Overview of the Christian Year
Here is an attempt to provide an overview of the Christian Year in case you are not familiar with it. Before I do this, however, I should say that there is not one, universally recognized version of the Christian year. In fact, you will find variation in timing and practices, sometimes even within one denomination or tradition. For example, many Presbyterian churches use purple as a primary Advent color, while other Presbyterian churches use royal blue, and other Presbyterian churches decorate their worship spaces with secular Christmas colors of red and green without paying much attention to Advent. None of these choices is necessarily wrong or right, though, as you may guess. Color schemes are clearly secondary in importance.
All versions of the Christian year, to my knowledge, recognize Christmas and Easter as the twin hubs around which rotate a wide variety of feasts, fasts, and seasons of the year. However, even the specific dates for Christmas and Easter vary among different Christian traditions. Therefore, the Christian year I am going to describe is a version of the Western tradition, which you will find in many Protestant denominations, as well as the Roman Catholic Church.
Here, in summary form, are the basic days and seasons of the church year, along with some of the main themes:
When: Begins four Sundays prior to Christmas. Includes all days until Christmas (or Christmas Eve). Length varies according to date of first Sunday. The beginning of the Christian year.
Themes: Waiting; Expectation; Hope; Yearning; Our need for a Savior. A minor theme of joy. Christians remember the Jewish yearning for the “advent” (from Latin for “coming” or “visit”) of the Messiah. We also get in touch with our hope for the Messiah’s Second Advent.
When: December 25 through January 5, a twelve-day season. Many Christians begin celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve. Of course, most people think of Christmas as a day, not a season. However, as the song narrates, there are twelve days of Christmas.
Themes: Celebration of the Incarnation of the Word of God; Salvation; Joy; Kingdom; Peace; Giving.
When: January 6, the day after the season of Christmas.
Themes: Some traditions emphasize the visit of the Magi (Wise Men) and the universal import of salvation in Christ. Other traditions focus on the baptism of Jesus.
When: Times during the year when there is not a special day or season. Ordinary time begins the day after Epiphany and extends until the day before Lent (Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday). Ordinary time begins again after Pentecost, extending until the day before Advent.
Themes: Ordinary time is not “plain, boring time,” but rather “counted” time. Different traditions include many celebrations during ordinary time, such as Trinity Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, All Saints Day, and so forth. The themes of ordinary time include the basic elements of the Christian life.
When: Forty weekdays prior to Easter, beginning with Ash Wednesday. The precise dates vary according to the date of Easter, which can range from March 22 to April 25. The six Sundays during the season of Lent are not counted in the forty days.
Themes: Penitence; Morality; Human Limitations; Need for a Savior; Self-Denial; Preparation for Good Friday and Easter. Some Christian traditions emphasize Lenten fasting (from food and other delights). Other traditions focus on adding spiritual disciplines.
When: The last seven days of Lent, prior to Easter. Holy Week includes Palm Sunday (Passion Sunday), Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
Themes: The last week of Jesus’ life; The death of Jesus and its meaning; Love for one another (Maundy Thursday). Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus and king, but leads into a solemn preparation for remembrance of his death.
When: A fifty-day season of the year, beginning on the evening before Easter and continuing for seven Sundays until Pentecost. Includes Ascension Day. Easter Sunday or Resurrection Day is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox (March 21).
Themes: Salvation; Victory; New life; Joy; Christ reigns.
When: The seventh Sunday after Easter.
Themes: The outpouring of the Holy Spirit; The birth of the church; Power for service in the church and the world; The inclusion of all of God’s people in ministry. “Pentecost” comes from the Greek word for fifty, from the phrase “fiftieth day [after Easter].” In some traditions it is called Whitsunday (White Sunday), perhaps owing to the white garments of those baptized on this Sunday.
Ordinary Time (again)
When: From the day after Pentecost through the day before Advent, about five months.
The Colors of the Christian Year
Part of what makes observing the liturgical year special is color. Different events and seasons are reflected in a variety of colors, including purple, white, green, black, red, pink, blue, gold, and some other colors as well. The seasonal color, usually displayed in various ways in the place of worship, reflects and augments the thematic elements of the season. So, for example, because purple is understood to symbolize penitence (among other things) it is used during the season of Lent.
Once again, I should emphasize that there is no single color scheme either recognized by or imposed upon all Christians. In the twelfth-century, Pope Innocent II systematized the Roman Catholic color scheme, but since Vatican II in the 1960s, Roman Catholic churches have exercised some freedom in their use of alternative or additional colors. In recent years, many Protestant churches have moved from using purple in Advent to using royal blue. This move reflects a variety of motives, depending on the congregation. For the most part, it seems to be an effort to distinguish Advent from Lent. Blue continues to symbolize royalty and solemnity. Some churches connect blue with the color of the night sky or as a symbol of creation. A compromise popular in some congregations is the use of purplish-blue in Advent and a reddish-purple in Lent. Such freedom in the use and interpretations of color can allow for innovation and distinctive celebration, though it can also be a bit confusing.
If you are looking for a more in-depth examination of the church year, I would highly recommend an outstanding website: The Voice: CRI Institute. Their material on the church year is top-notch.
The chart below is an attempt to reflect what seems to be a consensus among many churches. The chart identifies the day or season, along with calendar dates, themes, and common colors.