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Scott P. Richert

Reader Question: More on Ember Days

By January 11, 2008

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In response to the previous reader question on Ember Days, a reader writes:

Can you tell us more? I've been wondering about Ember Days for many, many years: what are they (not WHEN are they)?; their origin; where does the word 'ember' come from? (Is it as obvious as it looks?)

Let's start with the last question first. The origin of the word is not obvious, not even to those who know Latin. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "Ember" is a corruption (or we 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 origin of the Ember Days is interesting. It's become common to claim that the dates of important Christian feasts (such as Christmas and All Saints Day) were set to compete with or replace certain pagan festivals, even though the best scholarship indicates otherwise. For instance, All Saints Day is celebrated on November 1, not because of any relation to the Celtic festival of Samhain, but because Pope Gregory III consecrated a chapel to all the martyrs in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome on that date and ordered an annual celebration.

In the case of the Ember Days, however, the origin is found in pagan rituals. 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.

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 laudable; all that was necessary was to transfer the supplications to the true God of Christianity.

That happened so early that Pope Leo the Great (440-61) 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 (492-96), 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.

And thus to answer the first question last, the Ember Days are days in which, through fasting and prayer, we "thank God for the gifts of nature, . . . teach men to make use of them in moderation, and . . . assist the needy." While they are no longer celebrated universally, they are still observed by traditional Catholics, particularly in rural areas of Europe.

More on the Ember Days:

If you have a question that you would like to be featured as part of our Reader Questions series, please send me an e-mail. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.

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December 16, 2010 at 8:22 am
(1) Joseph P. Mathews says:

In your research on Ember Days, has anything come up about the relationships between those studying for ordained ministry and their bishops? Through the Anglican Communion, Embertides are times that those in the process must be in communication with their bishops either in writing or in person…meaning I have an Ember Day letter to write this week.

February 22, 2012 at 8:26 pm
(2) virginia says:

Is there a relationship between Ember Days and weather for next 3 months?

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