The present arrangement of the ecclesiastical year is one which has grown up and developed during the course of a long time, representing the wisdom of successive ages. It was but natural that the anniversaries of the chief events of our Lord's life, and of the day on which the Holy Ghost came down upon the Church, should be observed by the disciples. Accordingly, it is not surprising that one of the very earliest questions debated in the Church was as to the time of keeping Easter. As early as A.D. 158, Polycarp went to consult Anicetus at Rome on this question, and the controversy, which they could not settle, was brought to a close by the Council of Nicea. Similar early testimony may be found as to other festivals and solemn days. The anniversary of our Lord's death, Good Friday, must have been kept from the first. So, too, Epiphanius (Haeres. 75; AErian. 6) speaks of St. Paul as keeping the feast of Pentecost, and quotes Ac 20:16, in that connection. We find notices of the Epiphany as early as A.D. 200. Augustine observes that it, with other anniversary solemnities, was either instituted by the apostles themselves or by plenary councils.
Next after these "days which the Lord hath made," there arose the commemorations of the saints and martyrs of the Church. These are of very high antiquity. In the epistle of the Church at Smyrna to the Church at Philomelium (Eusebius, Hist. Eccles. 4:15), the Christians of Smyrna tell their brethren where Polycarp's body was entombed, and how they intended to assemble at that place and celebrate his birthday with joy and gladness. The festival of St. Peter is traced back to the 3d century, and no doubt was observed much earlier as a festival of Peter and Paul. Origen names the Commemoration of the Holy-Innocents, and Chrysostom the Festival of All Martyrs, which was kept on the octave of Pentecost. Then, in course of time; other festivals were introduced; such as the Encaenia (q.v.). Bishops were also wont to keep the anniversaries of their consecrations, and particular churches had special days of thanksgiving for great mercies and deliverances vouchsafed to them from God. Ordination was gradually limited to the Ember (q.v.) season, that thus there might be a special time of prayer and fasting on behalf of the newly ordained. Marriages were forbidden in certain parts of the year; as from Advent Sunday to Epiphany, from Septuagesima to the octave of Easter, three weeks before the feast of St. John, and from Rogation Sunday to Trinity Sunday. The special times for baptism were Epiphany, Easter, and Whitsuntide, but chiefly the latter two. During certain festal seasons kneeling at prayers was forbidden, as from Easter to Whitsuntide inclusive, as ordered by the twentieth canon of Nicema. On the Lord's day the standing posture was also adopted, in memory of our Lord's' resurrection.
Thus gradually were ordered and harmonized the seasons of the Church. Kurtz says:
In the East, the symbolical relation between the natural and the ecclesiastical year was ignored, except so far as implied in the attempt to give to the Jewish feasts a Christian adaptation. To some extent, indeed, Western ideas lid been imported in reference to the great festivals, such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, but not, in connection with the ordinary sum and feast days. At first the ecclesiastical year in the East commenced with Easter, afterwards with Quadragesima or with Epiphany, and ultimately in September, as under the old dispensation. The year was divided into four parts, according to the 'lectio continua' of the gospels, and the Sundays obtained corresponding names. The κυριακὴ πρώτη τοῦ Ματθαίου took place immediately after Pentecost. The Latin ecclesiastical year commenced in Advent, and was divided into a 'Semestre Domini' and a Semestre ecelesiae.' But the idea underlying this arrangement was only carried out in reference to the 'Semestre Domini ' Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, with the Sundays which they included, indicating the commencement, the development, and the completion of the history of redemption. In reference to the 'Semestre ecclesiae,' only the commencement of a symbolical arrangement was made. Thus the Feast. of Peter and Paul, on June 29, represented the foundation of the Church by the apostles; the Feast of Laurentius, the martyr, on August 10, the contest awaiting the 'Church militant;' and the Feast of Michael, the archangel, on September 29, the complete success of the 'Church triumphant.' That these feasts were intended to form the basis of three cycles of festivals we gather from the circumstance that the Sundays after Pentecost had been arranged as 'Dominicae post Apostolos, post Laurenti, post Angelos.' But the idea was not developed; the frequency of saints' days not only made this arrangement impossible, but rendered it even necessary to encroach on the 'Semestre Domini.' The principle of attempting to Christimaize the worship of the heathen was authoritatively sanctioned by Gregory the Great, who, in 601, instructed the Anglo-Saxon missionaries to transform the heathen temples into churches, and the pagan into saints' festivals or martyr days, 'ut durae mentes gradius vel passibus non antem saltibus eleventur.' Saints now took the places of the old gods, and the ecclesiastical was made in every respect to correspond with the natural year, only in a Christianized form." "Ecclesiastical festivals became seasons of home enjoyment; holy days were turned into holidays; the Church's children learned, in private life, to think and to speak in the Church's way.... The governors of the state fell almost unconsciously into the times and seasons of her who is not of this world; sheriffs were pricked on the morrow of St. Martin; lawyers reckoned by Hilary or Trinity term; every class was subject to the same moulding influence.... It was the same influence always and everywhere at work; sometimes beautifully, sometimes amusingly, sometimes extravagantly, but always really" (Neale, Essays, etc., page 508). SEE CALENDAR.