The Tradition of Ember Days in the Catholic Church

The 15th-century astronomical clock and liturgical calendar of saints around the Madonna and Child statue in St. Mary’s Church, Gdansk, Poland

Krzysztof Dydynski / Getty Images

Before the revision of the Catholic Church's liturgical calendar in 1969 (coinciding with the adoption of the Novus Ordo), the Church celebrated Ember Days four times each year. They were tied to the changing of the seasons, but also to the liturgical cycles of the Church. The spring Ember Days were the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the First Sunday of Lent; the summer Ember Days were the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Pentecost; the fall Ember Days were the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the third Sunday in September (not, as is often said, after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross); and the winter Ember Days were the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the Feast of Saint Lucy (December 13).

The Origin of the Word

The origin of the word "ember" in "Ember Days" is not obvious, not even to those who know Latin. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "Ember" is a corruption (or one might say, a contraction) of the Latin phrase Quatuor Tempora, which simply means "four times," since the Ember Days are celebrated four times per year.

The Roman Origin of Ember Days

It's common to claim that the dates of important Christian feasts (such as Christmas) were set to compete with or replace certain pagan festivals, even though the best scholarship indicates otherwise.

In the case of the Ember Days, however, it's true. As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes:

The Romans were originally given to agriculture, and their native gods belonged to the same class. At the beginning of the time for seeding and harvesting religious ceremonies were performed to implore the help of their deities: in June for a bountiful harvest, in September for a rich vintage, and in December for the seeding.

Keep the Best; Discard the Rest

The Ember Days are a perfect example of how the Church (in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia) "has always tried to sanctify any practices which could be utilized for a good purpose." The adoption of the Ember Days wasn't an attempt to displace Roman paganism so much as it was a way to avoid disrupting the lives of Roman converts to Christianity. The pagan practice, though directed at false gods, was praiseworthy; all that was necessary was to transfer the supplications to the true God of Christianity.

An Ancient Practice

The adoption of Ember Days by Christians happened so early that Pope Leo the Great (440 to 461) considered the Ember Days (with the exception of the one in the spring) to have been instituted by the Apostles. By the time of Pope Gelasius II (492 to 496), the fourth set of Ember Days had been instituted. Originally celebrated only by the Church in Rome, they spread throughout the West (but not the East), starting in the fifth century.

Marked by Fasting and Abstinence

The Ember Days are celebrated with fasting (no food between meals) and half-abstinence, meaning that meat is allowed at one meal per day. (If you observe the traditional Friday abstinence from meat, then you would observe complete abstinence on an Ember Friday.)

As always, such fasting and abstinence have a greater purpose. As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, through these activities and through prayer, the Ember Days are used to "thank God for the gifts of nature,... teach men to make use of them in moderation, and... assist the needy."

Optional Today

With the revision of the liturgical calendar in 1969, the Vatican left the celebration of Ember Days up to the discretion of each national conference of bishops. They're still commonly celebrated in Europe, particularly in rural areas.

In the United States, the bishops' conference has decided not to celebrate them, but individual Catholics can, and many traditional Catholics still do, because it's a good way to focus on the changing of the liturgical seasons and the seasons of the year. The Ember Days that fall during Lent and Advent are especially useful to remind children of the reasons for those seasons.

The Character of the Ember Days

Each set of Ember Days has its own character. In December, the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the Feast of Saint Lucy prepare "the people who have walked in great darkness" for the light that will come into the world at Christmas. Falling no earlier than December 14, 16, and 17, and as late as December 20, 22, and 23, they represent one last voice crying out in the wilderness, to make straight the way of the Lord in our hearts before celebrating His first coming and looking toward His second. The readings for the December Ember Wednesday—Isaiah 2:2-5; Isaiah 7:10-15; Luke 1:26-38—prophesize the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles and call followers to walk in the light of the Lord, and recount Isaiah's prophecy of the virgin who shall give birth to God among men, and then show the fulfillment of that prophecy in the Annunciation.