in the first century AD, but most are much more recent in origin.
- (Traditional) Readings. The readings generally differ according to the season in which the Ember Week occurs.
- Winter (Advent) Ember Week: General (Psalm 147:12, 16-17), Wednesday (Luke 1:26-28), Friday (Luke 1:37-47), and Saturday (Luke 3:1-6).
- Spring (Lenten) Ember Week: General (Isaiah 61:11), Wednesday (Matthew 12:38-50), Friday (John 5:1-5), and Saturday (Matthew 17:1-9).
- Summer (Whit) Ember Week: General (Proverbs 6:6-8), Wednesday (John 6:44-52), Friday (Luke 5:17-26), and Saturday (Luke 4:38-44).
- Autumn (Michaelmas) Ember Week: General (Psalm 144:15-16), Wednesday (Matthew 9:16-28), Friday (Luke 7:36-50), and Saturday (Luke 13:6-17).
- Décor, Science, and Artwork. For yourself, your kids, or your church small group, decorate or dress, research science (for kids, try visiting the library for kids’ science books such as NatGeo Kids books and magazines; consider both seasonal and astronomical changes that occur this time of year), and/or do artwork relative to the symbolism of each Ember Week.
- Winter Ember Week: Wet and cold weather, golden years of old age, humour of phlegm, phlegmatic temperament, element of water. Some ideas can be found here.
- Spring Ember Week: Wet and hot weather, childhood, humour of blood, sanguine temperament, element of air. Some ideas can be found here.
- Summer Ember Week: Dry and hot weather, youth, humor of yellow bile, choleric temperament, and element of fire. Some ideas can be found here.
- Autumn Ember Week: Dry and cold weather, maturity, humour of black bile, melancholic temperament, and element of earth. Some ideas can be found here.
- Observe the Weather. Like Groundhog Day, the Ember Days are supposed to predict future weather. We all know Groundhog Day is not at all reliable as a predictor of weather, but it’s still fun to note what the groundhog did and what the weather is supposed to be like. For fun, you can treat the Ember Days the same way. The weather conditions of each day of the Ember Week is supposed to foretell the weather for the coming three months.
- Winter Ember Week: Wednesday predicts January, Friday predicts February, and Saturday predicts March.
- Spring Ember Week: Wednesday predicts April, Friday predicts May, and Saturday predicts June.
- Summer Ember Week: Wednesday predicts July, Friday predicts August, and Saturday predicts September.
- Autumn Ember Week: Wednesday predicts October, Friday predicts November, and Saturday predicts December.
- (Traditional) Prayer. Generally, the prayer focuses on thankfulness for the gifts of nature—kind of like a quarterly Thanksgiving. Pray to thank God for His gifts, that He would teach you to use His gifts in moderation, and that He would show you how to share the gifts He gave you with those in need. Some specific prayers can be found here.
KNIT AND CROCHET ACTIVITIES
Because each Ember Week is associated with an element, I thought that would be the best way to represent the Ember Weeks.
- Knitting Patterns:
- Winter (Water): Can you recommend a 3D water droplet pattern suitable as an ornament?
- Spring (Air): Can you recommend a 3D swirl pattern suitable as an ornament?
- Summer (Fire): “Blue Flame Special” by Elisha Sanders (here) or “Hermione’s Crafty Fire” by Natalie Scrimshire (here).
- Autumn (Earth): “Knitted Sphere Tutorial” by Katherine Challis (here). (Note: in brown yarn, knit a simple sphere.)
- Crochet Patterns:
- Winter (Water): “Wendy the Water Drop” by Smeddley (here) or “Amigurumi pattern water spirit free pattern” by The Sun and the Turtle (here).
- Spring (Air): “Swirl” by Victoria Belvet (here). (Note: the simplest air element symbols are simply one swirl alone or three swirls connected to each other. Make the one you prefer.)
- Summer (Fire): Can you recommend a 3D flame or fire pattern suitable as an ornament?
- Autumn (Earth): “How to Crochet a Sphere” by Rachel Choi (here). (Note: in brown yarn, knit a simple sphere.)
Footnote 1: Pagan Origins. Some say that because there are four Ember Weeks dedicated to prayer and fasting spaced relatively evenly—close to three months apart—throughout the year, the early Christians must have stolen the commemoration from pagan festivals that occurred on three-month intervals. However, Ember Weeks (of which there were originally only three, not four) date back to at least 150 years before Christianity became legal, and prior to legality, Christians were notorious for rejecting anything and everything even slightly pagan (in fact, they originally refused to commemorate Jesus’ birth because, as was stated in 1st and 2nd century Christian writings, birthday celebrations were a distinctly pagan practice) to the point that the Apostle Paul had to dedicate a significant part of a letter to one of the early churches explaining that eating foods that had been “blessed” by pagan gods was not sinful, but that if it offended others, they should abstain (see I Corinthians 8, 11:27-33). Therefore, the idea that Ember Weeks are coopted pagan holidays is at best an uneducated opinion.
However, it should be noted that the Church did coopt other pagan holidays and pagan practices after Christianity became legal. This may initially have had partly to do with the fact that Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity made the religion both popular and politically expedient, and so many people probably “converted” in name but not in heart or in practice and brought with them both their pagan beliefs and their indifference to Christian theology. Although Constantine enforced Christian doctrine and punished heresy, it’s possible that any pagans remaining in the Church made their pagan practices public after his death in 337 AD. They would have seen nothing wrong with this since the Roman religion was largely adopted from the Greek religion. However, there is at least one letter dating to the Middle Ages written from one priest to another wherein the author encourages the recipient to turn pagan temples into Christian churches rather than destroying them and to adapt pagan celebrations into “Christian” celebrations rather than forbidding them. So we know that pagan practices entered the church in “Christianized” form at least by the Middle Ages but probably as early as Constantine’s death. However, they most certainly did not enter the church before Constantine’s conversion and favoring of Christians in 312-314 AD and almost definitely did not enter the Church before Constantine’s death in 337 AD, so any observance that was in place by then would not have been based on pagan holidays, even if they later added practices similar to pagan practices to those observances. See my post on Co-Opted Christian Holidays for more information.
Christian observances with pagan or possibly-pagan elements were not necessarily based on pagan practices. (In fact, in some cases, they were based on much older Jewish practices.) Some Christian observances dating to post-Constantine may have been based on pagan events, whereas other Christian observances were based on Jewish practices, Christian practices, or Jewish or Christian events. Some elements of these events may have been adopted from pagan practices, but many were not. In the case of Ember Weeks, because of the early date at which they came into being, it’s more likely that they were uniquely Christian practices that happened to be similar to other Jewish and pagan three-month-interval practices than that they were adopted from a pagan practice.
Footnote 2. Friday death, Saturday entombment, and Sunday resurrection. For reasons I will explain in detail in a series of posts on the topic coming in late February and early March, we know quite definitively that Jesus actually died on a Wednesday afternoon, was buried Wednesday late afternoon just before sunset, and resurrected on Saturday either right before or right after sunset. Therefore, the Ember Week days (Friday for His death and Saturday for His burial) should be seen entirely as symbolic, not as historically accurate. The same is true for Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. I will share the link to those posts here when they are published. Stay tuned.