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The Christian year, sometimes called the liturgical year, refers to the cycle of fasts and festivals that define the year in Christianity.
The dates of the festivals vary somewhat between the western Church (Roman Catholic and Protestant) and the Eastern (Orthodox) church, though the sequence and logic is the same. In both traditions the dates of many festivals vary between years, though in almost all cases this is due to the variation in the date of Easter, and all other dates follow from that. The extent to which the fasts and festivals are celebrated also varies between churches; in general Protestant churches observe far fewer of them then Catholic and Orthodox churches, and in particular are less likely to celebrate feasts of the Virgin Mary and the saints.
The cycle of the year defines a series of seasons, which are associated with different ways of decorating churches, different vestments for clergy, and different topics for reading from the Bible and preaching. These, especially the recommended bible passages for each Sunday, are recorded in lectionaries. The Sundays are denoted as "the first Sunday in Advent", "the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost", etc. The increased use of lectionaries in Protestant churches, especially the growing influence of the Revised Common Lectionary, led to a greater awareness of the Christian year in Protestantism in the later decades of the twentieth century, at least in mainstream denominations.
Because of the dominance of Christianity in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, many features of the Christian year became incorporated into the secular calendar. Many of its feasts remain holidays, and are now celebrated by people of all faiths are none - in some cases world wide. The celebrations bear varying degrees of relationship to the religious feasts from which they derived, often also including elements of ritual from pagan festivals of similar date.
The following list of the seasons of the Christian year does not attempt even to summarise the meanings of the festivals, since these are given on the main articles devoted to each of them. At present it focuses on the practice of the English-speaking elements of the Western church. It does not attempt to give a complete calendar of saints' days and festivals.
The Christian year begins in Advent. Its major traditional components are:
- Advent: a fast, observed from the fourth Sunday before Christmas until Christmas Eve
- Christmas: Christmas Day is 25 December in the western Church. The Christmas season extends for 12 days including that day
- Epiphany: 6 January in the western Church. Traditionally the following Sundays were counted as "Sundays after Epiphany" until Candlemas, 2 February.
- Following Candlemas, any additional Sundays were traditionally counted backwards from Lent, as for example "Septagesima", "Sexuagesima".
- Lent is the major fast of the year. It starts forty days before Easter, on Ash Wednesday, and includes six Sundays; the last two of these are known as Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday. The final week of Lent, starting with Palm Sunday, is known as Holy Week. Its other days are known as Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
- Easter: the date of Easter is set by astronomical calculations designed to bring it as close as possible to the date of Jesus's resurrection. The days between Easter Sunday and Ascension Day constitute Eastertide. The days of the week following Easter Sunday are known as Easter Monday, etc (so in its original meaning, and still in church use, Easter Saturday means the Saturday after Easter, not the Saturday before Easter as is common in secular uses). The Sunday after Easter is called the Second Sunday of Easter, and so forth.
- Ascension Day is the Thursday after the sixth Sunday of Easter, and the days from then to Pentecost constitute Ascensiontide
- Pentecost is the Sunday ten days after the Ascension.
- Trinity Sunday is the Sunday after Pentecost, and the remainder of the year is the Trinity season.
- The final Sunday before Advent is the festival of Christ the King, but in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England was called the Sunday next before Advent, and in England became associated with the preparation of Christmas puddings.
The Text This Week is a website that provides lectionary readings and much historical and other material for each Sunday of the liturgical year, and provides the dates of the moveable feasts (and hence for all other Sundays) for the current year.