Close Window


holidays and festivals in the Middle Ages

Also known as: medieval holidays and festivals 
From: Handbook to Life in the Medieval World.

To understand a people, study its celebrations. Few aspects of a culture reveal so much so quickly. Better than the history of the adventures of important leaders or of battles fought and won, holidays preserve what the people think beautiful, sacred, and important; what the culture considers dangerous and forbidden. Holidays also set patterns for major rites of daily life and influence their customary sounds, sights, odors, tastes, and textures. Celebrations and holidays unite the elders of the culture with the youngest, the most nobly born with the lowest classes. The laity and religious celebrate the same festivals at church, synagogue, and mosque.

In medieval Christian, Jewish, and Muslim societies holidays and festivals fulfilled the same functions: They constituted a form of divine worship, a means of remembering and praising God. They enabled the community symbolically and liturgically to recall and relive the defining moments of its sacred history. Festivals and holidays allowed their observers to celebrate belonging to a community of believers and marked clear boundaries between the community and outsiders.

Holidays as diversions and distractions to those struggling with life put markers on the road of time, allowing things past to be remembered. In measuring time, celebrations gave hope for things future. Holidays were life's balancers, life's rhythm makers. Festivity and celebration provided recreation, reward, hope, and order. Feasts and festivals dramatized sacred ideas and demonstrated the holy as perceived in acts of daily life.

Christian Holidays and Festivals

Many Christian holiday ceremonies and ritual objects were built upon Jewish feasts, pre-Christian fertility rites, Roman calendar customs, and folk rituals that clever doctors of the church such as Saint Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) and Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) emended for new pious Christian purpose. Ceremonial fires at June's Midsummer Eve honoring Saint John the Baptist, for instance, originated in the pagan summer solstice bonfires called the beltane fires celebrating the Druidic god Bel.

While holiday details differed with country, century, and class of celebrant, certain basic patterns were routine. In folk theatricals called mummings or mumming plays, an actor playing Saint George fought a Midsummer Eve dragon. This traditional dragon among royalty and wealthy townsmen was a magnificent machine with mechanical wings, bellowing smoke, an expensive marvel of engineering. With equal holiday gusto a poor blacksmith playing Saint George fought a homespun dragon-shaped kite a shepherd boy held from behind with sticks and strings. The Hobby Horse similarly was a beloved feature in folk rituals and pageantry. The hobby horse in country ceremonies was a rustic man riding a broomstick with a painted wooden horse head with bell and rough rope for bridle. In courtly festivity the hobby horse trotted under expensively embroidered caparison blankets, with jewel-encrusted reins on a horse head with eyes of precious stones and a mane of woven gold.

Likewise, during November's honoring of Saint Catherine, patron saint of lawyers, wheelwrights, carpenters, rope makers, lace makers, spinners, and women students, people ate delectable wheel-shaped Saint Catherine cakes, rich with sugar, eggs, and caraway seeds. Cathern cakes sometimes were triangular, representing the spikes on the wheel of her martyrdom. Local London bakeshops' traditional Cathern cakes probably were less spectacular than Cathern cakes baked in noble kitchens, but all alluded to Saint Catherine's wheel and were eaten on her feast day with similar ceremony. Young or old, royalty or craftsman, city mayor or country villager followed customary patterns for celebrating holidays.

Local traditions such as Cathern cakes must take second place to the festivals and traditions that united the whole of Christendom and gave it its distinct identity. The liturgical calendar of Christian feasts was arranged according to the events of the life of Christ, from his birth to his Passion, death, Resurrection, ascension, and joyful expectation of his second coming. Most of the great holy days were fixed in the Christian calendar in the third and fourth centuries, taking definitive form by the 11th century. In chronological order they consist of the Advent season, whose major feasts included Christmas, the Feast of the Circumcision, and the Epiphany; the Lenten season, whose major feasts include Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and the greatest feast of all, Easter; the Feast of the Ascension; the Feast of the Pentecost; the Feast of the Holy Trinity; and the Feast of Corpus Christi. Over the centuries the need clearly to distinguish orthodox Christianity from other rival beliefs, together with the increasing Marian piety of the 12th and 13th centuries, led to the addition of various Marian festivals to the liturgical calendar, the most important of them the Nativity of the Virgin, Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, Annunciation, Dormition of the Virgin, Seven Sorrows of the Virgin, Seven Joys of the Virgin, and Feast of the Assumption. The Christian calendar also contained a prodigious number of saints' days, some of which were universal, honoring the apostles, the early martyrs, and doctors of the church. Others corresponded to pre-Christian spring, summer, autumn, and winter festivals, while still others celebrated the life and heroic death of local personalities. A brief description of each holiday's meaning is given in the following.

Calendar of Christian Festivals


Advent, the Christian ecclesiastical season in preparation for the nativity of Christ, began to be observed in the late fifth-century Gallic Church when Bishop Perpetuus of Tours (d. 490) ordered that a fast be held on three days of every week from the Feast of Saint Martin (November 11) to Christmas. Originally this preparatory period was called Quadragesima Sancti Martini (Forty Days' Fast of Saint Martin's). The idea of a penitential fast quickly caught on and spread to different countries, including Spain, Germany, and England, albeit with each starting the fast from a different date. In England, for instance, it coincided with the Feast of Saint Catherine on November 25, while in Scotland it began on the Sunday nearest Saint Andrew's Day (November 30), and the four successive Sundays preceding Christmas.

Interestingly, the original penitential character of Advent as observed in [Gaul, England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland with their tradition of fasting] was absent in Rome, where the season was one of festive joy. When the Frankish Church accepted the Roman liturgy in the eighth century, a compromise was reached between the longer nine-week solemn observance of the former and the shorter, more festive character of the latter. Medieval Advent was shortened to four weeks in keeping with the practice of Rome but was characterized by a blend of liturgical solemnity and joy, purple vestments, silent organ, partial fasting, and other signs of penitential observance. The Advent fast was not as severe as that of Lent and generally prohibited meat, fowl, butter, and cheese. Fish, an ancient symbol of Christ, and other species of seafood were allowed, as were eggs. The season of Advent does not figure in the Byzantine calendar; however, since the eighth century the Eastern Church has observed a preparatory fasting period, the Quadragesima of Saint Philip (Tessaranthemeron Philippou), which begins on November 15, the Feast of the apostle Saint Philip, and lasts until Christmas.

Up until the sixth century the Advent season heralded the incarnation, the coming of Christ in his mortal birth. In the 12th century it marked the "threefold advent of Christ": his past coming in Bethlehem, his present coming through grace in the symbolic representation of the soul's preparation for Christ's arrival, and his future second coming. The second coming represented Christ's apocalyptic return to Earth in glory to judge the living and the dead at the world's end. This event, portended in the liturgy of Advent, stimulated popular belief in the emergence of Antichrist figures. It also was called Parousia (Greek, "presence" or "arrival"). The Antichrist was Jesus Christ's chief antagonist in theology, literature, and drama, appearing on Earth before Christ's second coming and the end of the world. A lawless, self-deified maker of mock-miracles, the Antichrist caused apostasy and mass defections from the true church. Christ would destroy the Antichrist.


Medieval Christmas lasted 12 full days, beginning on Christmas Eve and ending on Twelfth Night. Some calendars counted the days from Christmas Day to Twelfth Day (January 5) or Epiphany on January 6. The triadic celebration of Christ's baptism as Son of God, the journey of the Magi prophesying Christ's kingship, and the miracle at the wedding of Cana, which demonstrated his miraculous power and mystically symbolized Christ's wedding to the church. Three masses, at night, day, and dawn, symbolized Christ's trinal birth. Eternally he was Son of God the Father. Humanly he was Son from the womb of Mary. Mystically, he lived in the faithful Christian soul.

Many of the holiday's merrymaking festivities derived from the Roman winter festival of Saturnalia. Remarkably, the date for Christmas, December 25, was not based on historical evidence of Jesus's birth but rather replaced the pagan festival natalis solis invicti, the birth of the Sun god Mithras, at winter solstice. The intention was to encourage the worshipers of Mithras to abandon their beliefs in a "false" Sun god and to worship the one who is "light of the world" and the true "Sun of justice." The Christian feast honoring Christ's birth was celebrated on December 25 from about the time of the fourth-century Philocalian calendar.

Christmas Symbols and Customs The crib of the infant Jesus was one of the earliest Christian symbols. From late antiquity, churches were decorated with the manger and other motifs from the Bethlehem story. Likewise, Christian families decorated the walls of their homes with representations of Christ's birth as depicted in the Gospels. Saint Francis of Assisi is said to have initiated the custom of building a Bethlehem scene outside the church. According to his hagiographer the Franciscan friar Thomas of Celano (d. ca. 1270), the first nativity scene was mounted at his behest in Greccio, Italy, on Christmas Eve 1223. The manger was made of wood and lined with fresh hay and was placed between a live ox and an ass. A crowd of people gathered with Saint Francis before the manger bearing candles and torches to illuminate the night and to welcome the newborn Christ with songs of praise. A solemn Mass was sung, during which Francis sang a carol and then delivered a sermon. Thus Francis's wish that Greccio "become a new Bethlehem" was made reality. From Italy the custom of building a "Bethlehem" in front of churches and in private homes spread to France, Spain, Portugal, and Germany.

The special reverence for the ox and the ass may be traced to apocryphal lore, but the custom expanded to include treating all animals with particular kindness on Christmas Eve and all the 12 holy nights of the Christmas season. Saint Francis urged farmers to give their animals extra hay and grain and implored the people in general to throw grain and corn of the streets so that the wild birds could feast during this blessed period. In some countries saluting animals at Christmas was so important that none could eat until animals first were fed. Throughout medieval Europe animals were fed extra portions of their regular foods, and Christmas bird feeders were stacked high with bird seeds for winter. Christian thanks to those animals who were the infant Jesus's first friends at the time of his need at the original Christmas were extended to all beasts so that they, too, could "rejoice" in the Messiah through their enjoyment of greater comfort.

When Saint Francis sang a Christmas carol at the first Bethlehem scene in Greccio, he was following a tradition from the fifth century when Christmas became an official feast day of the church and special songs were composed for the occasion. Between 400 and 1200 Christmas songs were really hymns, solemn canticles that emphasized the supernatural aspects of the Incarnation. After 1200 the songs acquired a more joyful character and generally accentuated the human elements of Christ's nativity. These joyful songs are called carols, a word derived from the Greek choraulein (choros, "dance"; aulein, to "play the flute"), referring to a dance accompanied by the playing of flutes. Such dancing, usually done in ring form, was very popular in ancient times among the Greeks and Romans, who spread it to the peoples in their empires. Spanish altar boys danced before the altar during mass on Christmas Day to the accompaniment of music and castanets as the congregants sang carols. English choirboys danced in the aisles of the church after morning prayers on Christmas, while the French performed "shepherd dances" in church to celebrate the occasion.

Franciscan and Dominican mystics such as Saint Francis, John Tauler (d. 1366), and Henry Suso (d. 1361) composed beautiful and tender carols that aimed to stir the emotions and heighten devotion to the infant Jesus. The Franciscan Saint Bonaventure (d. 1274) composed the beautiful "Adestes fideles" ("Oh Come, All Ye Faithful") as a poem, which was set to music in the early modern period.

In addition to song and dance, Christians celebrated the nativity of Jesus by performing plays that reenacted the events surrounding his birth. Plays derived from the Christmas tropes included the Paradise Play, which began to be performed in the 11th century. The Paradise Play was a mystery play that dramatized the story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from paradise. Paradise was represented by a single object, a fir tree with apples and wafers representing the Eucharist hanging from their branches. The play does not end with the tragedy of the expulsion but with the promise of Redemption through the savior and the Incarnation. The custom of the Christmas tree most probably derives from this play. Although the Paradise Play was suppressed in the 15th century because of the impious excesses of the laity, Christians began to keep a fir tree decorated with apples, known as the "paradise tree," in their homes. The custom was particularly solemnized in Byzantine homes since the Eastern Church regards Adam and Eve as saints.

Another important Christmas play was the Play of Three Shepherds. Customarily part of the Christmas antiphonal liturgy, the three shepherds sang: "Let us go and see what has been promised. Let us draw close to the manger." Two midwives stopped the shepherds. The women asked: "Whom do you seek in the manger, o Shepherds? Tell us!" The original Latin question was Quem quaeritis in prosepe, pastores, dicite. The shepherds replied, "The savior, the infant Lord, as the angel told us." The midwives then reported, "Here is the little one the prophet Isaiah spoke of long ago. Go now, and announce that he is born." The shepherds bowed, worshipped the mother Mary and the child in the manger, and triumphantly cried, "Alleluia! Alleluia! We know the truth of the prophecy, alleluia!"

After the shepherds left to tell the good news at the conclusion of the Play of Three Shepherds, bells rang wildly. Hand bells and church bells rang 12 strokes followed by another 12, three rings, then another three. These bells were called the Virgin's welcome or the devil's death knell. Christmas bells ringing news of the birth of the holy child brought Christmas night revelries to their end.

Food and drink were also important in the celebration of the Christmas days. Wassail, from the Old Saxon was haile, meaning "your health," was a Christmas beverage particular to the English. It was made of ale, roasted apples, eggs, sugar, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger and was drunk while hot. By extension the word wassailing was applied to any kind of Christmas revels accompanied by drinking. Wassailing activities were repeated in clusters of three, honoring Christ's past, present, and future coming. Wassailing with the Milly was the singing of wassail songs and carols while parading a large box called the Milly box containing a statue of the Virgin and Child. As singers passed from table to table or house to house, every guest gave a gift to the Milly, My Lady the Virgin, of coins, fruits, even precious jewels, later distributed to the needy. Giving to the Milly assured good luck. Another Christmas drink that enjoyed widespread popularity was posset, a sumptuous beverage uniting milk, ale, egg, and nutmeg. In the Latin countries spiced wine was the choice Christmas beverage while Germans and other northerners favored beer.

The array of baked goods associated with Christmas harkens back to its calendrical association with pre-Christian fertility rites. Across Europe people traditionally gave thanks to the old gods for the gift of bread and prayed for a bountiful harvest the next year by making special wheat or bread offerings, decorating their homes with wheat, and baking special breads and cakes. Christians adapted this tradition to the Christian season, baking such delectable traditional foods as frumenty, a sweet wheat dish made with boiled milk, eggs, honey, and spices. The Irish, English, Scots, and Welsh baked circular cakes flavored with caraway seeds for each member of the family. German and French Christmas cakes were topped with a likeness of the Christ child made of sugar, and the Greeks adorned theirs cakes with a crucifix. In Spain, Portugal, and Italy the Arabo-Islamic influence is clearly present in the tradition of pastries made of almonds and almond paste, such as turrón, the almond paste candy related to the Arabic halwa, and dulce de almendra (almond sweet), made of almonds, sugar, egg whites, and flour.

The menu and timing of the main Christmas meal varied from country to country, but the prominence of meat was universal, given its prohibition during the Advent period. Among royal and upper-class families of western Europe a boar's head was the central dish, taken to the banquet table in a procession with magnificent pomp. Other delectable meat could be venison, lamb, or beef. Those preferring fowl chose from goose, capon, or swan. Humbler families contented themselves with pigeon, chicken, or rabbit. The Christmas turkey became traditional in the early modern period when the Spaniards introduced the bird into Europe from the Americas circa 1530.

Since Christmas was a 12-day celebration, it ended in January on Twelfth Night. Between Christmas and Twelfth Night one somber note was sounded in the observance of Childermas, another name for the Christian Feast of the Holy Innocents, celebrated December 28. It commemorated the massacre of the children of Bethlehem two years old and younger by Herod the Great in his attempt to destroy the infant Jesus. The Feast of the Holy Innocents was also the official holiday for all choirboys and schoolboys. In the 11th century, the Feast of the Boy Bishop was established on December 28. A boy would be chosen from among the choir members to dress up as a bishop or patron saint. He would preside over a mock-devotional service and deliver a sermon.

Epiphany and Twelfth Night

January's Twelfth Night, which ended the 12-day festivity of Christmas, was celebrated on January 5. Four days earlier, on the eighth day after Christmas, January 1, Christians celebrated the Feast of the Circumcision, a tradition begun in the church of Gaul in the sixth century, whence it spread to Spain, the Frankish Kingdom, and Rome in the eighth and ninth centuries. According to Matthew 2:21, Jesus was circumcised in the Jewish tradition, as a ritual sign of covenant between man and God. In the 15th century devotions to the sacred name of Jesus begun to be celebrated jointly with the Feast of the Circumcision, owing to the ancient custom by which Jewish boys also received their names at their circumcision.

The solemnity of the Feast of the Circumcision, observed with fasting and a reverent Mass, coexisted uneasily with the Bacchic secular New Year also observed on January 1. Irreverence formed part of the Twelfth Night revelries in the celebration of the Feast of Fools (festum fatuourum), a church or town holiday celebrating hierarchies of church and world inverted. Clerks and priests wore masks and monstrous visages during the divine office. They danced in the choir dressed as women or minstrels, sang lascivious songs, played dice at the altar, ran about wildly in the church and throughout town making indecent gestures. Insignificant officials of cathedrals assumed the titles of bishop and cardinal, ceremonials were parodied, and revered people and sacred liturgy were mocked. Although the canons of order were reaffirmed at the end of the festival, it was suppressed in the late 15th century. The Feast of Fools had "carnivelesque" similarities to April Fool's Day and the Feast of Asses.

On Twelfth Night multiple celebrations honored the arrival of the three Magi carrying gifts to the Christ child, whose birth signified the true meaning of Christmas. Twelfth Night also was called Epiphany Eve. Epiphany (Greek, "shining forth" = manifestation) was the Christian feast on January 6, creating a triple celebration of Jesus Christ's manifestation of divine powers. First was Christ's baptism (Mark 1), which marked him as the Son of God. Later one of the seven sacraments, baptism signified spiritual purification realized by immersion in water or sprinking of holy water via an aspergill, before the ritual celebration of Christ in the Eucharist. Second, the journey of the three Magi to Bethlehem (Matthew 2) manifested Christ as the prophesied king. Third, the miracle at the wedding of Cana (John 20) demonstrated Jesus Christ's prerogative to perform miracles. In the Greek Church Epiphany also was called Feast of the Theophania (the "shining forth of God").

The celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany predates the celebration of Christmas in the church liturgy, introduced in third-century in Egypt and fourth-century Byzantium, where it originally commemorated the birth of Christ and his baptism. When the Latin Church fixed December 25 as the birth of Christ in the late fourth to fifth century, Epiphany began to be associated primarily with the Adoration of the Magi. The Eastern Church also adopted December 25 as the date of Christ's birth according to the flesh and of the Adoration of the Magi and observed Epiphany as Christ's spiritual birth through baptism in the river Jordan, and as the manifestation of his miracles at the Wedding of Cana.

There are a number of ancient liturgical customs associated with the Epiphany and particularly with the Adoration of the Magi. One custom, which began in the early Church of Alexandria, is the proclamation of feasts, in which the official date of Easter is calculated and publicly announced. The practice spread to the Latin Church in the sixth century. Another early practice of Eastern origin is the blessing of the water to commemorate Christ's baptism in the Jordan. It was customary to bless the baptismal water of all churches on that day, and in Eastern churches, the nearest or most important river is also blessed, the most famous of which is the river Nile in Egypt. After the blessing of the water in the church some of it would be distributed to the congregants in small flasks to be kept at home. This practice became widespread in the Latin Church in the 15th century.

Feast of the Three Kings

At least since the 12th century when Archbishop Hildebert of Tours (d. 1133) referred to the Magi as "saints," the Latin Church has venerated the three Magi or kings who gave the infant Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. From this time onward in the Western Church Epiphany became known popularly as the Feast of the Three Kings. Veneration of Saints Gaspar, Melchior, and Baltasar increased in the 13th century when Emperor Frederick Barbarossa obtained the relics of the kings from the archbishop of Milan and transferred them to Cologne in Germany, where a pilgrimage and major devotions were instituted.

The festivities of the three kings also included the performance of mystery plays. The most popular play in medieval Western Christendom was the Office of the Star, a pageant of the Magi's visit on the Feast of the Epiphany. This play originated in 11th-century France as a part of the liturgical service in church and soon spread into all European countries. In due time the solemn play was transformed into a boisterous affair, with the introduction of the figure of King Herod, who appeared as a raging lunatic, creating havoc by wildly waving about a wooden spear and beating clergy and laity alike.

Because of these excesses the Office of the Star was removed from the liturgical service, and in the 14th century it was replaced by another Epiphany play, the Feast of the Star, which was performed partly outside the church and partly inside, independently of the mass or the liturgical office. The first such play was held under the direction of the Franciscan friars in Milan, who ensured that the event would retain its devotional character. Wearing crowns and sumptuous vestments, the "Three Kings" appeared on horseback with a large retinue, bearing golden cups filled with myrrh, incense, and gold. They rode in state through the streets of the city to the church of Saint Eustorgius, where they dismounted, entered the church in solemn procession, and offered their gifts at the Christmas crib. Again, the custom quickly spread throughout western Europe, becoming especially popular in Germany, France, Spain, and Portugal.

An indispensable ingredient in the domestic festivities throughout Europe was the large, squat circular cake in French called "kings' cake," gateau des rois or galette des rois, also known as the twelfth cake or the Dreikönigskuchen. Two kings' cakes allowed selection, respectively, of king and queen of the bean, who discovered the favor that for townsmen was a large, dried bean, but in elegant kitchens a precious gold or porcelain bean baked into the served portion. Alternatively, a single large kings' cake would be baked, hiding inside a bean for the king and a pea for the queen.

In England, once the "king" and "queen" were chosen, the festivities would continue outside in a nearby orchard or forest as the "monarchs" superintended wassailing the trees. In this ceremony country folk bundled up in cloaks and coats would gather around the largest, oldest tree, the one bearing most fruit during the year, and 12 wassailers rhythmically danced, chanted, and stamped, shouting, Wassail, shaking noisemakers and bells. Wassailers cheered the trees with tankards filled with lamb's wool (a cider, wine, or beer heated with sugar, nutmeg, and ginger, with roasted apples floating on the surface) and poured libations on the tree. This amusing, noisy ritual was to ensure plentiful fruits, bountiful harvest, a folk charm for encouraging trees to bear copiously and slumbering tree spirits to awaken at spring. Alternatively, people might gather around a live tree in a public hall or an apple-tree sculpture made of papier-mâché, metal, or edible marzipan.

Other Twelfth Night customs included the performance of short contest plays. A strong Saint George fought a powerful evil knight, biblical plays and allegories depicted battles between good and evil, and the three kings following a marvelous star outwitted wicked King Herod.

Twelfth Night celebrations imaginatively melded old classical Roman and Indo-European customs with Christian biblical and apocryphal lore surrounding the birth of Christ and the arrival of the three kings from the East. The three Magi carrying gifts to the infant Jesus, outwitting King Herod, presented in the poor stable first a gift of gold, honoring kingship; a gift of spice and frankincense suitable for a god; and the herb myrrh, portending mortality. Twelfth Day, Epiphany, celebrated the joyous revelation that a king of kings was born, symbolizing hope, light after darkness, death of winter, birth of Sun, death and resurrection of the Son, and after sorrow, joy.

Pre-Lenten Season

Liturgical preparations for the Christian paschal feast of Easter, the day of Christ's resurrection, occur in a series of five periods, each acquiring a progressively more penitential and severe character. The five periods in chronological order are: (1) the Season of pre-Lent, from Septuagesima Sunday to Ash Wednesday; (2) Ash Wednesday (the official beginning of the Lenten season) to Passion Sunday; (3) Passion Week; (4) the first four days of Holy Week from Palm Sunday to Wednesday; and (5) the Sacred Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday). These last three days are the culmination of penitential fervor as all observances focus solely on the commemoration and reenactment of the Lord's passion, which conclude with the Easter vigil.

The Pre-Lenten season takes place over the course of the three Sundays preceding Lent, which are called Septuagesima ("70th"), Sexagesima ("60th"), and Quinquagesima ("50th"), and was observed in the Byzantine Church as an optional fast of devotion from the fourth century. The practice was introduced into the Roman Church in the sixth century; from there it spread throughout the churches of Western Christendom.

Pre-Lenten masses are suitably somber and penitential: The priests wear the liturgical purple vestments, the joyful hymns "Gloria" and the "Te Deum" are excluded from the liturgy of the mass and the divine office, respectively, and no flowers are placed on the altar.

Clergy and laity observed the optional fast in a progressive manner. In the Byzantine Church abstention from meat began on Septuagesima Sunday. On the following Quinquagesima Sunday, people stopped eating eggs, butter, milk, and cheese.

One of the most moving customs in the Latin Church was the ritual "Farewell to Alleluia." On the Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday, this hymn named after the Hebrew exclamation of joyful praise of the Lord was officially discontinued in all liturgical services, not reintroduced until the solemn Easter vigil on the midnight before Easter Sunday. In the Middle Ages the deposito ("discontinuance") of the "Alleluia" assumed a more elaborate ritualized character. The "Alleluia" was bidden farewell with great emotion as though departing from a beloved friend. Thus numerous "Alleluias" were inserted into pre-deposito celebrations and special odes such as the "Alleluia, dulce carmen" ("Alleluia, Song of Gladness") were composed in France and elsewhere especially for the occasion.

To increase popular fervor for the "Alleluia" hymn French churches began the custom in the 11th century of celebrating a quasi-liturgical "burial of the Alleluia" on the Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday, in which choirboys officiated and the laity actively participated. Choirboys would carry a small coffin in procession down the aisle of the church mourning and moaning until they reached the cloister, where they sprinkled the coffin with incense and holy oil and buried it. Afterward, a small straw figure bearing the gold-embossed word Alleluia was buried in the church courtyard.

Carnival The name Carnival derives from the Dominica carnivala (Carnival Sunday), from the Latin carnem levare or carnelevarium, which means the "withdrawal" or "removal" of meat from all meals. This was the optional fast that many clergy and laity undertook on the Quinquagesima Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday. For most people, however, Carnival was a time of festive merrymaking and above all fabulous feasting to ensure that every ounce of meat, bread, eggs, cheese, milk, and other fatty products was entirely consumed before the onset of the Lenten fast. Anything not consumed would be burned, a practice reminiscent of the Jewish custom of assiduously removing all leavened products from the home in preparation for Passover.

Many countries developed special foods for Carnival and especially for Tuesday, known mainly as "Fat Tuesday" from the French, Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday among the British. Especially prominent are pastries made of butter, eggs, milk, and fat. The English and French prepare pancakes and crepes. Celebrations also included games, plays, masquerading, and general festivities. Dramas were performed in marketplaces and courts, such as the Fastnachtspiel in German-speaking areas. In England mumming plays incorporated Indo-European fertility and sword dances, such as the moresca, mattachin, and morris dance, whereas in the Latin countries Roman Saturnalia influences were seen in the custom of masquerading. In 15th-century Rome the pope himself instituted the Carnival pageant in Rome.

The Season of Lent

Lent was the spring season's 40-day Christian fast beginning on Ash Wednesday and concluding on Easter eve, commemorating Moses's, Elijah's, and Christ's 40-day fast in the wilderness. The tradition of fasting 40 days was adopted universally in the church between the third and fourth centuries and the season came to be known as the Quadragesima ("40th" in the Latin Church, its equivalent Tessarakosta in the Byzantine Church. In all Romance language countries the word for Lent is derived from the Latin term Quadragesima, for instance, Cuaresma in Spanish. The English word Lent derives from the Anglo-Saxon Lengten-tide, a reference to springtime, when the days grow longer. In Germany the period was referred to as Fastenzeit, meaning "fasting time."

As noted, the Lenten season is characterized by fasting from all meat and meat by-products, including milk, butter, and eggs. In addition, on Fridays and certain other days, an even more "rigorous" fast called the jejunium was imposed; it consisted of consuming only one meal a day and drinking only water at other times. This strict fast was relaxed after the ninth century to permit eating bread and water at other meals.

Within the liturgy of the Church Lent is the holiest of all seasons, a blessed time of enhanced penitential devotion, severe fasting, and prayer in preparation for the great feast of Easter. The solemnity of the season was manifested in church liturgy with the wearing of purple vestments and draping of the altar in purple cloth; discontinuance of the celebratory hymns the "Alleluia," "Gloria," and "Te Deum" in all seasonal masses and offices; silencing of church organs; and prohibition of weddings and other joyous celebrations. From the earliest days of the church, the jejunium fast, additional prayer services, ritual expulsion from the community, and other penitential exercises were imposed upon those who had committed grave public sins and crimes. Lent was also the season to prepare catechumens and new converts for their acceptance into the church via baptism. During their period of instruction in the Christian faith catechumens were frequently subjected to questions about their knowledge and understanding of what they had been taught. A public scrutiny (scrutinia) was held, in which the bishop determined whether the catechumen had truly renounced all his or her sins, and witnesses were produced to testify for or against the sincerity of the person's motives for baptism or conversion.

From Ash Wednesday to Passion Week The name Ash Wednesday dates to the papacy of Urban II (d. 1099), who coined the term in Latin, Feria quarta cinerum. Previously the day was called simply the "beginning of the fast" (initium jejunii). During the celebratory mass priests anoint the foreheads of the congregants with blessed ashes in the form of a cross while reciting the biblical verse Memento homo quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris ("Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return") (Genesis 3:19). The use of ashes as a sign of penance and sorrow is a Jewish tradition attested in the Old Testament (cf. Jonas 3:5–9 and Jeremias 6:26 and 25:34), as well as in the New Testament in Matthew 11:21. Ash Wednesday is not observed in the Eastern Church. Lent officially begins on the Monday before Wednesday and is called Clean Monday because the house must be completely cleansed of all meat and meat products beforehand.

In addition to the obligatory general fast, those who committed grave sins causing public scandal had to begin their period of "public penance" on Ash Wednesday. Such sinners would confess their sins to a priest beforehand and then be taken before the bishop outside the cathedral. Barefoot and dressed in humble sackcloth regardless of their social condition, the sinners stood with heads bowed in ritual humiliation as the bishop personally meted out penitential punishments and exercises according to the nature and gravity of the sin. The penitents then entered the church behind the bishop and together they sang penitential psalms, were sprinkled with holy water, and received a special sackcloth to wear. They were then led out of the church and were forbidden to enter at any time before the reinitiation ceremony of Holy Thursday. During this period the penitents were in "quarantine," physically and spiritually cut off from the church and from Christian society. Prohibited from residing with other Christians, most sought refuge in monasteries, where they went barefoot and were banned from cutting their hair or bathing.

The Lenten season is divided into various periods. Judica Sunday (Latin, Iudica, "Pass judgment on me") was the first Sunday in Lent, named for the opening words of the Latin mass of Psalm 42: "Judge me, sentence me, O God!" Medieval celebrants delighted in Laetare Sunday (Latin, laetor, to "exult"). This fourth Sunday in Lent was named from the opening words of the Mass, "Rejoice with Jerusalem." It was celebrated with a relaxing of the Lenten penitential observances. Flowers were allowed on the altar, organ music could be played during mass, and the liturgical purple was replaced by rose-colored vestments. In England the day was called Mothering Sunday for the custom of allowing novices to return home to the "mother" church where they had been baptized and lay flowers on the altar. Children would also give flowers to their own mothers.

Passion Sunday was the fifth Sunday in Lent, beginning Passion Tide, the two final weeks of Lent, and ending in Holy Saturday. Crucifixes, sculptures, and images in the church were draped in purple as a sign of mourning. Palm Sunday was the Sunday before Easter and Holy Week, commemorating Christ's exultant entry into Jerusalem, just one week before his Resurrection. In the liturgy the Passion according to Matthew (26:36–27:54) was sung in its entirety in place of the usual gospel reading of the mass. Three clergy would perform the readings in contrasting voices: The tenor represented Matthew, the voice of the narrator; the high tenor chanted the role of the individuals and crowds; and the bass intoned the words of Christ. Penitents in procession carried palm fronds that symbolized Christ's victory and represented his protection. Substitutions for palm fronds such as the Irish yew plant or the Mediterranean olive branch were used in countries where that plant was not autochthonous. The plants chosen were usually traditional symbols of immortality; both the evergreen yew and the olive tree lived for centuries and since ancient times had been planted at cemeteries.

Holy Week Holy Week was the calendrical week preceding Easter, devoted to celebrating and reenacting Christ's Passion with prayers, drama, and liturgy. Particular solemn events on Good Friday, a day of fasting, penitence, and abstinence, marked the only day of the liturgical year that mass was not celebrated. All events of Holy Week anticipated commemoration of Christ's Resurrection. The colors in the church, ecclesiastical vestments, music, and drama such as the "Quem quaerities trope" were essentials of the spectacular season beginning nine weeks before Easter Sunday (on Septuagesima) and ending eight weeks after Easter Sunday on Trinity Sunday.

Spy Wednesday was the Wednesday before Good Friday commemorating Judas Iscariot's betrayal of Jesus Christ (Matthew 26:14). The Christian holiday of Easter was closely connected to the Jewish festival called Pesach or Passover, celebrating the biblical Exodus from Egypt commemorated with a seder, an order of service in which a Jewish Haggadah was read and matzoh, the unleavened bread; bitter herbs; and charoset, the savory remembrance of mortar used for building the pyramids, were served as symbolic foods. This Passover seder was Christ's Last Supper in Jerusalem with his twelve apostles foreshadowing his betrayal. In consecrating the bread and wine, Jesus initiated the first communion, a first Eucharist, eating the spiritual food of souls. "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him" (John 6:56). This Last Supper liturgically was commemorated during the Triduum Sacrum (Latin, "three sacred days"), Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, the last three days of Holy Week dedicated to Christ's Passion and death.

Sacred Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday Maundy Thursday was named either after Jesus Christ's mandatum novum (Latin, "new commandment"), the first words of the ceremony for washing the feet, or after the maund, the alms basket used to distribute food to the poor. Bells were silent after mass on that day until the "Alleluia," during the vigil of Easter evening on Holy Saturday. Another name for Maundy Thursday was Green Thursday (Latin dies viridium, "green day") because penitents who had made Confession on Ash Wednesday were to carry green branches signifying reception into full communion, the rite of spiritual union between a Christian and Christ.

Also on Maundy Thursday the liturgical stripping of the altars took place. The priests dressed in liturgical purple removed the linen, candles, decorations, and veils from every altar and tabernacle except the repository shrine where the host was kept. The bare altar symbolized the denuded Christ, who was stripped of his garments before being sacrificed. It was at this time that the altars ceremonially were washed clean with holy water and wine, giving rise in Britain to the name Sheer Thursday (Anglo-Saxon skere or sheer, "clean" or "free from guilt"). On this day people confessed their sins and requested and received absolution, a priest's or bishop's conferring of formal forgiveness of sins by Christ's grace to the penitent. Absolution also was a service of prayers for a dead person's soul. Sinners completing the "public penance" were formally reconciled with the church by the bishop, who invited them into the church and absolved them of their sins and crimes after the Mass of Reconciliation. They were now able to resume their normal life, to bathe, and to cut their hair in preparation for the Easter celebration.

Good Friday has been known since early Church history as the day of bitterness and fasting. Its official Latin name is Feria sexta in Parasceve, a term ultimately derived from the word Paraskeue, which Greek-speaking Jews used to designate preparing for the Sabbath. The early church also employed the term Pasch from the Hebrew pesach, or Passover, to refer to both Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the former the "Pasch of Crucifixion" (pascha staurosimon) and the latter the "Pasch of Resurrection" (pascha anastasimon). As noted, Good Friday is the only day of the liturgical year in which Mass is not said. Instead, the Synaxis, or prayer with mass, is celebrated. Priests silently prostrate themselves before the altar, portions of the Bible are read, the Passion According to Saint John is solemnly chanted, and prayers are said on behalf of the community.

The highlight of the ceremony is the adoration of the cross. The presiding priest unveils the cross singing, "Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Salvation of the world!" The kneeling choir and congregants respond, "Come, let us adore!" The priest then takes the cross and places it on a pillow on the floor before the altar; then all the priests approach the cross, genuflect three times, and kiss the feet of the image. The laity are then invited to do the same.

Crusaders returning from Jerusalem introduced into Europe the extraliturgical tradition of the Holy Sepulcher, a devotion particular to the Church of Jerusalem consisting of a vigil before the location of Christ's tomb that lasted from Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter services. Across Europe the crucifix, or the blessed sacrament, or sometimes both, were taken out of the church and paraded in a solemn procession to a shrine called the sepulcher. There the officiating priest deposited them in a tabernacle shaped like a tomb, and the faithful held vigil there throughout Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In the Byzantine Church priests or elders of the parish solemnly carried a cloth bearing an icon of the dead Christ to the shrine of the Sepulcher, where it was placed on a table and venerated by the people.

People in the Latin countries held Good Friday processions in which images of the crucified Christ and the sorrowful Virgin were taken out of the church and carried solemnly through the street on a raised platform. Those who carried the images and the laypeople who walked in procession behind them donned simple penitential robes or sackcloth and covered their heads with a hood as a sign of humility. The penitents walked through the streets in silence carrying candles. In the 13th to 15th centuries zealous flagellants inflicted terrible wounds on themselves on Good Friday and throughout the Lenten period.

Good Friday was also observed with special foods and extreme forms of fasting. In many countries people only ate bread and water. The Irish practiced the "black fast," in which they consumed nothing but tea or water all day. Meals were mostly consumed in silence and standing. It was a widespread popular tradition from Greece to the British Isles to mark the bread dough with a sign of the cross before baking it. In England the tradition of baking "hot cross buns" was introduced in the 14th century in Saint Albans Abbey so that these smaller bread portions could be more easily distributed to the poor.

Holy Saturday (Sabbatum sanctum) was the vigil day before Easter Sunday, commemorating Christ's resting in the tomb, anticipating Resurrection. Holy Saturday also was called Easter eve. No liturgical services were held during the daylight hours of this day until the beginning of the Easter vigil. Catechumens about to be baptized or converted would gather at the church, where the priest would perform the rite of exorcism from the powers of evil. The priest touched their ears and nostrils to symbolize the opening of the spirit to the words and grace of God. Each catechumen turned to face the west and pointed the forefinger to the direction of the sunset and uttered the words "I renounce thee, Satan, with all thy pomps and all thy works." She or he then faced eastward and made the same gesture and pronounced the words "To Thee I dedicate myself, Jesus Christ, eternal and uncreated Light." Each catechumen then recited the Creed and then retired to spend the last night before baptism in silence and prayer.


Easter Sunday was the most solemn celebration of the Christian liturgical year. This feast commemorating Christ's Resurrection on the third day after his crucifixion honored Christ's rising from the dead, observed by the three Marys and the 12 apostles (Mark 14:50). Easter Sunday is rightfully called the "peak of all feasts" and the "queen of all solemnities." For the majority of the nations of Western and Eastern Christendom the festival name derives from the Greek and Latin term pascha, which in turn is from the Hebrew pesach. The English word Easter and the German Ostern derive from a Norse name (Eostur, Eastur, Ostara, or Ostar) that referred to the entire season of spring or a feast of the rising Sun. It was the English scholar and ecclesiast the Venerable Bede (d. 725) who attributed the name Easter to a pagan goddess of the dawn and of spring, Eostre. Most scholars now agree that the saint misinterpreted the name of the season for the name of a goddess.

At least since the fourth century, Easter celebrations have begun after sunset on Holy Saturday with the lighting of candles symbolizing the triumph of Jesus, the "uncreated and eternal light," over the darkness of sin, death, and the powers of evil. Churches and homes alike were illuminated with candles and torches turning the night into day, according to contemporary descriptions. The faithful would congregate in churches to spend the night in prayer and celebrate the Eastern vigil. The service began with the lighting of the paschal candle, which was accompanied by the jubilant singing of Easter songs. A prayer service was held, passages of the Bible were read, and everyone recited psalms. Just before midnight the priests approached the baptismal font, consecrated the water, and proceeded to baptize the catechumens. After the ceremony the new Christians were given sandals and white robes, which they wore for the remainder of Easter Week. The sacred host or cross was raised from the sepulcher in a ritual called the elevatio, or "raising." In solemn procession the clergy would carry the host or the cross back to the church and restore it to its place on the main altar.

Saint Patrick, the founder of the church in Ireland, is credited with instituting the tradition of lighting bonfires outside the church on Holy Saturday night as a substitute for the ancient Druid practice of lighting spring bonfires. The church approved this custom since it allowed the Christianization of surviving Indo-European spring rites common throughout Europe.

Mass on Easter Sunday was a jubilant celebration. The mournful purple liturgical vestments were replaced with white, the symbol of purity, or gold in the Byzantium tradition. Altar decorations were restored, including lilies and other flowers. The "Alleluia," "Gloria," and "Te Deum" hymns and organ music were restored to the liturgy. Congregants remained standing throughout the mass and were not allowed to kneel as a sign of the risen Lord. After mass, the doors of the church opened wide and the people sang the hymn "Surrexit Deus" (God Is Risen), and the church bells rang.

Many Easter popular customs beautifully combined Christian beliefs with Indo-European fertility concepts. Eggs were an ancient symbol of spring. The Persians, for instance, would exchange gifts of painted eggs at the spring equinox. Christians retained the symbol of the egg, seeing in it a representation of the tomb from which Jesus emerged to new life at the Resurrection. Pace egging was the ritual by which mummers and other entertainers performed short dramas and then begged for coins and pace eggs for their labors. Pace meant Pasch, from the same Hebrew word as the Jewish holiday of Passover, or Pesach. Pace eggs were hard-boiled eggs decorated with flower and vegetable dyes, borders of lace, embroidery, and tiny glass jewels. Elaborate pace eggs were painted with each guest's family designs and coats of arms. Pace egging also was a form of egg rolling, through wickets, in particular formulaic designs, without breaking the shells.

Throughout Europe from the British Isles to Scandinavia and from the Iberian Peninsula to France, Italy, and central Europe pig or wild boar has been the favored meal to celebrate Easter Sunday. Pre-Christian Indo-European peoples considered the pig and the wild boar to be a sign of prosperity and good luck and would consume the flesh of these animals at weddings and festivals and on other joyous occasions. In Spain eating roasted pig or boar assumed the added role of culturally distinguishing Christians from Jews and Muslims, whose religion prohibited the eating of these animals. Whether pork, boar, or lamb, the main meat dish was usually arranged on a bed of green leafy vegetables on a platter surrounded by boiled, colored Easter eggs. Easter tables overflowed with all the foods forbidden during the Lenten season: meats, sausages, cheese and other dairy products, and breads and pastries made of butter and eggs. Tables would be decorated with garlands, flowers, and plants. Easter breads would be baked with Christian symbols such as the cross, the letters JC or the paschal lamb.

A festive Easter custom of pre-Christian origin in Britain was the morris dance. Morris dancers performed stamping steps with jingling bells and holly wreaths on their heads and carried tall straight canes with flowing scarves. Accompanied by cymbals, pipes, and tabor drums, morris dancers stamped and jumped high in the air, performing traditional spring fertility rituals. Insistent tapping steps and bell ringings originally were thought to awaken slumbering field spirits. Leaping was a reminder to allow grain to grow high, flocks to multiply, and people to prosper.

Low Sunday and Jubilate Sunday

The first Sunday after Easter was called Low Sunday or Quasimodo Sunday, the name derived from the opening words of the introit of the mass, quasi modo geniti, "as if in the manner of a newborn." Jubilate Sunday was the third Sunday after Easter, so named from the words of the mass jubilate deo omnis terra, "All the Earth, rejoice in the Lord," from Psalm 100, or from the introit, Psalm 66, an ornate, antiphonal first chant of the mass.

Feast of the Ascension

The Feast of the Ascension commemorated Christ's final triumphal appearance on Earth before leaving his astonished apostles at Bethany, outside Jerusalem, and ascending from Mount Olivet into heaven (Luke 24). In the liturgy, Ascension has been celebrated on the sixth Sunday after Easter in both the Roman and the Eastern Churches since the fourth century. The solemn mass emphasizes the divine mystery of the ascension rather than the historical event, noting that Christ ascended into heaven so that Christians could share in his divinity. The celebrations included a liturgical procession outside the church and up to a hill, reenacting Christ's leading his apostles "out toward Bethany" (Luke 24:50). In the Byzantine Church, the priest delivered his sermon from atop the mountain. In the 10th and 11th centuries the procession became more elaborate with the addition of theatrical elements. In Germany, for instance, these rudimentary Ascension plays consisted of the priest's lifting up a cross on a hill when the words Assumptus est en coelum ("He ascended into heaven") were psalmodized. Thirteenth-century representations took place inside the church, with the crucifix raised up to the ceiling, as the congregants stretched up their arms and sang hymns. In Bavarian churches a platform was installed in the center of the church and the image of the risen Christ would be raised aloft. Choirboys wearing white dresses and wings represented angels who descended from heaven to meet Christ and accompany him on his celestial journey.

Feast of the Pentecost

Christian Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter, celebrated the descent of the Holy Ghost in the form of tongues of fire to the apostles (cf. Acts 2:1–4). Also called Whitsunday or White Sunday, this day required white liturgical vestments, baptismal garments, and church hangings. In Judaism Pentecost (Greek, "50th day") was the Feast of Weeks, Shevuot, the 50th day after the Jewish Passover, or Pesach, commemorating both the gift of the divine law to Moses on Mount Sinai and the first fruits of harvest. It was customary in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages to imitate the Jewish custom of referring to Pentecost as the entire 50-day season. For Christians, this meant the entire period from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. Liturgical vestments are red, the color of the love of the Holy Spirit and the color of the tongues of fire. It is also a day of fasting and penitence to atone for any sins or excesses committed during the Easter season.

On the basis of the gospel account of Jesus's baptism (Luke 3:21–22), the dove was a symbol of the Holy Spirit in ecclesiastical and popular culture. Church liturgy for the Feast of Pentecost dramatized the descent of the Holy Ghost. At the sequence in the mass in which the priest sang the hymn "Venite Sancte Spiritus" (Come, Holy Spirit) the choirboys would make a sound "as of a violent, blowing wind" (Acts 2:2) by hissing, humming, rattling their benches, or blowing a trumpet. A disk decorated with an image of a dove surrounded by golden rays would then descend from the "Holy Ghost hole" in the ceiling as the choir sung. When the "dove" settled, flowers would be dropped on those present to symbolize the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In the cathedrals of France live white doves or pigeons were used in the ceremony.

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday honored the Holy Trinity, the central Christian mystery of God's unity and three persons, the one God existing in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The early church did not celebrate Trinity Sunday, since every day of the liturgical year technically praised the mystery of the Trinity. The fixing of Trinity Sunday as the first Sunday after Pentecost originated in the Frankish Kingdom in the ninth century under the impetus of the abbot Alcuin (d. 804). The church of France, Germany, England, and the Netherlands quickly adopted the custom of celebrating Trinity Sunday, albeit on various dates. The official date was definitively established in 1334 by Pope John XXII. In England it was associated with Saint Thomas à Becket, consecrated in the year 1162 on that day. The Byzantine Church does not observe Trinity Sunday; the first Sunday after Pentecost is the Feast of All Saints.

The Feast of Corpus Christi

Until the 14th century the church did not have a feast day devoted to the veneration of the Eucharist, the body of Christ. Maundy Thursday commemorated the institution of the first communion at the Lord's supper, but the mournful character of the tridium precluded the joyful celebration of the Eucharist. Pope Urban IV (1261–65) established the holiday in 1264 as the Thursday following Pentecost week. The feast day is intimately associated with the mystic piety of a Belgian nun, Saint Juliana (d. 1258), who received visions of the full Moon in a brilliant light except for one part of its disk, which remained dark. In one of the visions Christ appeared to her and explained its meaning, saying that the Moon represented the liturgical year and the black spot indicated the absence of a feast dedicated exclusively to the Eucharist. The bishop of Liàge and the canon lawyers of church, who included the man who would be become Pope Urban IV, supported her cause. The Dominican theologian Saint Thomas composed hymns in praise of the Corpus Christi (the body of Christ). Corpus Christi was celebrated almost from the very beginning with solemn processions in which the blessed sacrament was taken out of the church after mass and carried through the streets. Mystery plays and Corpus Christi dances formed part of the celebrations in Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Germany, and elsewhere.

Marian Feasts

Doctrinal differences emerging in the early churches and the increasing devotion to the Virgin from the 12th century explain the establishment of numerous feast days venerating the Virgin Mary. The Presentation of Christ in the Temple was the Christian feast celebrated on February 2, coinciding with the Purification Feast or Candlemas. Following Jewish tradition (as depicted in Leviticus 12), the Purification Feast was a sacrifice of two turtle doves and two young pigeons for ritual purification of the new mother. The Feast of the Purification (Luke 2:22) purified Christ's mother, Mary, and commemorated the consecration of Christ at the Temple in Jerusalem. This day also coincided with Candlemas, a holiday noted for its ritual processions with lighted candles.

Other important holidays celebrating aspects of the Virgin Mary's life were the Nativity of the Virgin, celebrated from the seventh century on September 8. The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which commemorated the archangel Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she would bear the living God as Christ child, was observed on March 25 from the seventh century. Mary's death or Dormition of the Virgin, is discussed in chapter 5 on philosophy and religion. A particularly emotional feast was the Feast of the Seven Sorrows, observed on the Friday after Passion Sunday. It commemorates the painful events of her life, and especially her witnessing of the Passion of her son. The beautiful poem "Stabat Mater Dolorosa" (The Sorrowful Mother Stood) was composed for the occasion by a Franciscan friar in the early 14th century. Shrines with images of the sorrowful Virgin were installed in churches throughout Europe and became the object of profound veneration.

Saint Valentine's Day

At least three saints named Valentine had deeds or deaths on February 14 in the second and third centuries. Somehow their names were linked to love, along with the names of Cupid and Venus, classical goddess of love, mother of the winged blind boy Cupid, who mischievously shot arrows caused people to fall in love at first sight. Saint Valentine's Day was a popular wedding day, thought in nature to be the time birds selected mates, imitated by western European people by celebrating a natural season for love.

Decorating a Saint Valentine's Day hall required love lanterns; vegetable candle holders made from hollowed out turnips, firm vegetables, or fruits; with a face cut through the skin, piercing to the now-empty center. A thick candle set inside was lighted, resembling modern Halloween jack-o-lanterns. Soft, gentle valentine lights accompanied sensual fragrances from rosemary, basil, marjoram, yarrow, and bay leaves crushed and floating on rosewater in small bowls and incense burners swinging with the fresh sweet smell of laurel and pine.

Guests wore love tokens. A small gold or silver pin worn on a chain or over the heart was called a love knot. An infinity sign, shaped like the number 8 resting on its side, the love knot represented perfection of affection without beginning and without end, and when made of gold, the metal never tarnishing, never dying, it signified eternal love. Women made love knots with their braided hair as their bridal coiffure, promising eternal love. Another jewelry love emblem was the crowned A. Worn on the chest or as metal clasp for a cloak, the letter A with a royal crown stood for the famous Latin tribute to Love, amor vincit omnia, "love conquers all," either the emotion called love or Cupid, the blind god of love, king of human love. Chaucer's proud Prioress in the Canterbury Tales wore a crowned A on her garments.

A lover wore a red heart cut from fabric or a jewelry heart celebrating love, the god of love, or its saint, Valentine. Popular love music was called the chivaree. The melodies and rhythms were designed to lift the spirits and create the mood for love. Some Valentine melodies imitated songs of birds, and others used stirring horn melodies with a strong beat, with rapidly increasing intensity of sounds and crescendos to arouse listeners to a thrill of pleasure and sexual excitement.

Valentine's Day foods of love included meats, fish, birds, eggs, vegetables, fruits, spices, and wines thought to be aphrodisiacs, stimulating affection. Peacock was served roasted, then refeathered, with camphor and cotton in its mouth set ablaze, making the ardent bird appear to breathe fire. Roasted partridge and stewed quail also quickened erotic emotions. At least one feast dish was made of eggs, and not simply chicken eggs. Other birds' eggs sensual to eat were those of geese, pheasant, quail, and sparrow. Seedy fruits were important foods of love, especially figs and pomegranates; apples, associated with sexual love since the biblical Garden of Eden; and sweet pears, favorite of the goddess Venus. Delicate red and purple cakes called plum shuttles were long finger-length oval cakes made with purple plums, currants, and caraway seeds. Resembling shuttles that weavers used to guide threads through warp and weft of cloth, the cakes signified weaving love into the fabric of life. Small heart-shaped cakes made with cherries, plums, or pomegranates indicated heartfelt feelings.

Fascinating combinations of pagan and Christian lore were preserved in Valentine's Day love divinations to answer such questions as "Who is my true love?" Divination used common objects that, studied "correctly," revealed answers. Divining by hemp seed revealed identity of a future husband or wife. A player holding a bag of hemp seed threw seeds over the left shoulder to fall either on flat ground or into a trough of water. The seed pattern foretold the beloved's name or profession. A pattern resembling a house promised a wealthy suitor; a crown implied power and nobility. Another Valentine divination used the yarrow plant, whose vigor or death portended faithfulness or faithlessness in love. Fading, wilting yarrow indicted wavering, waning love, and withered or dead leaves spelled love's doom.

April Fools' Day

April in various countries began with the celebration of All Fools' Day. The April world was upside down. Things were not what they seemed. All Fools' Day was a splendid celebration of the ridiculous. Instead of a lord or lady presiding at high table, the chair of honor was reserved for a jester, the Lord of Misrule. Dressed in fool's costume called "motley," he wore a long, floppy, pointed hat with bells at its tip and carried a scepter topped with a small head, also wearing a belled fool's cap. Servitors performed their jobs backward. Least important tables were served first, the high table last. Bows were not made toward people but from them. People wrote notes in mirror writing starting at the right side of the page with letters moving left. Festivities took place in reverse order.

All Fools' Day sometimes shared activities with the January church holiday called the Feast of Fools. In churches, monasteries, and schools, students controlled teachers and the young ruled the old. Among the choirboys a "boy bishop" was chosen to preside over a mock mass and deliver a sermon.

The Lord of Misrule, leading the day, also was associated with a Feast of Asses and Balaam's ass. A celebration of the Feast of Asses, Festum asinorum, was particularly popular in the French towns of Rouen and Beauvais. Short plays depicted the adventures of the biblical prophet Balaam and his wondrous donkey. For a hefty fee, an evil king asked Balaam to prophesy and curse the children of Israel. Instead, Balaam blessed them. Later, when he foolishly disregarded certain instructions God gave him, his ass obeyed them. Balaam's ass became protector of the prophet, the rider directed by his mount. Balaam's ass wisely counseled the foolish prophet who would not hear.

Other asses taught and preached on All Fools' Day. Interspersed among excellent feast foods and entertainments, asinine, ridiculous tales were read or acted out from a brilliantly funny 12th-century satire called the Mirror of Fools (Speculum stultorum). The late 12th-century Benedictine monk Nigel Wireker wrote it about a university student at Salerno and Paris, the donkey named Brunellus the Ass, who founds a monastic order. He left farmwork because he was annoyed that his tail was too short. In his donkey world, cattle talked, turtles flew, oxen were harnessed behind their carts, donkeys gave lute concerts, and bold rabbits threatened fearful lions. The Mirror of Fools was written as a scathing criticism of the rival Cistercian Order and an allegory for the Christian sinner based on the words of Saint Paul in Corinthian 1:18–25): "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?"

Sense in all this nonsense was All Fools' Day's reminder to merrymakers that though rules are uncomfortable to follow, disorder is disastrous. Conditions may seem difficult, but the world turned upside down would be even worse. After the amusements of All Fools' Day, people willingly turned their attentions forward and dealt with the restraints of life right side up.


Mayday customs, costumes, decorations, dances, and delectable green foods signaled change of season. Many Mayday rituals were remembrances of pre-Christian ritual to seduce spring to return to the world. Dancers stamped the ground to reawaken it; shrill May horns and whistles and tinkling May bells alerted sleeping spirits of fields and forests to the new season. The maypole was at the center of revelry. Its strong, tall wooden shaft crowned with garlands of leaves and flowers resembled a giant tree. The maypole idol had long pendant streamers held by dancers who interwove them in circular patterns meant to imitate the course of the Sun. Derived from Indo-European summer solstice rites celebrating the god of vegetation in a tree, the festivities usually included morris dances, mumming plays, and rogation processions. Near it, the queen of the May was crowned. Around it, she led circle dances and maypole contest games to identify the tallest, strongest, swiftest, prettiest, bravest, smallest, loudest, and best. Mayday festivities in a country often began before dawn. Collecting the May was the ceremony for young men and women going to the forest and fields to collect evergreen boughs and meadow flowers. These were woven into the wreaths and decorations for the hall, guests, and maypoles. Going-a-Maying was the name of the early woodland party.

Rogation days celebrated on certain Sundays during the Advent and Lenten seasons were days for Christian ceremonial processions circumnavigating the church precinct, parish, or a bonfire, to pray for good crops, protection against plague, sufficient rainfall, or other needs of the community. In times of severe drought Jews and Muslims were known also to participate in the ceremonies of Spain and Portugal. The ritual was derived from Celtic and other Indo-European fertility sun charms and maypole rites. The procession followed the direction of the Sun and moved against the Sun, contra solis, in reverse, only during times of mourning.

While on most holidays, participating in games was more important than winning games, on Mayday, competition and superlative performance were the purpose. In ancient Celtic spring rites, the gods were thought to listen most to requests from those already blessed with superlative abilities. The best therefore petitioned for all. Therefore the queen of the May directed games determining the fastest race, longest leap, farthest throw of a ball, longest-held note, most skillful hoop roll, most accurate ring toss, best guess of number of beans in a barrel, and finest archer. Celebrants played such games as backgammon, chess, and billiards. Nine man's morris, also called merrils or merrelles, was a popular pastime in Spain, France, the Scandinavian countries, Germany, and the British Isles. An illustration of the game appears in The Book of Games (Los Libros de acedrex dados e tablos) produced in the late 13th century under the auspices of King Alfonso X (1221–84) of Spain, where the game was popular among Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

Noblemen or shepherds played indoors or out- on a small well-carved board or roughly cut grass or dirt court. In the basic nine man's morris pattern, each player had nine counters, identifiable by color or shape, made of ivory or wood, carved and enameled, or simply crude sticks or stones. Counters were called morrells, another name for the game itself. The object was to get three morrells in a straight row. The player making such a line had the privilege of taking any one morrell from his opponent. The player collecting the most morrells won the game. When played outdoors on a life-size board with people as the counters, the movements of the players resembled a morris dance, possibly the origin of the game's name, nine man's morris.

Midsummer Eve: The Feast of Saint John the Baptist

Midsummer Eve on June 24 has been celebrated as the beginning of summertime since Neolithic times among the peoples of Europe and North Africa. It commemorated the summer solstice, when the Sun seemed to stand still, the year's days were longest, and nights shortest. Midsummer festivities honored the Earth's awakening from winter's sleep, resembling the Mayday festival. Midsummer ceremonies often used divination, as magic and plant remedies were thought to be especially powerful and efficacious on that night. The vast majority of nations celebrated the summer solstice with bonfires, often accompanied by singing, dancing, or leaping.

Two feast days dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, the precursor of Jesus Christ, are among the earliest festivals of both the Eastern and the Roman Church. The Decollation ("Beheading") of Saint John the Baptist was fixed on August 29. The most important festival is the Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, which was established as June 24, based on suggestions in the Gospels that the precursor was born six months before the savior. The Feast of Saint John the Baptist is one of the few saints' days that commemorate the birth rather than the death of the saint, and it is one of the very few to be endowed with the highest qualification of a solemn festival, meaning that it is observed as usual even if it falls on a Sunday. The liturgical honors accorded to this saint reflect his unique theological role in heralding the coming of Christ, and his proximity to Christ as his earthly cousin. This proximity to Christ is emphasized in the liturgy for Saint John's Day as well. As the festival of Christmas has, Saint John's Day has three masses, the first in the middle of the night on Saint John's Eve to symbolize his role as precursor. The second is celebrated at daybreak to symbolize his preaching and baptism, and the third is held at the hour of terce to honor his sanctity.

Popular celebrations of Saint John's Day dating from the seventh century demonstrate the ease with which Christians magnificently and merrily mixed customs of ancient Indo-European and Nordic Sun worship with medieval Christian lore. This often meant simply adding the name Saint John to a pre-Christian custom. In various parts of western Europe, a particular counting game was played with Saint John's bread or carob, named for the legend that while Saint John fasted alone in the desert, he kept himself alive and healthy by eating locust seedpods, his bread of life.

To a question beginning with "How many?" the answer was obtained by biting into and eating Saint John's bread, carefully removing the seeds, and counting them. The long, brown, delectably sweet seedpods from the locust tree produced flat seeds so regular in shape, size, and weight that the carob seed was a measure for precious metals and jewels. The weight of 24-carat gold or the size of a four-carat diamond originally was determined by Saint John's bread, the carob seed. Carats derived from carobs.

As in valentine divinations with yarrow, for testing whether love would endure, each guest was given a fragrant, leafy branch of the plant Saint John's Wort. If leaves did not wilt by the feast's end, love was durable. If Saint John's wort taken home overnight remained fresh in the morning, love would be vigorous and long lasting. Drooping, dying, or dead, Saint John's wort predicted a short, bleak romance. Christianity as the new belief retained what was useful in the old to make it serve the new. Pope Gregory and Saint Augustine agreed that what people enjoyed in their earlier faith could be turned to Christian advantage. Medieval physicians and churchmen often encouraged people to look for Saint John's fern as an excellent medication to change mood. Saint John's fern was thought to allow total escape from unpleasantness by providing tranquility and invisibility!

Most Midsummer entertainment revolved around building bonfires, which were believed to ward off evil spirits. In its origins the word bonfire referred to fires fueled by animal bones, which were thought to ward of evil spirits. Under pressure from the ecclesiastical authorities bonfires were usually lit in the open air with lighted logs, the wood considered a less "pagan" and more seemly material for combustion. In the Iberian Peninsula under the influence of the Muslim population, who also joined in the festivities, fireworks as well as bonfires lit up the night. Fire was also a feature of Midsummer Eve rogation ceremonies. People entering a midsummer festival space walked in procession toward a central pyre, which they then circled clockwise, imitating the path of the Sun, rising in the east and setting in the west. Men and boys jumped over the flame, and cattle and other livestock were driven over or near the fire to keep them free from disease.

Feast of Saint James the Great

A popular summer liturgical festival celebrated throughout Europe was the Feast of Saint James the Great, observed on July 24. James, his brother John, and Peter are depicted in the Synoptic Gospels as the apostles closest to Jesus. Jesus called James and his brother "Sons of Thunder' (Boanergas) (Mark 3:17) because of their fiery zeal for his cause. James was the first of the apostles to be martyred. Pious apocryphal legend held that James had preached the Gospel in the Iberian Peninsula, and after his execution in 44 CE by King Herod, his followers transported his body to Galicia in northern Spain for burial. Centuries later his body was "rediscovered" and a shrine was built for his relics circa 900 in the Galician city of Compostela. The kings of Castile claimed the saint as their personal patron in their battles to defeat the Muslims of Spain. The saint was said to have miraculously intervened in battles clad as a warrior, riding a white horse in midair, and brandishing a sword with which he personally slew the Muslim enemy. Saint James appeared in official church iconography as the "Moorslayer," Santiago Matamoros, including on the facade of churches dedicated to him.

By the 12th century, the Shrine of Saint James of Compostela had become one of the Latin Church's most important shrines, on par with Rome and Jerusalem. The pilgrimage to Santiago exceeded those to Rome and Jerusalem during difficult times when access to the Holy Land was hindered by the crusader wars or by the schisms affecting the papacy. Major pilgrimage routes were established from Germany, the British Isles, and France to Galicia, drawing thousands of pilgrims every year from these lands as well as Italy, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries. All the Saint James pilgrims wore a distinctive uniform consisting of a short cloak, cape, and a hat and carried a pouch for receiving alms. Pilgrims decorated their costumes with scallop shells, a symbol of Saint James and a reference to one his most famous miracles.

Those unable to make the pilgrimage in time for the feast day celebrated by building a grotto made of scallop shells (or oyster shells in their absence). Children would ask passers-by for alms to honor the saint. In France and Spain images of the saint were taken out in procession and bread was distributed to the poor. Eating scallops or oysters on that day was believed to gain good luck. Saint James's pastries, such as the Spanish tarta de Santiago, bore the emblem of the scallop shell or the red dagger-pointed cross, the emblem of the military religious Order of Saint James, founded in Spain in the 11th century.

Lammas Day

August was bread time, especially Lammas Day, from Anglo-Saxon ("loaf mass"), marked by a church celebration blessing grains and breads and offering thanks to God for the good harvest. Bakers gave lessons in geometry by baking round breads, square breads, ovals, rectangles, trapezoids, and figure eights. The rainbow's colors were mixed with delicious fragrances in red rose-petal bread, golden orange saffron bread, yellow lemon bread, green parsley bread, blue thistle bread, indigo plum bread, and purple violet bread. Whimsical animal breads represented monkeys, elephants, and dragons. Architectural bread sculptures depicted castles and multidecked warships. Special molded breads depicted Eve in the Garden of Eden or Roman noblemen or kings of foreign lands. Celestial breads were stars, Sun, and Moon, and almost every bake shop or street vendor sold pretzels, some salty, some sweet with raisins, and glazed with honey. The pretzel was a popular double-baked bread shaped in imitation of a young scholar's arms crossed on his chest in prayer.

Lammas lands were fields growing grains and crops usually fenced to keep animals out so that they would not trample or eat the harvest. On Lammas Day, however, the gates of certain fields were open and sheep and other animals were allowed to graze these Lammas Lands with free pasturage. Lammas feasts were held in townhouse, country cottage, and noble castle, with breads important for feast decorations and the menu. Tremendous bread and pastry subtleties were paraded through the hall: a bread castle, for instance, raised on a platform in the middle of the room, its colors and turrets admired until feast's end, when it was eaten. Courses were served on bread or the courses themselves consisted of types of bread, such as currant buns, shortbread, gingerbread, cucumber bread, and plum bread.

Feast of the Transfiguration

In the transfiguration as narrated in the Gospels (Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9), Christ manifested his divinity to his disciples Peter, John, and James during his lifetime, by appearing shining to them. Accompanied by Moses and Elijah, Jesus Christ appeared with God's voice announcing, "This is my Son." Accounts variously placed this event on Mount Tabor, Mount Hermon, or the Mount of Olives. Representations of transfiguration, showing Christ's face as radiantly transformed and his clothing brilliant white, were especially common in art of the Eastern Church, where the transfiguration was celebrated as a feast, beginning in the sixth century. August 6 was not designated as the Feast of the Transfiguration in the Western Church until the 15th century.


September 29 was celebrated in the Latin Church as the feast-day of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael the Archangels. Saint Michael's exploits as a warrior leading the heavenly armies appeared in the Bible. Apocalypse 12:7 describes a "great battle in heaven" in which "Michael and his angels fought with the dragon." Saint Michael has four missions or "offices": to lead the war against Satan, to rescue the souls of the faithful from the devil, to champion God's people as the patron saint of many military orders, and to carry souls before God at the last judgment. Saint Michael's feats also included the miraculous apparitions on mountaintops to intervene in war or fight plague. He also used his supernatural powers to create springs from rock and to endow bodies of water with medicinal curative powers. The church bestowed special honors upon Saint Michael. Churches, chapels, and monasteries located on mountaintops near the sea were named after him, such as the magnificent Mont Saint-Michel in France. In Egypt he is the patron saint of the river Nile, and in Greece and other areas of Europe he is the patron saint of thermal baths and hot springs.

In England the fall season was called Michaelmas. People who pay rent for house or land four times a year call the autumn quarter the Michaelmas rent. Schools and universities named their autumn term Michaelmas. Even the September Moon or harvest Moon was called the Michaelmas Moon. The pleasures of Michaelmas often included a glove, goose, and ginger.

Every September a gigantic glove suspended from a pole on the roof of an important town building represented the Michaelmas Fair. Merchants traveled from miles away and from foreign countries packing beautiful fabrics, glassware, jewelry, and wines, and local craftsmen carried saddles, swords, and fireplace tongs. Weavers displayed tapestries, potters purveyed pitchers and platters, and farmers carted wheels of cheese and fresh vegetables. Michaelmas Fairs attracted so many thousands of people that the Pie Powder Courts held trials for those breaking market laws. The glove implied that the king, local nobleman, or town mayor gave permission for the market to welcome all sellers and buyers. The glove was symbolic of promise and contract. The king pledged to allow the fair and to provide the place and the money to announce it. The merchants and fair managers swore to give a percentage of the profits to either the nobleman or the king or a worthy charity. The English king John in 1211 granted the town of Sturbridge its charter for a fair to help support a hospital for lepers. The glove also symbolized open-handedess and generosity.

Michaelmas feast menus traditionally featured roast goose. A particularly skillful cook would skin, stuff, cook, and then refeather the bird to look as if it were alive. Carried to table with great ceremony on a platter decorated with autumn fruit and flowers, the goose was carved with special flourish, the neck reserved for the most honored guest.

Ginger accompanied feast dishes. Alternating with simpler foods were ginger ale, ginger beer, ginger wine, gingerbread, ginger snaps, and ginger cake. Michaelmas fish was baked with ginger. A fine ginger dessert called chardwardon was made with large succulent wardon pears, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and, of course, ginger. Ginger caramels served with curls of ginger root shavings concluded the feast. Medieval physicians usually considered ginger a healing herb good for stomach and chest illnesses and protection against infection. Just as Saint Michael was a guardian and healer, so the ginger plant with similar qualities was remembered when he was. Ginger was its most plentiful best in Europe in September. A legend concerned a rich 12th-century merchant with a huge boatload of ginger carried from the East to sell at an English Michaelmas Fair. He refused to pay a nasty new high tax to the town; instead, he broke open his crates; hired jugglers, trumpeters, minstrels, and puppeteers to entertain; and gave away ginger free to anyone who asked. Everyone did. Each gift was plenty for a year's worth of delicacies. Supposedly, then, Michaelmas was so full of ginger, vim, and vigor that the September feast was spiced with ginger ever after.

Halloween and the Feast of All Saints

Celebrating Halloween in October represented the end of the year in the ancient Celtic calendar. October's end was also called summer's end, Samhain, in Gaelic. This festival allowed one last opportunity for outdoor bonfires and for games comparable to those at Mayday and June's Midsummer. The holiday signaled entrance to winter. October was the month ghosts, spirits, witches, and supernatural beings were thought most powerful and most lonely. Supernatural beings of course were important in traditional in Christian beliefs about October. Halloween was the evening before All Hallows' or All Saints' Day, when the ghosts of those departed were most likely to appear to their loved ones and plead for their intercession. The Christian holiday All Saints' Day was fixed on November 1 in the eighth century by Pope Gregory III (731–741) to honor all the Christian saints. The next day, November 2, was All Souls' Day, when prayers were offered for all the dead whose souls were waiting in purgatory. Halloween festivities combined beautifully the customs of pre-Christian Samhain with Christian Hallows.

Ruling the high table was a guest disguised as King Crispin, dressed magnificently in regal robes, crowned and flourishing a scepter, wearing a heavy chain around his neck attached to which was a large medallion with the design of one huge boot. King Crispin or Saint Crispin was the patron saint of the cordwainers, the boot makers or shoemakers who worked with cordwain, or Cordovan leather from Spain. Since Saint Crispin's Day was a few days before Halloween, the two were often combined. Halloween divinations were common and resembled the Valentine's Day divinations with hemp seed, yarrow, eringoes, and pillow faces, as well as the Midsummer divinations with diviner eggs, destiny cakes, and flowers removed petal by petal. One divination on Halloween was so common that the holiday itself was called Nutcrack Night: If a man and woman ready to be married placed whole walnuts or hazelnuts in the glowing embers of a fire, the heated nuts would burst their shells. Nuts that crackled loudly portended hope. Nuts that burned and withered suggested a human love that would briefly flame but soon parish. Other love divinations included apple paring; a whole apple was peeled with a small knife and the long spiral of apple skin thrown over the shoulder would land in a shape resembling the initial letter of the beloved's name. Apple bobbing was a frolic to which divination was added. Every apple bobbed for was given the name of a desired mate. The bobber who succeeded in biting the apple on the first try would thrive with the love of that name. If the apple was caught on the second bite, love would exist only briefly. Success on the third chance meant hate, not love.

Saint Catherine's Day

November was the time to celebrate the Feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, virgin and martyr. Saint Catherine was a fourth-century noblewoman who single-handedly confronted the emperor Maximinus to reprimand him for persecuting Christians and to instruct him in the true faith. Maximinus sent his most erudite philosophers and scholars to debate with her, but each one ended up converting to Christianity. Catherine was imprisoned and sentenced to death. She was to be martyred on the wheel, but it shattered at her touch. Instead, she was beheaded. Catherine wheels were symbols of the death of this most famous of women saints, Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The wheel symbolized her death. In popular festivities jugglers made wheels of fire. Acrobats wearing silver ankle bands turned cartwheels, also known as Catherine wheels. Round chandeliers, round windows, and wheel-shaped pins on costumes honored Saint Catherine, patron saint of lawyers, wheelwrights, rope makers, carpenters, lace makers, spinners, unmarried women, and women students.

French unmarried women and girls would visit local images of Saint Catherine in their churches on her feast day to pray for a husband. The unfortunate girl who had reached 25 years old but was still unmarried was called a "Catherinette." Catherinettes wore special "Saint Catherine's bonnets" of yellow and green, the colors of faith and wisdom. During the Black Plague that ravaged Europe between 1346 and 1349, Saint Catherine was one of the saintly fourteen holy helpers invoked in rogation processions.

A Typical Fabulous Feast

The fabulous feast formed a fundamental part of any major secular or religious celebration. Customarily, townsmen and noble people as well as country folk participated in calendar festivities as lavishly as time and wealth allowed. Each person filed into the banquet hall dressed in best clothes. Rich and wealthier townspeople wore velvets, silks, jewels, and brocades. Costumed young servants directed them to their tables. The most noble guests or the host sat at the high table, raised above the others by a platform or dais so as to see and be seen by the other guests. Behind the high table the fancy canopy called a baldaquin marked the seat of honor. Everyone sat according to social rank at long tables called sideboards arranged along the sides of the hall.

Religious feasts often featured foods that symbolized in some way the festival being honored. Multicourse meat and fowl dishes and rich pastries made of milk, flour, and eggs were de rigueur at weddings and harvest festivals, and on joyous liturgical occasions such as Christmas and Easter, and at the Carnival banquets leading up to the 40-day Lenten fast.


The surveyor of ceremonies was the feast hall's banquet manager. Carrying a large gold key attached to a heavy chain around his neck, the surveyor welcomed the guests heartily. There followed elaborate ceremonies before exquisitely prepared foods were elegantly served. Medieval feasting was theatrical ceremony. As important as food texture and taste were food coloring and food form. Dishes alternated with entertainments. Food followed instrumental music. Food alternated with singing and juggling. Magic, mime, minstrelsy, dancing, dramatic performance all were interspersed among feast courses.

The surveyor's inauguration of the banquet was followed by presenting the salt to the guests at the high table. The salt was an extravagant salt container. Often shaped like a ship, called a nef, it had practical and symbolic purpose. Salt, as a most valuable spice, signified rank. The most noble sat "above the salt." The other guests sat "below the salt." Remembering this ceremony, modern people identify the place of honor as the seat "above the salt."

The pantler then proceeded to the cutting the upper crust. The pantler, the noble servant in charge of bread, customarily slung a long, fringed fabric called a portpayne on his shoulder. Using the fabric as if it were a presentation tray, he ceremonially carried loaves of bread. The pantler then cut the upper crust; using special knives, he horizontally cut the top from a round, delicately spiced, beautifully colored loaf. This "upper crust" he presented to the most honored guest, who then was called the "upper crust," a phrase used even today for socially important people.

Breads usually were delicately colored: red with rose petal, green with parsley, gold with saffron, violet with plum. From such fragrant loaves the pantler earlier would have fashioned the other guests' platters. Individual metal or porcelain plates also were used. But edible, aromatic, practical bread platters called trenchers supported various foods. With sauces and gravies well absorbed, the trenchers made nutritious, delicious bread slices to eat at the meal's end, or they were toasted to eat the next morning at breakfast, floating in wine, then called a sop. Bread trenchers were offered to the eager resident dogs or saved as a food gift called alms, given to the poor waiting at the castle gate. The almoner collected such gifts in a huge bowl called the alms dish and distributed them to the needy.

The laverer then presented the aquamanile, the pitcher holding warmed, spiced, and herbed water for hand washing. The aquamanile often was amusingly shaped like a lion, dragon, wolf, or griffin whose mouth was the waterspout. Hand washing served both ceremony and hygiene. On the medieval table spoons and knives were used but no forks. Rather, the portable, practical extensions of the hands, the fingers, were used in elegant finger choreography. Every feaster ate with the fingers to assure that dining pleasure lingered. Finger etiquette determined which fingers were used for picking up meat, fish, fruit, and fowl. Pinky fingers were kept free of any food, used only for conveying spice, such as dried sweet basil, cinnamon, powered mustard, salt, and sugar. Forefinger and thumb in opposition were for conveying meat or flesh. Third finger and thumb in opposition were used for fish. Fourth finger and thumb fetched fowl. Fifth fingers were reserved as spice fingers. Certainly not crude or vulgar, finger eating was as practical as ceremonial.

Next the surveyor directed the cup bearer to test the wine. The master of wine bottles and barrels, the butler poured the drink. Testing assured the hosts, noble guests, and feasters that wine and cider were pure, safe, and free of poison. The credence test was performed by tasting or by dipping into the fluid a credence stone such as the bezoar stone. The bezoar changed color in the presence of particular impurities and poisons such as arsenic. Credence testers were well-paid, trusted banquet servitors who sometimes led, short, dangerous lives.

After the clergy or host blessed the food of the feast, then horns, trumpets, cornettes, shaums, drums, and bells played the fanfare signaling service of the first of the 17 courses or 29 or 77 or 127 courses, depending upon the holiday and the wealth and magnificence of the owners of the banquet hall.

Main Course

Servitors elegantly marched dishes for presentation first to guests at the high table. They proceeded to serve guests in descending order of social rank. Variety of tastes, textures, and food types astonish modern audiences. Superbly prepared meats, fish, fowl, vegetables, fruits, and sweets were served for appearance as well as taste and fragrance. Beautiful feathered birds such as partridges, pheasants, and peacocks were roasted, then refeathered, to create the illusion that they were alive. Their claws and beaks gleamed with painted gold. Other illusion foods delighted by surprising, looking as though they were one thing but actually another. Golden apples, for instance, were delicately spiced meatballs wrapped in gold-tinted pastry with marzipan green leaves. Saint John's urcheon was a whimsical hedgehog sculpture made of chopped meat wrapped in brown carob pastry with edible quills. Four-and-twenty-blackbird pie was not filled with cooked birds but rather live, tethered, feathered creatures that when the pie shell was cut burst through it to fly around the hall to amaze and delight the guests.

Subtleties were large, dramatic festival foods made of spun sugar, almond paste, marzipan, or pastry, an edible sculpture of an elephant, lion, or fire-breathing dragon with camphor and cotton in its mouth set ablaze. Some subtleties were crafted to resemble a queen, a warrior, a pope, or symbols such as a pear tree or a unicorn in a fenced garden. Venetians dazzled their banquet guests with sculptures of the highly prized sugar molded into the shape of lions and other animals, a queen riding horseback, popes, King David, Saint Mark, plants, and fruit. Even the plates and serviettes were made of sugar.

Feast Music

Feast music announced courses and served as entertainment. Musicians walked in procession preceding servitors or played from musicians' galleries built high on the walls over the feasters' heads. Festival music cheered, pleased, and aided digestion. Some foods were thought best digested to particular melodies and rhythms, and some feasters because of their physiological temperaments were thought to eat best with music associated with their astrological moods. Therefore the sanguine and hopeful personality had special music, as did the phlegmatic and lethargic, the choleric and excitable, and the melancholic and sadly thoughtful. Banquet food also followed astrological temperaments, with feasters' personalities determining menu and order of food service. The best feasts suited meats, wines, herbs, and spices to the hosts' or honored guests' temperaments.

Cook, Carver, and Warner

The chief cook of a noble house or castle customarily held a position under feudal land tenure called petty sergeanty granting land in return for personal service to the overlord. The chief cook's symbol of authority was a long-handled tasting spoon swinging like a medallion from a heavy chain. He tested food's quality and excellence by tasting. Often carrying a large feather brush for food painting of elaborate, fanciful dishes needing last-minute decoration, the chief cook had two major duties, protecting health and creating food art. If the banquet hall routinely served large numbers of guests, the chief cook supervised a staff of hundreds of kitchen helpers.

The carver was the feast expert who cut meat into portions. Carving etiquette books taught hand motions graceful as a dancer's, with particular foot positions and bows required as accompaniment for flourishings of the knives. Specially bladed and handled knives were held in proper finger positions for specific cuttings. There was a distinct carving vocabulary for each animal carved, as breaking a deer, unbracing a mallard, winging a partridge, and tying a pigeon.

Another banquet artist was the warner. As did the chief cook, the warner carried a feather paintbrush and a curved knife. The warner was a food sculptor who created subtleties sometimes paraded through the hall to "warn" guests that an important course was forthcoming. Subtleties were called warners, as were their creators.

Banquet Servitors

Medieval feasts entertained all senses with banquet theater. The surveyor was chief actor and stage director, following a carefully crafted script to please an important audience. All other banquet performers had their precise parts with well-practiced entrances and exits. Each wore a costume suitable to social rank and carried an instrument both useful and symbolic of the profession. The following brief alphabetical catalog lists 22 common banquet performers on the dining hall stage. The almoner carried the large alms dish for collecting and dispensing food gifts to the poor. The butler with large keys to the wine cellar protected and mixed wines. The carver carried multiple knives for carving meats at table. The chief cook, identified by tasting spoon and painting feather, protected the feasters' health and created food art. The cup bearer wore on a chain around his neck a tasting cup for testing wines and drinks for purity and safety. The dresser carried tweezers and scissors for arranging food on serving platters. A juggler used balls, daggers, and rings for feats of juggling.

A laverer carried an aquamanile, bowl, and fringed towel for ceremonial and hygienic hand washing. A magician used balls, scarves, and boxes for feats of magic. A master of venerie, identifiable by his hunting horn, presented game animals as hunt trophies. A masked mime performed wordless drama. A minstrel played a lute to accompany his singing. A musician carried a horn or stringed instrument for performing fanfares, music for pleasure, and melodies for digestion.

Pages, young people in household service wearing the house livery, directed guests to table, filled drinking cups, helped serve, and participated in hall ceremony. The pantler carried a portpayne (the bread scarf or shawl) and knives for cutting the upper crust and the edible platters, the trenchers. The patisser used an icing comb for making and decorating pastry and cakes. A quistron wore heavy gloves for turning the spits in kitchen or banquet hall for roasting meats and helped the rotisser, who carried long needlelike skewers for preparing and presenting roasted foods. The saucer used a stirring spoon for preparing sauces and glazes.

Most servitors wore a baldric, a ribbon crossing the chest from shoulder to hip, for identifying rank, house, or holiday, ceremonially serving foods at table. The surveyor of ceremonies, wearing a large key, directed all feast festivity. Last, the warner carried his painting feather and sculpturing knife for creating subtleties. While not every manor house throughout Europe between the 12th and 16th centuries had all these banquet performers, many had most of them. Certain jobs easily were combined. A butler might also be cup bearer, pantler, and carver. When a troupe of mimes arrived in town and magicians were in short supply, mimes made marvelous entertainment, their magic in silence.

European Christendom expressed its unique cultural identity through penitential fasting at Lent and on other solemn feast days, and through feasting on foods that often set them apart from their Jewish and Muslim neighbors. The roasted wild boar, baked hams, and pork sausages that graced the tables of medieval Christian homes and castles in Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere, as the maximal symbol of prosperity and joy were rejected and reviled by Jews and Muslims. It was not uncommon to find Jews and Muslims participating in the celebration of certain holidays of a secular nature, such as New Year's Day and Midsummer Eve. Other Christian festivals, however, especially Holy Week and Corpus Christi, were clearly markers of a distinct religious identity and could and did become the occasion for bigoted attacks upon Jews. The following section on Jewish holidays and festivals gives special attention to weddings, Sabbath, and liturgical festival celebration, the three cultural forms that enabled Diaspora Jews to retain their unique character whether living in Christendom or in Dar al-Islam.

Jewish Weddings, Sabbaths, and Holidays

The Midrash, the collection of homilies, legends, and tales explaining Scripture, contains no fewer than four variations of the story of Rabbi Jose and the conceited woman. An exceedingly wealthy woman of ancient Rome asked Rabbi Jose Bar Shalafta, "How long did God take to create the world?" "Six days." She then asked, "And what has God been doing since that time?" Rabbi Jose replied, "The Holy One has been sitting in heaven arranging marriages."

"Indeed!" she said, "I could do that myself. Why, I could marry thousands in a single hour." So she commanded 1,000 male servants to form a single line. Then she created another line with 1,000 female servants. She paired them off. The next day there were chaos and insurrection. New husbands and wives, battered, beaten, and bedraggled, begged her to annul their marriages. They threatened revolt. She was forced to rescind her matrimonial commands. Humbly she reported she had underrated matchmaking's delicacy and difficulty. Other examples of marriages made in heaven also suggest God's direct and benevolent intervention in human affairs, particularly marriage. In some tales, God as master matchmaker of marriages revealed his matrimonial designs in the stars.

King Solomon had proprietary curiosity about one such plan of God's. The king had discovered by astrology that his beautiful daughter was destined to wed the poorest man in the nation. Amiably intending to see just how powerful were God's foreordinations, and with no intended offense to divinity or his daughter, he shut her up in a tower with sheer rock walls, guarded by 70 aged watchmen. No man, poor or rich, could approach her there.

One day a weary, tattered, barefoot young traveler fainting from hunger and cold sought shelter from the wind by sleeping in the skeleton of an ox. A giant bird swooped down and lifted the carcass with its unconscious cargo and deposited it on the tower roof at the princess's door. The next morning she found him, clothed him, and anointed him. Soon they fell in love and she asked him to marry her. Since they had no ink for the marriage contract, the ketubah, he wrote it with his own blood, secretly solemnizing their marriage before God. When King Solomon learned of this and learned that his new son-in-law fit the description of the prophecy, he rejoiced, blessing God, who gives wife to man.

The Midrash stories of Rabbi Jose and King Solomon express the medieval ideas animating essential Jewish ceremonies: God cares specifically and directly about his people. Earthly ceremonies merely express God's heavenly plan. Feasts, fasts, and festivals are human reconsecrations of God's ancient covenant with the Jews.

Customs and ceremonies, the Minhagim, simultaneously serve four purposes. Ceremony creates a mood for celebrating God's splendors. Second, holidays establish an opportunity for demonstrating piety. Third, observances unite the individual with the current Jewish community and symbolically with the 5,000-year-old heritage. Last, liturgy and ceremony set the Jew apart from others.

Nevertheless, Jewish feasts and festivals such as the wedding, the Sabbath, and the calendrical holidays such as the spring festival of Purim demonstrate astonishing cultural interdependencies. A Jewish ritual wedding headdress is indistinguishable from a pagan Roman fertility wreath. Purim revelries and parodies parallel Christian festive bonfires, bean cakes, masks, and mummings of the Feast of Fools, Twelfth Night, and Saint John's Day. In these Jewish traditional rites of marriage, Sabbath, and Purim, folk tradition and learned heritage magnificently converge.

The Wedding

For the marriage planned in heaven, medieval celebrations on Earth require a formidable number of professional and amateur wedding personnel. Alternatively, weddings can be valid with none at all. As in King Solomon's daughter and her bird-borne lover's marriage, personal pledges of devotion would constitute a legitimate ceremony recognized by Jewish law. Until the 16th century it was not required in Judaism, or in Christianity, to solemnize matrimony in a house of worship. No rabbi, no cantor, no formulaic promises were necessary. A man and woman would simply pledge themselves in marriage to one another before two witnesses, or 10, and exchange a token, such as a loaf of bread, a shoe, or a ring. Such marriage would be perfectly legal.

With such flexible betrothing, however, many an unintentional wedding caused grief to an unsuspecting bride who innocently received a love token given as a humorous prank or in malignant malice. Rabbis often counseled women in their communities to accept no gifts in jest lest they become accidental wives in earnest.

But while not a legal requirement, custom demanded public celebration. So did practical humane consideration. The newly married pair almost invariably were children. Consider the young bride Miriam, daughter of a local Jewish nobleman in Granada, Spain, and the young groom Yehudah, also from a family of wealth and learning, son of a rabbi and physician. Both Miriam and Yehudah were aged 14. They were not particularly young to be marrying, for such was the custom among medieval Jews as well as Christians and Muslims of child marriage arranged by parents for the good of the families or the towns. Life was too short to be wasted too long on childhood.

Miriam's cousin, aged nine, was a widow living with her parents who managed her finances while finding her another suitable husband. Her brother, age 12, waited another year at home before protesting his union with an older woman of 24. In a neighboring house, the wife of a silk merchant was pregnant. If her unborn babe was a girl, she already was legally betrothed to the equally unborn prospective son of the goldsmith. This commitment in utero could be revised, if the infants' sexes were reversed, or, of course, revoked if the sexes were identical.

The usual age of consent was 13 for a boy and 12½ for a girl, sufficient time for refusal before the marriage contract was signed and the union sexually consummated. Parents, loving their children, were not likely to make arbitrary or dangerous alliances. Nor would the professional marriage arranger, the shadkan, particularly if she or he valued his or her commission, which usually amounted to 1 to 2 percent of the dowry. The shadkan often was a respected rabbi, such as the famous 14th-century Maharil, Rabbi Jacob Levi Molin. As earthly match-maker, he simply expressed in human terms the intentions of God's matrimonial design. Often a shadkan was a merchant-traveler meeting at fairs and markets likely mates for townsmen less mobile.

The matchmaker frequently was a woman considered particularly skillful in balancing requirements of personality, family, and community. These arranged marriages worked as well or as poorly as those based on freer choice. A couple such as Miriam and Yehudah had a Talmudically typical two-stage betrothal. Aged 13 last year at their ceremony of engagement, called erusin, Yehudah lived in Miriam's father's residence for the year before their actual wedding, called nissuin. As was customary, he, but not she, wore a simple gold engagement band. It was a gift from her father. The young people, studying together, riding horseback, playing chess, singing, dancing, and talking, learned fondness and shared instructions of their tutors.

Elsewhere in Europe, the two-stage matrimony of erusin and nissuin was joined, often taking place the same day, as in 14th-century Germany, one at dawn, preceded by a candlelight procession; the other, in the afternoon. Or both were combined in the same service.

A wealthy bride from a distant community to be married in her husband's town in the Rhineland or Italy arrived in festive horseback procession. She might be met by riders on caparisoned horses. With musicians playing fanfares and marches, the men might engage in mock-tournaments along the way. If she arrived at night by barge on a river or canal, a torchlight procession with musicians, dancers, and jesters signaled her arrival at her future home.

The professional bride preparer combed her hair, making symbolic braids. Emulating the figure eight or love knot, the coiffure portended the endless intertwining of love. The bride preparer perfumed the bride with alluring scents and then dressed her. If the family had household servants, the bride preparer had little else to do but garb the bride in her gown, which was as colorful, rich, and elaborate as wealth allowed. Then the bride preparer cinched her around the waist or hip with a metal-linked bridal belt and crowned her head with a myrtle wreath.

Depending on the town and the century, the bride might cover her gown with a sargenes, a white cloak. The groom also wore over his wedding clothes a white sargenes with a hooded cowl. Not an assertion of virginal purity, as one might suppose, the sargenes was remembrance of the death shroud. All who rejoiced must be mindful of delight's mutability into disaster.

The crowns and head wreaths worn by both groom and bride were made of myrtle leaves or designed to imitate them. Leaves from the myrtle tree sacred to the love goddess Aphrodite in pagan lore were thought in Jewish folklore hospitable to benevolent spirits, the odors driving away evil demons. So myrtle crowns as well as bouquets held above the heads of the wedding party protected them against baleful spirits.

If the bride and groom were not particularly wealthy, the bride preparer would be mistress of marriage etiquette, directing the betrothal reception and supervising her catering staff for the later feast. She would rent to the parents the dishes, nappery, and extra tables and chairs for the guests. She then would act as surveyor of festivities, directing the wedding ceremonies and reception. The bride preparer also would arrange for the payment to the town of a sumptuary tax or ostentation tax, depending on the number of guests and the quality of the wedding festival.

A wedding feast almost always began on Friday. If the festivities were grand, it was not only because the family was lavishly gracious. Because so many guests traveled so far so long so hard to get there, those journeying on road or sea for two weeks had to be entertained for at least a week to justify their voyage. The musicians, the klezmorim, played vigorous wedding music throughout the ceremony and stimulated joyous mood not only to entertain but to signal the momentous events, such as the march to the wedding canopy, the huppah.

Wedding Ritual Objects

Originally the huppah was an elaborate bridal pavilion, often, as the Talmud describes it, of crimson silk embroidered with gold. It was a fully enclosed tent for the marriage bed. There in the groom's house the couple would consummate their union in privacy.

Later that huppah pavilion was replaced by a long narrow canopy, held above the heads of bride and groom, formed of a thin prayer shawl or tallit. Maharil used the long veil attached to his daughter's bridal crown to cover her head and her husband's. Sometimes the huppah was a large square cloth, the sudar held high by hand. Or it was a canopy held aloft on four poles, the underside painted or embroidered with Moon and stars of the night sky. That four-poster symbolically returned to the original fertility pavilion, the multiple stars intimating the couple's future numerous bright radiant children.

The bridal ring was the second important marriage ritual object. A simple or embellished gold band was placed on the bride's forefinger of the right hand while each pledged future fidelity. Some Italian synagogues lent the couple a huge, elegant, gold, enameled, and filigreed ring, often topped with a golden building or roof, opening to reveal the words mazel tov: "May you have good stars and good luck." That building symbolically represented several houses: the couple's future home, or the Temple of Jerusalem, or the local synagogue. Whichever, that communal ring reaffirmed the couple's ritual place, building with their union and their progeny more mansions in God's community.

After the couple's standing beneath the huppah and placing the ring, the groom was expected to stamp hard on a glass placed beneath his heel. Among the learned, the groom broke the glass believing it a reminder in the midst of joy of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. But in Jewish folk tradition it meant something quite different. That earlier glass was a slender-necked bottle, if the bride was a virgin. If she was a widow or a divorcée, the glass was a wide-necked flask. Filled with wine, the vessel was tossed hard against a particular stone, usually on the north wall of the synagogue. Inscribed on the stone was a six- or eight-pointed star, along with the first words of Jeremiah's statement (7:34) "The voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride."

The broken wine bottle hurled against that stone simultaneously served as bribe and propitiation to evil spirits. The wine symbolically fed their demonic thirst and represented the blood of the virgin bride at the consummation of the marriage. The hurling of the glass and its shattering were, first, a symbolic reference to the breaking of the woman's hymen, and second, aggressive actions against evil powers that might injure the newly married happy pair or interfere with their physical reproductivity. The shattering of the glass, then, was a womb charm.

The fourth and most important wedding ritual object was the marriage contract, the ketubah, which guaranteed the woman's dowry rights. A legal document containing exact numbers and inventories of her goods and money, the ketubah protected the woman's property, particularly in case of a husband's death or their divorce. The ketubah also specifically enumerated the man's financial, social, and sexual obligations. Since this contract was displayed to the wedding guests and was one of the most important legal documents in the household, it usually was gorgeously embellished and illuminated. People of the book showed reverence for words by adorning those they hoped would endure.

Marriage Feast

At the wedding feast, beautiful foods and wines were served to musical accompaniment. The bride and groom ate food and drank wines thought erotically stimulating, as did the guests. Though varying from country to country, traditional marriage feast fare required at least one egg dish, one spiced and herbed capon or chicken course, and the universal triumvirate of aphrodisiac fruits: fig, pear, and pomegranate. Erotically stimulating courses alternated with instrumental music, dancing, singing, reading of epithalamia or wedding odes, chanting, juggling, moral discourses, drama, mime, and magic. Quiet, pious, staid, scholarly men and women, rabbis and students, venerable matriarchs and patriarchs, all were encouraged to rejoice at weddings and ritually abandon restraints.

Wandering scholars, bahurim, and itinerant rabbis claimed a place in wedding revelry, enlivening dancing and singing with new "foreign" steps, songs, or jokes from distant lands. They were welcomed to the feast as a so-called commandment meal, the seudot, granting hospitality. Directing these colorful matrimonial festivities was the bodchan, the professional comedian-musician, clever master of celebration. The bodchan was the merrymaker responsible for sanctifying the wedding by joy.


As the ketubah marriage contract signified the word of union, so breaking the pledge of devotion was possible only by written document of divorce, the get. Another legal separation was the conditional divorce. This was especially important for people in professions requiring long travel, such as gem or spice merchants, or in particularly dangerous distant jobs, as the international ship captains.

Consider Tamar, the 12th-century woman who when married only six months said farewell to her husband, a silk merchant, who left on a trading ship bound for India. It was the same route that Maimonides' brother David followed before he drowned in a storm in the Indian Ocean. Tamar's husband vanished without trace; he never returned. That had been 12 years earlier. They were too young, too stubborn, and too sentimental to get a conditional divorce so that after a specific time if he had not returned she could be free to marry again.

No one knew whether he was dead or alive. As he was, she was forever in a limbo state. In Jewish law, she was agunah, somewhere between but neither wife nor widow, neither married nor maiden. A woman without womanhood, she had left to her only yearning beyond hope.

Celebrating the Sabbath

Medieval and Renaissance Judaism preeminently was family religion. To celebrate the law the total Jewish community had the synagogue at its center. Nevertheless, after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the focus of Jewish religious celebration became the home. In fact, the tabernacle became the table. The modest household table was altar and ark of the covenant, where ceremonies of sanctity were practiced and ritual objects were not only venerated but used. At no time was this more so than on the Sabbath. Sabbath ceremonial vessels ranged from the prosaic practical to the embellished ornamental.

The Talmud maintains that observing the day of rest is to equal all other Jewish obligations combined. So critical is the Jews' obedience to the commandment to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy, whosoever forgets the Sabbath invites punishment in the afterlife.

Everyone deserved the Sabbath, not simply the Jews who must obey the commandment to observe: Servants of the Jews must not work on the Sabbath. According to the 12th-century moral, mystical instruction book The Book of the Pious, even Jews' pack animals and plow beasts must be relieved of burden and set to graze on the Sabbath. Christian goldsmiths fashioning Jewish ritual objects must not work on Saturday.

Armies in the field must cease hostilities. The 11th-century Jewish prince and army commander in Muslim Spain Samuel ibn Nagrela lit Sabbath lamps in his battlefield tent. This weekly day of rest required by God's command also provided the triple benefits of physical, mental, and moral medicine.

Sabbath observance as a domestic Jewish ritual was especially the intelligent woman's responsibility. No matter what she might learn of Torah or Talmud, no matter what she knew of Jewish law, Halakah, she had the privilege and the responsibility of custom and ritual: minhagim. Let any man debate theoretical precepts of Halakah. But let every woman express them in ceremonial beauty of minhagim.

For in custom and in ceremony are truth and beauty born. To achieve holiness in beauty and beauty in holiness, the concept called hiddur mitzvah, the Sabbath celebrant used ritual objects beautifully embellished. The purposes of using exquisite ritual objects, as Profiat Duran insisted, were to enlarge the soul, quicken the heart, and empower the mind.

Primary among the Sabbath necessities was the lamp. The woman must light it, chanting a ritual prayer. The idea of kindling two Sabbath candles commemorating the biblical injunctions to remember and to observe, zakor and shamor, is a relatively modern 18th-century phenomenon. While candles were known and used in medieval Europe, the lamp of choice was the oil lamp, either table standing or a chandelier. The Ashkenazic (or Germanic) star lamp, the Judenstern, was raised during weekdays, lowered by ratchets on Sabbath eve. The Sephardic (or Spanish) and Eastern Sabbath lamp was the whimsically named "pregnant hourglass" suspended by ornamented chains. Lamp lighting officially welcomed the Sabbath.

Other aspects of Sabbath ritual were observed scrupulously. Just as marriages made in heaven had their earthly actuality, so the Sabbath peace and tranquility were foretastes of paradise. The Sabbath meals themselves were prefigurations of the final feast of the righteous at the coming of the Messiah. So what otherwise might be mere kitchen chore was invested with dramatic dignity.

Hand washing served ceremony and good hygiene, for in usual medieval fashion, to assure aesthetic pleasure lingers, all foods were eaten with the fingers. An iron or bronze water pitcher, its mouth its spout, had the blessing for hand washing inscribed on its flank.

The woman arranged for the wine and the wine cups, for the saying of the kiddush blessing, and the baking of the ceremonial twist bread, the chaleh, which almost always was braided, either oval or round. As with the ritual unleavened bread, the matzoh at Passover, the woman superintended correct baking, beautiful finishing, and proper choreography of bread service. Symbol superseded mere sustenance.

Since kitchen labor was forbidden so that the Sabbath could be devoted to study rather than cooking, the traditional Sabbath feast food in much of western Europe was a slow-cooking stew that could be prepared the previous day. The cholent was an aromatic, savory stew combining in a single pot meat, vegetables, herbs, spices, and dried fruits cooked the day before and slowly mellowed overnight in a still warm oven. Cholent, challeh, fruits, cold fish dishes, cakes, and wines were conventional western European Sabbath fare.

Sabbath spices, as foods, served more than mere aesthetic pleasure. They were presented in a decorative spice box. Aromatic herbs, crushed and burned for their pleasant fragrance, called mugmar, common in Jewish homes during Roman times, had their substitute in myrtle and flowers both in Sabbath spice box and in sprigs on the table. The special spirit inspiring the celebrant of the Sabbath is, according to the Talmud, an extra soul inhabiting the body. It mystically rests on the myrtle and herbs and is breathed in with the aroma. A simpler rationalistic interpretation of the special Sabbath quality and the effect of its spices are increased spirituality and heightened peace of mind.

Another reason justifies the use of spices such as myrtle on Sabbath eve. Myrtle stimulates erotic emotion. An important aphrodisiac in pagan lore, the myrtle transferred to Judaism was thought especially effective for strengthening sexuality on Friday night. The Mishnah also suggested eating aphrodisiac garlic as sexual stimulus on Friday evenings. The wife's right to sex and the husband's obligation to provide it were specifically written into the marriage contract. In fact, a man's denial of his sexual responsibilities was one of the three acceptable reasons for a wife to initiate a divorce. The other two were cruelty and encroachment on personal liberty.

As with all good things, even on Sabbath eve, there were a time for going out and a time for going in. A husband and wife must not sexually join during her menstrual period. Abstinence, after all, stimulated desire. After menstruation, she must take a ritual bath, immersing herself in a mikvah. Some medieval women routinely preferred to bathe each Sabbath eve before joining their husbands in bed.

Reminding her of these Sabbath responsibilities, a rich medieval woman might own a splendid nielloed silver and gold coffer resembling a jewel box, a typical bridal gift, sivlonah. The customary design had front panels depicting the woman's three major symbolic rites or mitzvahs: chaleh baking, mikvah bathing, and candle lighting. These three obligations the Mishnah says are so important that forgetfulness of them could cause a woman to die in childbirth.

Typical Sabbath boxes had clock dials on the cover to help the woman keep her house in perfect order and her mind tranquil on the Sabbath. On a splendid box currently in the Hebrew Museum in Jerusalem there are eight dials, each with an inscription reading, sheets, tablecloths, towels, shirts, undergarments, handkerchiefs, underwear, and aprons. The dials would allow the woman to set them to reflect her exact inventories in her locked linen cabinets. On Sabbath eve, all keys were taken from the locks, placed in the coffer, and locked in, and one golden key to the key chest worn around the mistresses' neck. This would assure that no servant would steal when she was away at synagogue on the Sabbath. A beautiful, practical device, it symbolized her spiritual responsibility for the home tabernacle.

After the synagogue service conduced by rabbi and cantor, Sabbath contemplation was complemented by quiet entertainments, or exuberant story sung by the professional tale chanter, such as the German Spielmann wending his lyrics through Arthurian romance and fantastical heroic epic.

At twilight the beautiful ceremony called havdalah signaled the outgoing of the Sabbath, requiring blessings over lights and spices. The light usually was a braided candle of wax threads of two colors (customarily blue and white) intertwining. The candle represented the week's one sacred day and six profane days interanimated. The aromatic spices comforted and refreshed the mind lamenting loss of Sabbath spirituality because of return to the workaday world. But the spices also promised after another week the regaining of Sabbath peace. To followers of the mystic rabbi Rashi, havdalah spices were the myrtle leaf vehicle for the departing "extra soul" of a Sabbath. In fact, the spice box even today is called hadas, the Hebrew word for "myrtle." The glory of spirituality, as of other consuming passions, is its renewability.

Calendar of Jewish Festivals

Beginning with Rosh Hashanah, literally the "head of the year," followed by Yom Kippur, the sacred Day of Atonement, followed by Sukkot, the harvest festival, through Chanukah, the celebration of lights, the Jewish ritual calendar contains monthly observances commemorating both biblical and historical events.

The medieval Jewish calendar was lunar, not solar; therefore dates for holidays and festivals followed the monthly phases of the Moon. Unlike the Christian solar calendar, which primarily adhered to fixed dates for celebrating church festivals, such as Christmas on December 25, Jewish lunar reckonings make every calendrical celebration a movable feast.

Lunar reckonings of time's passage describe 12 months for each ordinary year. Ten days shorter than the solar year of the Christian world, the lunar calendar has been adjusted every few years by an additional 29-day month of Adar, the second Adar, Adar Sheni, making a 383-day leap year. The day after the sighting of the new Moon is called Rosh Chodesh, the "head of the month."

Hebrew names for the months are Nissan, Iyyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av, Elul, Tishri, Cheshvan, Kislev, Teveth, Shevat, Adar. Five months have 30 days (Tishri, Shevat, Nissan, Sivan, Av), and the remaining five have 29 days to make a total of 354 days plus eight hours, 48 minutes, and 36 seconds. This short year requires the leap year readjustments to enable the lunar calendar to adhere to the biblical injunction to celebrate Passover and spring festivals within springtime and harvest celebrations such as Sukkot in the bountiful autumn.

Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah falls on the first and second days of Tishri, the seventh month in the Jewish calendar. The name Rosh Hashanah is not attested in the Bible. Leviticus 23:24–25 institutes the observance of the feast under the names of Yom Zikkaron ("Day of Remembrance") and Yom Teruah ("The Day of the Sounding of the Shofar"). As the biblical names indicate, the feast day is one of introspection, of remembering the wrongdoings one may have committed toward God or one's fellows, and pledging to start anew with acts of restitution, prayer, and piety. The two days of Rosh Hashanah are the beginning of the so-called 10 Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim), which begin on 1 Tishri and culminate in the 10th day, Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance.

If the Sabbath was celebrated mainly in the home, Rosh Hashanah was observed primarily in the synagogue. The blowing of the shofar, a horn's ram that sounds like a trumpet blast, in the synagogue was essential for the observance of Rosh Hashanah. According to Leviticus, the shofar must be blown a total of 100 times over the two-day festival. Medieval Jews would spend most of the days of Rosh Hashanah in the synagogue praying and listening to the sounding of the shofar blasts.

Fast of Gedalia

On the third day of the month of Tishri immediately after Rosh Hashanah, Jews observe the Fast of Gedalia. The origin of the fast lies in 2 Kings 25ff. and the Book of Jeremiah 40–41, which recount the political assassination of Gedalia, son of Ahikam, by a fellow Jew, Yishmael. After the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple of Jerusalem in 582 BCE, they appointed Gedalia king of Judea. Yishmael, a member of the royal house of David, was bent on restoring Jewish autonomy and probably resented Gedalia's appointment both because he was willing to collaborate with Babylonian rule and because he did not belong to the Davidic line. Whatever Yishmael's motivations, he murdered Gedalia and his followers, ending Jewish settlement in Judea. Jews remember this political murder as a grave sin and a tragedy since it occurred during the sacred Days of Awe and dealt the final blow to the Jewish monarchy. The Fast of Gedalia lasts from sunrise to sunset as a sign of mourning.

Ten Days of Awe

The Ten Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim), which extend from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, are days of somber reflection. According to Jewish belief, God only forgives the sins committed against him; he does not forgive the wrongdoings that humans commit against one another. Lest these deeds be inscribed as well in the "Book of Life" on the Day of Atonement, Jews spend the days before Yom Kippur making amends to anyone whom they have hurt, for any vows that they have broken before the End of Days.

Yom Kippur

The Ten Days of Awe culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a solemn feast day spent in fasting and prayer to beg God's forgiveness for sins committed and to make amends to one's fellows for any wrongdoings. The observance begins the day before as each family prepares a special banquet that much be eaten prior to sunset. During the meal each person asks and receives forgiveness from whomever he or she has wronged during the year. With this accomplished, a strict and complete fast officially begins at sunset and lasts until after nightfall on the following day. Not only are all food and drink prohibited, but people must also refrain from bathing, anointing the body with perfume or oils, or wearing leather shoes and must abstain from sexual relations.

At sunset it is customary to gather in the synagogue to recite the prayer "Kol Nidre" (All the Vows) from a special prayer book called the Machzor. The prayer is recited three times to signal the official beginning of the Yom Kippur feast. It may seem ironic to note that in the "Kol Nidre" prayer Jews ask God to annul all vows that they will make in the next year. The prayer is in fact a reminder of the solemn duty to honor all vows even if made under duress. During times of persecution, when Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or Islam or were tried by the Inquisition, the "Kol Nidre" comforted those who felt bound to honor their conversion.

Another significant and special part of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the confession of the sins of the community. The confession is a two-part communal prayer: The first part, the "Ashmanu," is a brief list of sins of a general, moral nature, for instance, "We have been treasonable; we have been aggressive; we have been slanderous." The second confession, called the "Al Chet," is a longer and more specific list asking forgiveness of various sins, for instance, "For the sin we sinned before you by acting callously." These prayers conclude with a general confession asking forgiveness for breaching any of the positive commands or the negative commands, whether knowingly or unknowingly. It is interesting to note that most of the sins belong to the category of the "sins of the mouth" (lashon ha-ra), such as slander, lying, offensive speech, scoffing, and giving false testimony.

Most people spend the entire day at the synagogue praying. The ark of the tabernacle, which holds the Torah scrolls, is kept open throughout the festival. Yom Kippur concludes with the recitation of a lengthy prayer called "Neila." The congregation must recite the entire prayer standing before the open ark, and it should be intoned using a tone of desperation in recognition of the final opportunity to repent all sins before the Book of Life is "closed."


The somberness and sobriety of Yom Kippur give way a mere five days later to the joyful celebration of the seven-day Festival of Sukkot on 15 Tishri, which is mandated in Leviticus 23:34. The unabashed ritualized joyfulness of the holiday is noted in the liturgical literature, where it is often referred to as Zman Simchateinu "the season of our rejoicing." During the seven days of the festival, Jews leave the comfort of their homes and live in temporary dwellings or booths, the meaning of the word sukkot. The holiday has a dual significance as a harvest festival and as a commemoration of a biblical event.

It recalls the 40-forty year period of wandering in the desert when the Israelites lived in temporary shelters. The booth must be made of two and a half walls and be large enough to eat and sleep in, in order to fulfill the command of "dwelling." The roof must be a material covering called sekhakh (lit. "covering") made of anything that grows from the ground and is cut specifically for the holiday. Typically the sekhakh is made of tree branches, corn stalks, or bamboo reeds and must be put on last.

Another key element of the Sukkot observance is the Arba minim, or "four species," of plants with which Jews are to "rejoice before the Lord," in keeping the Leviticus 23:40: "On the first day, you will take for yourselves a fruit of a beautiful tree, palm branches, twigs of a braided tree and brook willows, and you will rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days." The four plants are a citron, a palm branch, two willow branches, and three myrtle branches. The latter three are bound together and collectively are called a luvav ("palm branch"), while the citron, a citrus fruit, is held separately. Holding all four species in one hand, the celebrants recite a blessing and wave the species in all six directions, north, south, east, west, up, and down, symbolizing that God is everywhere. On each of the seven days of Sukkot, celebrants parade in procession around the bimah, the pedestal in the center of the synagogue where the Torah ark is positioned, and recite a prayer in which the words Hosha na ("Save us!") are repeated. The procession around the bimah recalls the ancient processions the people of Israel made around the sacred Temple in Jerusalem. On the seventh day the people circumambulate around the bimah seven times.

Simchat Torah

After the booths are dismantled and the period of Sukkot officially ends, the joyfulness of occasion continues for two days more with the celebration of Shmenei Atzeret and Simchat Torah, respectively. According to Leviticus 23:34, on the eighth day (the day after the seven-day observance of Sukkot), God commanded the Jews "to make a holy convocation" for the Lord. This "holy convocation" is Shmeini Atzeret, the literal meaning of which is "the assembly of the eighth day." Rabbinic literature explains that the Lord has enjoyed the presence of the Jews in his house so much during the previous seven days of Sukkot that he invites them to stay one day longer.

The following day is the festival of Simchat Torah ("Rejoicing in the Torah"), a joyful celebration that marks the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings in the synagogue. On Simchat Torah the last portion of the Torah, Deuteronomy 34, is read aloud and this is followed immediately by the reading of the first portion, Genesis 1, as a reminder that the Torah is a never-ending cycle. As a sign of their jubilee and in gratitude for the gift of Torah, the rabbi removes the Torah from the ark and the people parade with it in procession around the synagogue, singing and dancing to exhibit the happiness of the occasion. The scrolls are passed along, permitting as many people as possible the honor of carrying them, and aliyas ("blessings") are recited over them.

Abundant wine drinking is an essential element of the celebration.


Chanukah is the Festival of the Rededication of the Temple, also known as the Festival of Lights for the eight days during which candles are lit at home and in the synagogue as part of the celebration. Chanukah is a postbiblical festival instituted in the text Shabbat 21b of the Babylonian Talmud (and the apocryphal Book of Maccabees), which stipulates that the feast begins on the 25th of Kislev and is to be observed with Hallel ("prayers of praise") and thanksgiving.

Chanukah traces its roots to the reign of Alexander the Great and his benign policy of allowing the peoples conquered to continue practicing their own religion and traditions and to maintain a degree of political autonomy. This laissez-faire attitude actually encouraged the Jews, as well as the Egyptians, Syrians, Iranians, and other subjects of the Greek Empire, to adopt Hellenist customs rather than cling to their own traditions. Under the reign of Antiochus IV, however, this live-and-let-live situation deteriorated as the king ordered the persecution of his Jewish subjects: A Hellenistic priest was appointed to control the Temple and the blasphemous sacrifice of pigs was carried out on its altar. Those who protested were murdered and the Jews were finally prohibited from practicing their religion. The ensuing Hasmonean Revolt led by Mattathias and his son, Judah the Maccabee, succeeded in defeating the Greeks and wresting the control of the Temple from the Hellenized Jews.

Legend has it that there was very little purified oil left to light the menorah ("candelabrum") needed to rededicate the Temple because most of it had been polluted by the Greeks in the course of performing their own religious rituals. Miraculously, the remaining oil, which should have been enough to burn throughout only one whole night, kept burning continuously for eight days, giving the Jewish priests time to prepare a fresh batch of ritually pure oil. Chanukah celebrates the memory of this glorious miracle with the burning of the menorah candles.

On the first day only one candle is lit, on the second day two candles are lit, and so on, progressively until the eighth day, when all eight are lit because, according to Shabbat 21b of the Babylonian Talmud, "We increase in sanctity but do not reduce." The menorah candelabrum has nine candle holders, one for each of the eight candles, plus one more of a slightly different height, which is called the shammus ("servant"). The procedure for lighting the candles is highly regimented: On the first night those present recite three blessings: l'hadlik neir (a general prayer over candles), she-asah nisim (a prayer thanking God for performing the original miracle), and she-hekhianu (a general prayer thanking God for being alive to celebrate this day). When the blessings are completed, a candle is lit and placed on the far right. Then the shammus candle is lit and placed in its holder. On each successive night another candle is added to the menorah from right to left; however, the candles themselves are lit from left to right. Moreover, the third blessing, the she-hekhianu, is only recited on the first night.

Hymns of praise are sung during the ceremonial lighting whose lyrics commemorate the miraculous events. One such hymn, dating to the 13th century, beseeches God, the "rocky fortress of my salvation" to "restore my House of Prayer" from the "blaspheming foe." Besides the lighting of the candles, the significance of oil is seen in the foods prepared for the occasion. Fried food requiring abundant oil takes pride of place.

Tu Bshvat

Tu Bshvat literally means "the 15th of the month of Shevat," the date more commonly known as the New Year for Trees. Tu Bshvat is not named as a festival in the Bible, but rather as a reminder of the tithes due to God. According to Leviticus 19:23–25, when a tree is planted, its fruit "shall be treated as forbidden and not eaten." In the fourth year all the fruit must be sanctified and offered to God, and finally in the fifth year the fruit may be consumed as normal. There is no liturgy as such that accompanies this day, but Jews would normally observe it by eating a new fruit from one of the permitted trees.


Purim, the Festival of Lots, falls on the 14th and 15th of the month of Adar and is the outrageously joyful celebration of Jewish delivery from certain massacre by the Babylonian king, as a result of the ingenuity of the heroine Esther. Reading from the Book of Esther is essential to the celebration, however, as later detailed discussion will indicate, the feast is complex and filled with carnivalesque events.


Pesach, the Jewish "Passover," is the major festival of Judaism and celebrates the miraculous delivery of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. The festival begins on the 15th of the month of Nissan and lasts for seven days. The name pesach, or "Passover," refers to the angel of the Lord who "passed over" the houses of the Jews and slew only the first sons of all the houses of the Egyptians, including pharoah's own heir. (Pesach also alluded to the "sacrificial offering" of the lamb that was made on this date in the Jerusalem Temple.) The festival is often referred to as the "Feast of Unleavened Bread" in recollection of the biblical command that "for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread" (Exodus 12:16).

Preparations for the festival usually begin the evening before with the complete removal of all leavened substances (chametz), meaning wheat, oats, spelt, rye, and barley, from the home. As will be recalled from the biblical narrative, in their hasty Exodus from Egypt, God commanded the Jews to "remove all leaven" from their homes and to take with them only the unleavened bread called matzoh, which is made of flour and water and cooked very quickly. Accordingly, medieval Jews removed all chametz products from their homes, although interesting differences arose between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities over the permissible ingredients for making matzoh. Sephardic Jews used kitniyot (literally, "bits") of non-chametz products such as chick peas, lentils, rice, or sesame seeds, which they ground to make bread. Ashkenazic Jews followed a stricter interpretation of the command and prohibited the use of the kitniyot, since they were being used as chametz.

Food assumes a prominent role in the celebration of Pesach. The first night of the holiday Jewish families have a special meal called the seder (meaning "order"), which must be consumed in a ritual order and whose ingredients are filled with symbolic meaning. So extensive is the accompanying liturgy for the ritual that it is recounted in a special prayerbook called the Haggadah, which narrates the story of the Exodus and explains the meaning of the symbols used in its observance. Medieval Passover Haggadahs were richly illuminated with biblical scenes.

The seder begins with a kaddesh, a "sanctification," of the wine that is drunk in honor of the holiday. The head of the family pronounces the blessing, everyone drinks, and a second cup is poured. Next is the urekatz, the ritual "washing of hands," in preparation for eating the first of the requisite food items, the karpas. The karpas is a common dark green vegetable, most often parsley, which is dipped in saltwater and eaten. The karpas symbolizes the humble origins of the Jews and the saltwater symbolizes the tears shed while in slavery.

After this, the celebrants begin to consume the matzoh bread. Altogether there should be three matzohs on the seder table. A piece from the middle bread is broken off in a ritual called yachatz ("breaking") and is set aside for later, while the remainder is replaced on the table. The participation of children is important in the seder ritual, and often it will be a child who is given charge of setting the broken matzoh piece aside or even hiding it.

In Ashkenazic homes the youngest child in the family takes center stage in the next ritual, the maggid, the "retelling of the story," of the Exodus and the first Pesach. The child asks four questions, each of which begins with the words Mah nisthanah ("What is different?"). In Sephardic homes the entire family will recite the questions in unison. The order of the questions also differs in the Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions. In the former, the four questions are "Why eat matzoh?" "Why eat maror [bitter herbs]?" "Why dip the green vegetables twice?" and "Why recline at the dining table?" Sephardis switch the order, asking why dip twice, why eat matzoh, why eat maror, and why recline.

At the end of the maggid a blessing is pronounced over the second cup of wine and it is drunk. Among Sephardic Jews it was tradition to reenact a Passover play at this point. The person presiding over the meal would get up, leave the table, go to another room, and return with a walking stick and the afikomen, the piece of matzoh removed earlier, in a sack over his shoulder. The children would ask him, "Where are you coming from?" to which he would reply, "From Egypt," and he would go on to tell them the story of the Exodus. Then the children asked him, "Where are you going?" and he replied, "To Egypt!" The Ashkenazic do not perform this reenactment.

The maggid is followed by another ritual washing of the hands, called rachtzah, which is done while reciting a blessing in preparation for eating the matzoh. Before the matzoh is eaten, a special blessing especially for grain products, called the ha-motzi, is said over the bread. Another blessing is recited over the matzoh and each person eats a piece.

Next, a blessing is said over the maror, or bitter herbs, and a portion of them are eaten. In fact, there are two types of bitter herbs, the maror proper, usually horseradish or a bitter lettuce, and the chazaret, which is eaten later in the ritual. The maror is dipped in a pasty substance (the second of the ritual "dippings") usually made of wine, cooked apples, nuts, and cinnamon. The bitter herbs recall the bitterness of slavery and the paste, called charoset, symbolizes the mortar that the Jews used when forced to build the pharoahs' tombs in Egypt. The other bitter herbs, the chazaret, are eaten next, together with another piece of the matzoh bread, which together are called korech.

The symbolic foods are placed on a special large plate called the seder platter. Again there are noteworthy differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic practices. Seder platters of the Sephardic Jews of Spain and Portugal were much larger than their Ashkenazic counterparts and richly decorated in the Arabic style of ceramics. Sephardic platters are larger because the Sephardim would place all six symbolic foods plus the three matzoh breads on it, while the Ashkenazis use a separate plate for the three matzoh, which in turn will have two dividers preventing the breads from touching each other.

Spanish Jews endowed the symbolic foods with kabbalistic meanings and arranged them on the platter to resemble the cabalistic "tree of life." For the Sephardim, each of the symbolic foods and the plate mystically represent the 10 sefirot, or attributes of the divine godhead. Thus, the three matzoh, the most important of the ritual foods, symbolize the first three sefirot of the godhead, Keter ("Crown") Hokmah ("Wisdom") and Binah ("Understanding"), and are placed at the top of the platter. Below them on the left side of the "Kabbalistic tree" are the roasted egg (beitzah), which symbolizes Gevurah ("divine judgment"), and in parallel placement on the right side is the shank bone (zeroah) corresponding to Hesed ("grace"). The maror are placed in the center of the tree and stand for Tiferet ("beauty"). Below to the left of the maror is the other green vegetable, karpas, which symbolizes Hod ("majesty"), while to the right is the charoset dip, which corresponds to Netzah ("eternity"). At the bottom of the seder platter lies the chazeret, the other bitter herb, which symbolizes Yesod ("foundation"). The seder platter symbolizes the Shekinah, representing God's kingdom or presence.

Once this symbolic meal is completed, the family moves on to the main course of the dinner, the shulkhan oreh. Here there are no specific requirements, except the avoidance of all leavened substances. Sephardic Jews tended to prefer lamb for the main meat dish, while Ashkenazic Jews ate beef or chicken. After dinner was finished the piece of matzoh bread set aside earlier was recovered for the dessert, or afikomen. Again, the children might be asked to find the bread and each person would eat a tiny bit. After this, a third cup of wine was poured and a special blessing, the birkat ha-mazon ("grace after the meal"), was recited, and the wine drunk. A fourth cup of wine was poured for everyone, with one extra cup for the prophet Elijah, the traditional herald of the Messiah, who is supposed to visit each home to do this. Hallel, or hymns of praise, were sung and a blessing was said over the last cup of wine, which everyone proceeded to drink. The Passover seder officially ended with a simple but moving closing statement, the Nitzah, proclaiming the end of the meal and expressing the messianic desire that next year Pesach could be celebrated in Jerusalem, meaning that the Messiah would have come.

In preparation for Elijah's "arrival" Jews would usually leave the front door open during the seder. In the Middle Ages, leaving the door open served a more practical, if pathetic purpose of assuring suspicious Christians that the Jews were not desecrating the eucharistic host or using the blood of Christian babies to make the matzoh bread. Previous chapters have noted the tragic consequences of the Christian paranoia that the Jews stole eucharistic hosts and defiled them to make their matzoh bread.

Lag Bomer

In Leviticus 23:15 the Jews were commanded to undertake the Lag Bomer, or "Counting of the Omer," the counting of the days between from Passover to Shavuot. In the days of the Jerusalem Temple, an omer a unit of measure of barley was cut and taken to the Temple as an offering. Every night from the second night of Passover to Shavuot, Jews would say a ritual blessing and count the unit of measure. Symbolically the ritual is a reminder of the connection between Passover, the commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt, and Shavuot, which celebrates the occasion when God first gave the Torah to Moses. A certain controversy surrounded when the Counting of the Omer should begin, because the word pesach is not mentioned in Scripture, but rather Shabbat, meaning "Sabbath." While the majority of opinion agreed that the Shabbat mentioned referred to the first day of Passover, which is Sabbath in the sense that no work is allowed, the Karaite sect held the view that Shabbat referred to the first Sabbath day during Passover.


The Counting of the Omer culminates in the festival of Shavuot (Heb. "weeks"), another of the major Jewish holy days, which falls on the fifth or sixth of the month of the month of Sivan. Shavuot, also called Pentecost, is observed on the 50th day after Passover, and as with the Counting of the Omer, Jews were likewise commanded to count the days from Passover to Shavuot (cf. Lev.21:15–16, 21). As Sukkot has, Shavuot has an agricultural symbolism linked to the ancient Temple, corresponding to the time when the first fruits were harvested and taken to the Temple as an offering of thanksgiving. But historically it celebrates the initial giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinah and is thus also known as Hag Matan Torateinu ("Festival of the Giving of Our Torah"). Traditionally the rabbis have insisted on the term giving, as opposed to receiving, the Torah, because each day Jews "receive" the Torah when they pray; however, it was only "given" for the first time once.

Passover and Shavuot are connected spiritually, because while the Exodus freed the people of Israel from their corporeal bondage, the gift of the Torah liberated them from their spiritual bondage to sin, idolatry, and mortality. No work is allowed on Shevuot and most people would observe it by staying awake the entire night and reading and studying Torah. Traditionally one of the meals eaten on Shavuot would be a dairy meal, which some believe is a symbol of the promise to Israel of a land "flowing with milk and honey." The liturgical reading for the day is taken from the Book of Ruth.

Tisha Bav

Joy turns into mourning with the observance of Tisha BAv, literally, the ninth day of the month of Av, since, according to the Book of Kings 2:25, Jeremiah 52, Zechariah 7, as well as the Talmud, the worst calamities afflicting the Jews occurred during this month: The Persian king Nebuzaradan burned the Temple, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, and the city of Jerusalem was destroyed. The same degree of severe fasting is observed on this day as on Yom Kippur with the total abstention from all food; drink, including water; and sex; refraining from bathing and anointing the body with oil or perfume; and not wearing leather shoes. People may also adopt the ritualized gestures of mourning, refraining from smiling, laughing, or engaging in idle conversation.

A solemn liturgy is observed in the synagogue, featuring readings from Lamentations and the recitation of mourning prayers. The Torah ark is draped in a black cover. From the Middle Ages, Jewish observers began to associate the distant tragedies of the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem with the more contemporary tragedies of massacres, pogroms, and forced conversions.

Most holiday celebrations, as with the Jewish wedding, Passover, and the Sabbath, portray God's direct intervention in human affairs. The interventionist hand of God is joyfully recalled in the festival of Purim.


Intriguingly, the Book of Esther is the only biblical book in which the name of God is not mentioned. The Purim feast and festival represent, as do the wedding and Sabbath, ingenious psychological ploys for making discipline endurable and desirable. Purim celebration also demonstrates marvelous cultural interdependencies among Christians, Muslims, and Jews, while also retaining vestiges of classical paganism.

The story is familiar: the Persian and Median king Ahasuerus angrily dismissed his wife Vashti and welcomed as queen the Jewish beauty Hadassah, or Esther, niece of the learned Mordecai. Together they overcame the wicked Prime Minister Haman's attempt to exterminate the Jews.

The Book of Esther is one of the last scrolls, a megillah of the third part of the Bible, called the Hagiography or Ketubim, the "Writings." Numerous elaborations upon this dramatically complete tale appear in the Apocrypha, the Talmud, and the Midrash. The Megillah reading in the synagogue is musically presented by traditional cantillations, the joyous Megillah mode tempered by the sadder Lamentations mode. Medieval and Renaissance listeners created responses that have become traditional, many of them still sounding in Jewish temples worldwide.

First was the erasure of the tyrant Haman's name. Each time the cantor or chazzan read the name Haman, the audience was obligated to eliminate it. Each congregant might write the name Haman on one of two flat, hand-held stones and vigorously rub them together to "rub out" the name. Or each celebrant would write the hated name on the sole of the shoe and stamp and scrape at each mention of the name. The more staid wrote the word several times on a slip of paper or vellum and literally rubbed it out with an abrasive. The most common eliminator of the spoken word was cacophony by sounding a loud raucous percussion instrument, the grogger.

The grogger, a ratchet rattle particularly common in 13th-century France and Germany, was a combination of two primitive noisemakers: the "bull roarer" (an object on a string whirled around the head to make a whining sound) plus the "scraper" (a notched or ridged stick or washboard rubbed by a flat stick, creating a grating sound). The grogger has its Christian equivalent in the crazelle used at Mardi Gras and on Saint John's Day. In another form, lepers shook or sounded a grogger, to warn people of their approach to prevent exposure to the disease and possible contamination.

The second Purim ritual was the beating or burning of Haman in effigy. A straw figure set up in a marketplace either would be attacked by men on horseback, tilting at it with lances or swords, or placed in the synagogue courtyard or nearby, set afire, and burned until consumed. The congregants' chanting and moving in a circle followed the course of the Sun in its daily rotation. That ritual is identical to the originally pagan but later Christian bonfire rogations on Midsummer Eve or Saint John's Day. The 13th-century Italian Jewish satirist Kalonymous ben Kalonymous described the merry making around a Haman puppet set high on a stage, amid shouts of vengeance and blowing of trumpets, the custom called ira, Italian for "fury" and "vengeance."

Guiding festivities for the Purim carnival was the Purim king or the Purim rabbi, a young man selected to parody the habits of a venerable synagogue leader or Talmudic scholar. The Purim king delivered a mock-sermon, using language and poetic meters of Scripture in celebration of something banal such as wine. Comparable to the boy bishop or the Lord of Misrule in the Christian Twelfth Night (after Christmas) and Feast of Fools, the Jewish Purim rabbi was the intelligent fool whose socially permitted abandonment of restraint and once-yearly profanation of the sacred reaffirmed social discipline.

Similarly, the masks and masquerades, the mimes and mummeries dramatizing part of the Esther story allowed a cathartic excess, a pleasurable release from the bonds of decorum. Soon such freedom became a fear of chaos. Then it stimulated yearning for familiar restriction. Once again, the Christian Feast of Fools, Twelfth Night, and Lenten Carnival achieved similar purpose with play.

The Purimspiele, a drama specifically written for the Purim festival, utilized such ingenious psychological manipulation. Well known in Germany by the 15th century (though scripts apparently were not published until the 17th century), the Purimspiele doubtless was a phenomenon far older. Its first performers were the wedding jesters, the bodhanim, delivering monologue parodies of important community figures and burlesque impersonations of holy luminaries. Some early Purimspiele were allegorical morality plays: dialogues between personified abstractions as Good and Evil, Summer and Winter, the Learned and the Ignoramus. Others dramatized the Esther-Haman hatred or similar triumphs over political tyrants, such as David's overcoming Goliath, or Joseph's outwitting his treacherous brothers.

Common folk and students, the bachurim, were the major actors of the Purimspiele, integrating professional jesters, jugglers, and musicians in the festivities. They also borrowed stock characters from secular popular drama. Later Purimspiele routinely had such characters as the Loudmouth Shrew or the Charlatan Physician, emended from the popular commedia dell'arte. One character constant to most Purimspiele was named called Montrish or Smart Alec, a pompous fool. Players moved from town square to marketplace or house to court or performed in the communal dance hall. They collected money for themselves and for charity. Purimspiele's humor, bawdry, and revelry were essentials of the Purim feast.

The Book of Esther expressly commands Purim days of feasting and gladness, of sending "portions" one to another; and of gifts to the poor (19:22). Three separate culinary pleasures were inherent in this biblical stricture: the making of the Purim banquets (sedurot), the sending of food portions to friends (mishloah monot), and the giving of food gifts (or money) as charity. In his hilarious parody of 13th-century Italian Purim practices, Kalonymous ben Kalonymous lists no fewer than 24 meat and pastry dishes, so respected by tradition even then that the recipes are said to have been translated down from the supreme chef to Moses at Mount Sinai.

Four of these historical cookery symbols have persevered for pleasing Purim palates among the Ashkenazic Jews today. The most familiar is the triangular, poppy-seed filled pastry Hamantaschen, originally called in German Mohn (poppyseed) Taschen (pockets or pouches). Similarity in sound to the hated Haman's name, plus the assumption that he wore a three-cornered Persian hat, probably caused the name change from Mohntaschen, "poppy pockets," to Hamantaschen.

A second popular feast dish is kreplah, pastry triangles filled with savory chopped meat. Supposedly kreplah with its beaten meat is eaten on those days when emotional "beating" or flogging is required, as on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur; on Hoshanna Rabba, when willow branches are beaten; and on Purim, when Haman's effigy is flogged. A variation upon triangular kreplah is verenikes, a round pastry filled with chopped liver, mashed vegetables, or a grain beaten from its plant, as kasha.

Queen Esther's abstemious food while in the Persian harem was commemorated by Nahit, Bub, or Babbelech, a vegetarian dish of salted, herbed, and spiced beans in their pods or chick peas. A fourth medieval Purim feast specialty was the bean cake. A huge cake was baked with a large bean or amulet or small sculptured favor hidden within. Whoever found the portion with the favor had the "luck" for the year, and the appointment as Purim king or Purim rabbi for the duration of the festival.

Remarkably similar to the Christian Twelfth Night cake or king's cake, in which the bean assigned the position of power to the boy bishop or King of Misrule, both Jewish fortune cakes served ceremonial purposes of reaffirming discipline after intentional unyoking from restraints. Purim encouraged hilarity and riotous behavior usually with intellectual weapons of verbal swords and stilettos meant to wound, not to kill.

Purim foods and festivities with their associated folk themes appealed alike to the more and the less educated. For the most learned scholars, Purim offered an excuse for the most scandalously ingenious Jewish satirical writing of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The Purim parody is a particular form of satire playfully, or viciously, ridiculing the original text it imitates plus the human subject it is meant to mock. One of the earliest Purim parodies is 12th-century Menachem ben Aaron's Hymn to the Night of Purim. In style it is wicked parody of a religious Passover hymn. Its subject celebrates wine drinking and drunkenness and particular leaders who enjoy wine overmuch.

To appreciate these glorious medieval parodies, it is useful to acquire a new vocabulary not customarily taught in institutions of higher learning. For instance: One ought to know not only the language and rhythms of the Talmud for reading Kalonymous ben Kalonymous's Masseket Purim, which it parodies, but the language of bars, distilleries, and all-night feasting halls where one might meet a glutton who, fishing for a choice piece of meat, doffs his clothes to dive naked into a giant bowl of soup. Linguistically dazzling, these parodies bristle with puns and brilliant imitations of learned pomposities and of holy word. Their satire on human foibles and vices ranks among the finest condemnations of the miser, the idler, the drunk, the whore, and the hypocrite.

A culture secure in its own discipline will dare to mock its own sacred text and laugh at its own people. Certainly, exaggerations of personal debauchery are not to be read as fact. The distinguished 14th-century scientist and astronomer Levi ben Gershon wrote the Megillat satarim, a mock-biblical book of the prophet named Bottle. A humorously ingenious swipe at pretentiousness and at abstinence, it partly burlesques language of rabbinic exhortations to rejoice at Purim and simultaneously describes gross, illogical results of unrestrained revelry. The Purim parodies' gargantuan exaggerations extend the limits of decorum. They are great solemnizations of gullet and gut. They are as hilarious as the classical Roman Trimalchio's Feast satire and the Renaissance crudities of Rabelais.

Mirth and roistering characterize many medieval Purim documents. Essentially the holiday revivifies two concepts: First, tyranny can be fought and must be vanquished. Second, no matter how intense the anti-Semitism or impossible the circumstance, Jews ultimately will triumph and celebrate with relief their deliverance.

Belief in God's saving power demonstrated in the original biblical Purim was translated to personal signification in nearly 20 medieval and Renaissance special Purims. Local town, city, family, or even individual escapes from persecution annually were celebrated by name and form as "a Purim." The Purim of Shiraz celebrated 13th-century Persian Jews' relief from forced conversion to Islam. The Purim of Castile commemorated the downfall of a Haman-like Jew baiter in 14th-century Spain. The Purim of Zaragoza commemorated a 15th-century miraculous release from a potential political disaster.

Knowledge that Purim could be used as an outlet of protest against contemporary Jewish persecution led some European Christian rulers to ban Jews from celebrating it, or at least from burning the effigy of Hamam, fearing it to be a closeted attack on Christianity or Christians. Such fears had their basis in fifth-century events when Syrian Purim celebrants taunted a Christian boy, accidentally causing his death. As a result, the emperor Theodosius II (401–450) included the prohibition of the burning of Hamam effigies in the Theodosian Code issued in 438.

Likewise, there were the Purim of the Poisoned Sword, Purim of the Bombs, Purim of Fatmilk. All of these second or special Purims were holidays on the date pertinent to the event but shared with the biblical Purim of Esther the same pastimes, the reading of a commemorative megillah, the dispensing of charity to the poor, and traditional feasting and festivity.

Purim's spiritual lesson dramatically generalized to personal life of a human being or a city. The inherent message was that God's hand directly guides his people's destiny. God directly rescues his people from the destroyers' hands.

The customs and ceremonies of Purim, the Sabbath, and marriage vivify three important interdependencies: First, God directly participates in human affairs, God to man, God to woman. Second, surprising interchanges occurred among classical, Judaic, and Christian ritual forms, if not philosophies, such as marriage crowns and aromatic spices, bonfires, and masquerading fools. Many Christian holidays, such as Lent and Pentecost, were transformed versions of their Jewish predecessors. We shall also see in the next section that the celebrations of Muslim festivals, such as Ashura and Ramadan, find their precedent in Jewish parallels and share many of the same features. Third, Jewish folklore and learned tradition merged, as in the shattered wedding glass, both a decorous reminder of the Temple's destruction and a bridal fertility charm for guarding by good spirits and avoidance of evil influences. Feasts and ceremonies of Jewish marriage, Sabbath, and Purim validate studying a culture by tasting its food and testing its festivals.

Islamic Holidays and Festivals

An Islamic feast or festival was called an id. Two major canonical festivals in the Islamic calendar are the Feast of the Sacrifice, the Id al-Adha or Id al-Qurban, and the Feast of Breaking the Fast, the Id al-Fitr. Of the two canonical holidays, the Feast of the Sacrifice, which ends the ritual celebrations of the hajj pilgrimage, is considered the greater feast day, hence its alternative name al-Id al-Kabir ("The Great Feast"), while the Feast of Breaking the Fast, which closes the month-long fast of Ramadan, is referred to as the Minor Feast (al-Id al-Saghir). Both shared customs and rites.

The celebration of both festivals is a solemn communal obligation, requiring the performance of the communal prayer called The Prayer of the Two Festivals, Salat al-Idayn. These communal prayers were held according to particular time schedules, and special donations and gifts of charity, zakat, were obligatory. The Prayer of the Two Festivals was led by an imam and was obligatory for Muslims living in a city large enough for a communal mosque, a jami mosque. The prayer took place in the morning between sunrise and noon. The typical Friday prayer took place after noon.

The customary Friday prayer was preceded by a first call to prayer, the adhan, followed by a second call to prayer, the iqana. Yet the Prayer of the Two Festivals was preceded by a simple invitation to prayer, a liturgical formula repeated only once: "Come to public prayer," al-salat jami atan. In the customary Friday prayer, the sermon, or khutba, preceded the prayer itself. In the Prayer of the Two Festivals, however, the khutba followed the prayer. The prayer itself was much simpler and shorter in form than the Friday prayer, consisting of only two rakas, or cycles of prayer formulas and prostrations. The imam and the congregation would begin the prayers by uttering many more takbirs (the ritual formula Allah akbar, or "God is great") than in the normal prayers.

On the Festival of Breaking the Fast, id al-fitr, the khutba included a set of instructions concerning the charity or alms, the zakat, for that festival. On the Festival of Sacrificing, the id al-adha, the khutba described the regulations for sacrifice. The local mosque was a routine site for regular Friday prayers. Yet the Prayer for the Festivals took place in the antecourtyard of the mosque, the open-air musalla. In the city of Mecca, however the Prayer for the Festivals took place in the Mosque of the Prophet.

In addition to the two canonical ids, medieval Muslims observed many voluntary festivals in the belief that the special prayers, rituals, fasts, and charitable acts that they performed on these days would merit a divine reward. The sermons of popular preachers, Sufi mystics, and the theologians who wrote treatises on the virtues (fadail) connected these festivals to the practices of Muhammad and promised that those who observed them would have their sins forgiven and be spared from the torments of the grave.

Ibn Iyas (d. 1525), the Egyptian historian, wrote a chronicle of Cairo during the reign of the Mamluks in which he listed the ceremonies of the Prophet's birthday, the cutting of the Cairo dike to free the Nile to flow, the beginning and end of Ramadan, and the departure and welcome of the pilgrimage caravan. Special occasions for celebration included the welcoming of a foreign ambassador and the birth of a son to the ruler. At these festivals the merchants and shopkeepers festooned the city with lights and the ruler processed in pomp and circumstance.

Certain religious judges, such as the ultraconservative Andalusian Maliki judge al-Turtushi (d. 1126) or the equally conservative Hanbali judge of Damascus Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), denounced these popular practices as bida, or innovations that departed from or contradicted with the legitimate (sunni) practices of Muhammad and the early Muslim community, and tried to have them banned.


The Quran commanded that the pilgrimage to Mecca, hajj, was a duty: "It is the duty of all men to come to the House a pilgrim, if he is able to make his way there." (Q 3:97) Though it was possible to make pilgrimage at any time of the year, the prescribed time was the month of Dhul-Hijja, the 12th month of the Muslim calendar. Every Muslim of sound mind and body was expected to make the hajj at least once in a lifetime. Those too poor or too young were excused, as were women without a husband or guardian. People on pilgrimage were never alone for long. Most pilgrims traveled in large caravans by land or sea. By the time of the Mamluks the most favored pilgrimage starting points were Cairo and Damascus. Pilgrims from the Maghrib went by sea or land to Cairo, met Egyptians traveling there, and then by land traveled in camel caravans across the Sinai desert, then through western Arabia to the holy cities. The caravans were organized by, protected by, and led in the name of the ruler of Egypt. The journey from Cairo to Mecca took between 30 and 40 days. Pilgrims from Anatolia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria met in Damascus and traveled for 30 to 40 days. Pilgrims from West Africa crossed the Sudan, then the Red Sea, and traveled from southern Iraq and the Gulf ports across central Arabia to Mecca. Depending on one's point of departure, the entire journey could take months, and accordingly many pilgrims combined travel in search of knowledge and business with the fulfillment of the religious duty.

The great 14th-century traveler Ibn Battuta expressed the exhilaration of the pilgrimage: "Of all the wondrous doings of Allah the most high he created in the hearts of men an instinctive desire to seek these sublime sanctuaries, a yearning to present themselves at these illustrious sites, and has imbued each man's heart with such love for the holy places that once one enters them they seize the whole heart and once one leaves them one suffers grief of separation." (cited in Hourani, 151)

On the approach to Mecca the pilgrim would wash to purify himself symbolically and put on a white garment symbolizing a funeral shroud called the ihram, customarily made of one single cloth. Women would wear either a white or a black cloak covering them from head to foot and not don any jewelry. In an act of consecration, the pilgrim said: "Here am I, O my God; here am I. No partner hast Thou; here am I. Verily the praise and the grace are Thine, and the empire." With these words pilgrims consecrated themselves in mind, body, and soul to God and pledged to refrain from any wrongdoing.

Once in Mecca the pilgrim entered the sacred area, the haram. By the 12th century the cluster of symbolic sites for pious visitation included the well of Zamzam that the angel Gabriel opened to save Hagar and her son, Ishmael. Nearby was the stone that preserved the patriarch Ibraham's footprint, known as the maqam Ibrahim. The most important building in the haram was the Kaaba with the holy Black Stone situated in one of its walls. The pilgrim circumambulated the rectangular Kaaba building seven times and touched or kissed the Black Stone. There were also particular places associated with imams of the four legal schools, the madhhabs.

An essential ritual of the pilgrimage was to leave the city of Mecca and go toward the hill of Arafa and stand there on the plain for a prescribed time, during which a special khutba ("sermon"), which emphasized repentance in preparation for the Day of Judgment, was preached. On the return to Mecca, the pilgrim stopped at Mina to throw seven stones at a pillar representing the devil. Then he sacrificed an animal. At that same time throughout the Islamic world families celebrated the Sacrificial Feast, Id al-Adha. For the Meccan pilgrim, the hajj was done. The pilgrim removed his white symbolic garment, the ihram, and resumed the clothes and the cares of the world, inevitably changed by this profound experience of collective piety. The pilgrim returning home also acquired a higher social status, manifested in the honorific title Hajji if a man and "Hajjiyya" if a woman.

Feast of the Sacrifice, Id Al-Adha

On the 10th day of the month of Dhu l-Hijja, the month of the hajj, Muslims celebrate the Sacrificial Feast, Id al-Adha, which was also named Id al-Nahr and Id al-Qurban. On this day pilgrims made their sacrificial offerings in the valley of Mina near Mecca, sacrifice there a survival of a pre-Islamic practice maintained in Islam as part of the Prophet's sunna. This sacrificial feast commemorated Ibraham's (Abraham's) incomplete sacrifice of his son, Ishmael, in Muslim tradition (Isaac in the Jewish-Christian traditions). During the sacrifice ritual the participants must pronounce various prayer formulas: the Basmala ("In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate") and the Salat ala al-Nabi ("God grant blessings and salvation to the prophet Muhammad"). They should then face the direction of Mecca and say the prayer formulas "God is great," "In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate," and again "God is great," before beseeching God graciously to accept the sacrifice.

Muslims not traveling and wealthy enough to own an animal were assumed, though not absolutely required, to sacrifice a sheep for their own personal piety. One Muslim would sacrifice a cow or camel for as many as 10 faithful Muslims. The animal was required to be perfect: not blind, lame, skinny, or defective in ears or tail. The sacrificed animal flesh would be distributed to the poor or rich, but one-third was to be reserved for charity, sadaqa.

The sacrifice physically took place directly on the Festival of Sacrifice or the first or second day thereafter. The location was either the musalla of the mosque or a special slaughter site called a manhar.

Pilgrimage Ceremonies

Ceremonies surrounding the yearly hajj to Mecca were celebrated in all Muslim countries. In addition to the Festival of the Sacrifice that coincided with the hajj sacrifices, Muslims celebrated three other customs: the welcoming of the pilgrim caravans, the parading of the kiswa, and the procession of the carriage called the mahmal. The kiswa was the fabric covering for the sacred stone of the Kaaba. The caliph in Egypt sent the kiswa with the pilgrim caravan after it had been ritually paraded through the streets of Cairo and Fustat before being carried to Mecca. From the 13th century on, an empty, highly decorated cart or carriage was drawn by the camel leading the caravan to Mecca. It may have contained a prayer book that was displayed to the populace after the return of the caravan from the hajj. For an Islamic ruler, the sending of the mahmal, as providing the kiswa, became an important statement of political independence.


Ramadan was the month that the Quran began to be revealed to Muhammad. All Muslims older than 10 years old were required to fast, to refrain from all food and drink, sexual intercourse, and smoking, from daylight to nightfall. These physical abstentions and hardships were a necessary precursor to the internal fast of repenting one's sins and pledging to abstain from sinful thoughts, words, or deeds. No one was excluded except those too physically weak, the mentally unfit, the heavy laborer, the warrior, and the long-distance traveler. The intention of the fast was for the pious person to draw nearer to God and to unite with other Muslims in recalling what distinguished them from other communities, namely, the revelation of the "Glorious Quran" and the blessing of the prophet Muhammad, the last, or "seal," of the prophets. In addition to maintaining the fast, the pious Muslim might spend the greater part of the day or evening praying in the mosque, reciting or listening to quranic recitation, engaging in religious studies, or listening to sermons and pious stories (qisas) about Muhammad and the other prophets. Each day at sunset, Muslims would break their fast in a custom called iftar, usually consisting of a few dates and juice followed by a larger, more festive meal. At the end of the month the entire community celebrated the holiday for Breaking the Fast, Id al-Fitr.

Night of the Divine Decree, the Laylat al-Qadr

The Night of the Divine Decree, the Laylat al-Qadr, was celebrated on the 27th day of Ramadan and celebrated the night that Allah began to dictate the Quran to Muhammad. On this night the heavenly gates were thought to be opened and prayer especially efficacious. The Quran itself fosters this belief, saying "The Night of Prayer is better than a Thousand nights." (Q 97:3) The most pious in certain Islamic groups believed that the Quran was revealed sometime during the last 10 days of Ramadan and therefore practiced a retreat from the world, known as itikaf, in a mosque. The faithful gathered in the mosques at night and kept vigil, reciting the Quran in its entirety.

Festival of Breaking the Fast, Id al-Fitr

The Festival of Breaking the Fast was celebrated on the first day of the month of Shawwal, which follows Ramadan. Two requirements were attending the Prayer of the Festivals and paying alms, zakat al-fitr, the latter of which must be paid before the commencement of the communal prayer. Charity consisted of food for the needy and the poor; however, many celebrants also bestowed culinary gifts on family and friends. These ritual gifts consisted of particular amounts of wheat, dates, raisins, or barley.

Popular custom added festivities and costumes. People were expected to wear clean new clothes and pay visits to the homes of relatives, friends, and patrons, as well as the graves of loved ones in the cemeteries. Clothing gifts were so common, especially in Egypt, where the caliph distributed elaborate costumes and robes of honor to members of his court and bureaucracy, that the holiday was popularly known as the Festival Gala of Costumes, Id al-hulal.

The route to the musalla of the mosque for the Festival of Breaking the Fast was required to be one way only, with the return to follow a different itinerary. The learned ascribed the one-way routing as promoting distribution of the largest amount of zakat to the hands of individual needy people. Yet the purpose might well have had a mystical or allegorical interpretation as well. The walk to the musalla provided the opportunity for the faithful to dispose of their sins before reaching the sacred service. Taking a new route home from the service prevented the pious from reencountering their old sins.

Supererogatory Festivals

The Prophet's Birthday, mawlid al-Nabi

The birthday of the Prophet, mawlid al-Nabi, was observed on the 12th day of the month of Rabi al-Awwal (the third month of the Muslim calendar) and was celebrated with prayers and ritual recitations. Writing in the 12th century, the Tunisian traveler Ibn Jubayr mentions that the official celebrations took place in Mecca, where the pious would visit the house where Muhammad was born and pray there in the hope of receiving divine blessings (baraka). In 14th-century Cairo, the official Mawlid al-Nabi celebration took place in the courtyard of the Citadel palace. A tall tower was constructed to give the Mamluk prince the seat of honor. On the eve of the Prophet's birthday after the evening prayer, the people gathered briefly in the palace courtyard bearing torches and candles as a symbol of Muhammad's sanctity. They returned the following day to attend the sermons and listen to the poetry and songs played in honor of the Prophet of Islam.

The Fatimid Shiites gave the holiday a great impetus as the sanctification of the Holy Family was the foundational myth of their legitimacy as descendants of the Prophet through his successor, Ali, and his wife, Fatima, the Prophet's daughter. Thus in Fatimid Egypt three other birthdays also were celebrated: the mawlids of Ali and Fatima and the mawlid of the current living Imam. Later the birthdays of Hasan and Husayn were added and were celebrated with elaborate ceremonials and rites. Birthdays were opportunities for the Fatimid caliph to reaffirm his legitimacy before his people, as he sat in splendor, veiled, on a balcony of his palace. Three canonical preachers (khutaba) of the Cairo mosques each delivered a sermon in which, in addition to extolling the blessings and virtues of the Prophet, they extolled those of the ruler, comparing him to Muhammad. The recitation of a special genre of panegyric, also called a mawlid or mawlidiyyat, formed an important part of the celebration.

Sufis also celebrated the mawlids of their saints in which the "birth" being commemorated was in reality the saint's death, the day he or she was "reborn" in God, a custom also observed in Christian saints' festivals. In the Middle Ages as well as today, the birthdays of Muhammad and the other Islamic prophets and local saints were popular festivals. The Sufis added their mystical practices to these birthday celebrations. A particular Sufi ritual invocation of the names of God, called dhikr, became extremely popular as the general public attended and participated in these practices. In Egypt celebrations of saints' birthdays included those of women saints such as al-Sayyida Zaynab (the daughter of Ali ibn Abi Talib) and al-Sayyida Nafisa (d. 824, also a descendent of the Prophet through Ali ibn Abi Talib), as well as that of Ahmad al-Badawi, the renowned 12th-century founder of the Badawi Sufi order. Conservative qadis such as Ibn Taymiyya, referred to earlier, denounced these practices as a reprehensible imitation of the Christian cult of saints. On the other hand, many qadis of al-Andalus, North Africa, Egypt, and elsewhere, while recognizing that the Mawlid al-Nabi was an innovation (bida), justified and encouraged its celebration in part to deter Muslims from participating in the celebration of Christmas. To this end, children were particularly encouraged to celebrate the prophet's birthday by donning new clothes, and bringing candles to school as gifts for their teachers.

Night of Ascension, Laylat al-Miraj

The Night of the Ascension, Laylat al-Miraj, commemorated the night Muhammad ascended to heaven and returned to Earth. It was celebrated on the 27th day of Rajab, the seventh month of the Muslim calendar. Some Islamic traditions associated the Night of the Ascension with Muhammad's night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, the isra. According to the legend, one night Muhammad was sleeping in Mecca when the angel Jibrail (Gabriel) took him to a winged creature called al-Buraq and transported him across to sky to "the farthest mosque," which most sources identify as Jerusalem. From there he ascended the ladder into the seven heavens, where he encountered and conversed with the previous prophets, including Ibrahim, Moses, and Jesus, before going before the seat of God. During this encounter God commands that Muslims pray five times a day. That event was celebrated with prayers and recitations of the details of Muhammad's famous night journey on the winged al-Buraq to the holy city.

Night of Forgiveness, Laylat al-Baraa

The Night of Forgiveness or the Night of Quittance, the Laylat al-Baraa, was celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Shaban, the eighth month of the Muslim calendar. That holiday commemorated the time that God descended to the lowest of the seven heavens and summoned human beings to request his forgiveness of their sins. On that night the tree of life was shaken. On each leaf of the tree the name of a living being was inscribed. When the tree was shaken, certain leaves fell to the ground. On those leaves were the names of those who would die in the forthcoming year. Muslims spend the night in prayer and sometimes fasting in the belief that their prayers and supplications will surely be answered and sins forgiven.

Shiite Festivals

The Shiite conviction that Muhammad explicitly appointed Ali to succeed him as caliph, that Ali and his heirs were also divinely favored, and that the holy family was victim of a terrible injustice at the hands of the Umayyads gave rise to the creation of a number of feasts commemorating these events.


Ashura, the 10th day of the first month of the Islamic calendar, Muharram, was a fascinating optional fast day that Shiites observed as the anniversary of the death of the martyr Husayn at Karbala in southern Iraq. Shiites considered it a day of mourning and made pilgrimages to Karbala. On that day they also performed passion plays called taziya vividly representing the deaths of their martyrs.

In Egypt during the reign of the Shii Fatimids, Ashura was celebrated with elaborate banquets featuring the traditional mourning foods made of lentils. Many ritual prayers accompanied the feasts. In its origins Ashura coincided with the 10th of the Jewish month of Tishri, the Day of Atonement, which the Jews of Arabia celebrated. Muhammad and his community also observed this day as a day of repentance and fasting from sunrise to sunset. When the Prophet's relations with the Jews worsened, he ordered the obligatory fast to be moved to the month of Ramadan in order to distinguish it from Jewish practice.

In the Sunni world fasting the day of Ashura, and most often the first 10 days of the month, became a "commendable" act deserving of spiritual rewards and blessings. Islamic lore was filled with the tales of the blessings that occurred on this day in sacred history: Noah's ark landed on this day, Abraham was saved from the fire, Adam and Eve received God's forgiveness. Thus for the Sunnis, perhaps to distinguish themselves from the Shia, the celebration of Ashura acquired a joyous character with the promise that sincere acts of repentance, fasting, prayer, and charity would be generously rewarded, as surely as God had saved the scriptural prophets from peril.

Festival of Ghadir Khumm

Ghadir Khumm is the name of a pool located at Khumm, a valley between Mecca and Medina. When the prophet Muhammad was on his way back to Medina from his farewell pilgrimage to Mecca, he stopped at this site and pronounced a speech before his community. Taking Ali by the hand, he asked the people whether it was true that he was closer to them (awla) than they were to themselves, to which they enthusiastically replied, "It is so, O Apostle of God!" He then said, "He of whom I am the patron [mawla-hu], Ali is his patron." This event is acknowledged in both canonical Sunni and Shiite sources, although the sects interpret its meaning differently. According to Shiite interpretations, Muhammad's pronouncement merely made public one of the divine secrets that God revealed to him during his heavenly journey (miraj), making Ali's succession a divine decree. The Sunnis, however, maintain that in this speech Muhammad merely intended to show his public support for Ali in the aftermath of a minor dispute. The Fatimid Shiites and subsequent Shiite dynasties celebrated the day of Ghadir Khumm, the 18th of Dhu l-Hijja, as a solemn feast.

Christian Celebrations

Many medieval Arabs were Christians and of course celebrated all the Christian festivals. But many Muslims living in Egypt, Syria, al-Andalus, and other countries with significant Christian populations also celebrated Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter and observed secular holidays like New Year's Day. In Baghdad particular patron saints' days were popular. In Cairo Muslims and Christians celebrated Palm Sunday, Shaanin, along the Nile, as well as Easter and Christmas.

Egyptians often celebrated the Christian feast of Epiphany, called in Arabic The Festival of Diving, Id al-Ghitas. Epiphany was called Id al-Ghitas because Christians wearing their crosses and carrying high their candles often would dive into the Nile. Many Andalusian Muslims celebrated Christmas, preparing special foods, buying new clothes, and sharing meals and exchanging presents with their Christian neighbors. Depending upon the country and the century, caliphs and qadis condemned popular celebrations that united Christians and Muslims just as they lamented the tendency of Muslims to celebrate Jewish holidays. Nevertheless particular caliphs, particularly in Egypt, built facilities to observe such festivities, such as a caliph's riverside pleasure house, called a manazir.

Secular Festivals and Rites of Passage

Investiture of the Ruler, Baya

According to ancient Arabian custom, the baya was a hand clasp between prominent members of a community and a new leader, a ritual that conferred on the latter communal allegiance and obedience. The practice continued in the Islamic period, as the early community formally recognized its the first caliph, Abu Bakr, through the gesture of the baya. When a new caliph assumed the throne, the baya, now an official ceremony of investiture, served to present the ruler to his people. Hafsid Tunisia had a two-part ceremony consisting of the government officials' pledge of allegiance to the new ruler and then a presentation of the ruler to the people of the capital city.

New Year's Day

In Islamic Egypt New Year's Day was celebrated three times. First was the Persian New Year called Nawruz, which was also celebrated in al-Andalus, the Maghrib, and elsewhere. The second was the Coptic New Year, which was celebrated in August, coinciding with the annual flood period of the Nile. The third new year was the beginning of the Muslim year, the first of Muharram, the date commemorated as the day of the Hijra, or "migration," of the Prophet and his community from Mecca to Medina, thus inaugurating the creation of the Islamic umma. The Persian and Coptic New Years were times of celebration, in contrast to the more reserved, pious observances of the Muslim New Year.

While piety was important, the celebrations of the Muslim New Year were occasions for magnificent processions in which the caliph was followed by thousands of mounted soldiers all wearing extravagant expensive costumes and caparisons for their animals, and ostentatious displays of wealth and magnificence. In Egypt, for instance, the trees, the shops, and the streets were decorated in Cairo and Fustat to demonstrate the religious and political might of the caliph.

Flooding of the Nile, Wafa al-Nil

The flooding of the Nile was also a holiday called Wafa al-Nil. Celebrated in ancient Egypt, the flooding of the Nile River led to fertility of the land and abundance of crops and wealth. The level of the Nile was registered by a calibrated Nilometer. One was established in pre-Islamic times on Roda Island in the center of the Nile. A dam was built at the mouth of the canal at Cairo. Every year that the flood waters were appropriately powerful, it burst, and the breaking of the dam signaled that flood waters would sweep into the canal and irrigate all adjacent land. Islamic celebrations of the flooding of the Nile utilized pre-Islamic rites probably going back to pharoanic times. The caliph's visits to the Nilometer and to the dam were pagan fertility rites. Muslim prayers and recitations of the Quran were part of the festivities.

Birth of a Child

Two family holidays were associated with the birth of a child. The sacrifice on the seventh day after a child's birth, called aqiqa, might involve a sacrifice of two rams if the child was a boy and one ram if the child was a girl. This was the only time other than the Id al-Fitr that Muslims were required to perform a sacrifice. Customarily, the child's hair was shaved on that day.

The second family festival pertaining to children was circumcision, khitan or tahara. Ritual circumcision often was communal. When a ruler's sons were circumcised, several hundred other boys also would submit to the ritual operation of removing the foreskin of the boy's penis.


Christian Holidays and Festivals

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. New York: George Braziller, 1976.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971: role of celebration in culture.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. New York: George Braziller, 1976.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. "Medical and Scientific Gold." A review of The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance, by Wayne Shumaker. Journal of the History of Medicine 36 (1981): 93–94.

Hanawalt, Barbara and Kathryn Reyerson, City and Spectacle in Medieval Europe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Harrowven, Jean, The Origins of Festivals and Feasts. London: Kaye & Ward, 1980.

Calendar of Christian Festivals

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. New York: George Braziller, 1976.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. "Medical and Scientific Gold." A review of The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance, by Wayne Shumaker. Journal of the History of Medicine 36 (1981): 93–94.

Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone, eds. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952. Reprint, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958.

Wybrew, Hugh. Orthodox Feasts of Christ and Mary: Liturgical Texts with Commentary. London: SPCK, 1997: Orthodox celebrations.

Wybrew, Hugh. Orthodox Feasts of Christ and Mary: Liturgical Texts with Commentary. London: SPCK, 1997: Orthodox Marian celebrations.

English, Edward. Enterprise and Liability in Sienese Banking 1230–1350. Cambridge, Mass.: Medieval Academy of America, 1988.

Johansson, Ann-Katrin A., ed. The Feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell Int'l., 1998.

Preston, James J., ed. Mother Worship and Theme Variations. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982: Marian feasts.

Dunn, Maryjane, and Linda Kay Davidson. The Pilgrimage to Compostela in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays. London: Routledge, 1996, reprint 2000.

Fletcher, Richard A. Saint James's Catapult: The Life and Times of Diego Gelmírez of Santiago de Compostela. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Williams, John, and Alison Stones, The 'Codex Calixtinus' and the Shrine of St. James (Jakobus-Studien 3). Tubingen: Narr, 1992.

Stone, James S. The Cult of Santiago: Traditions, Myths, and Pilgrimages. London: D. D. Longmans, Green & Co., 1927: Feast of Saint James the great.

Gordon, Bruce, and Peter Marshall. The Place of the Dead: Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Skal, David J. Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2002: history of Halloween.

A Typical Fabulous Feast

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. New York: George Braziller, 1976.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. "Medical and Scientific Gold." A review of The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance, by Wayne Shumaker. Journal of the History of Medicine 36 (1981): 93–94.

Henisch, B. A. Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

Strong, Roy. Splendor at Court. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973: fabulous feasting.

Furnivall, F. J. Early English Meals and Manners. 1868. Reprint, Detroit: Singing Tree, 1969.

Hartley, Dorothy. Food in England. London: Macdonald, 1954.

Henisch, B. A. Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy. Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate since the Year 1000. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971.

Robson, J. R. K. Food, Ecology, and Culture: Readings in the Anthropology of Dietary Practices. New York: Gordon & Breach, 1980.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. A History of Medieval Christianity: Prophecy and Order. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968.

Tannahill, Reay. Food in History. New York: Crown, 1988.

Wright, T. A History of Domestic Manners. London: Chapman & Hall, 1862: food in festival.

Jewish Weddings, Sabbaths, and Holidays

Goldin, Judah. The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1955.

Herford, R. Travers. Pirke Aboth, the Ethics of the Talmud: Sayings of the Fathers. New York: Schocken, 1978: Talmud Midrash Rabba.

Baron, Salo Wittmeyer. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press and Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America. 1967. Vols. 3–8, High Middle Ages, 500–1200. Vols. 9–13, Later Middle Ages 1200–1650.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. New York: George Braziller, 1976.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. "Medical and Scientific Gold." A review of The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance, by Wayne Shumaker. Journal of the History of Medicine 36 (1981): 93–94.

Metzger, Therese, and Mendel Metzger. Jewish Life in the Middle Ages—Illuminated Hebrew Manuscripts of the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Centuries. Fribourg, N.Y.: Alpine Fine Arts, 1982.

Marcus, Jacob R. The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book 315–1791. New York: Jewish Publications Society, 1938: holidays and festivals.

The Wedding

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. New York: George Braziller, 1976.

Feldman, Aharon. The River, the Kettle, and the Bird: A Torah Guide to Successful Marriage. New York: C.S.B., 1987: betrothal and marriage.

Baron, Salo Wittmeyer. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press and Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America. 1967. Vols. 3–8, High Middle Ages, 500–1200. Vols. 9–13, Later Middle Ages 1200–1650.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. New York: George Braziller, 1976.

Feldman, Aharon. The River, the Kettle, and the Bird: A Torah Guide to Successful Marriage. New York: C.S.B., 1987.

Metzger, Therese, and Mendel Metzger. Jewish Life in the Middle Ages—Illuminated Hebrew Manuscripts of the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Centuries. Fribourg, N.Y.: Alpine Fine Arts, 1982.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. New York: George Braziller, 1976 feasting.

Biale, Rachel. Women and Jewish Law: An Exploration of Women's Issues in Halakhic Sources. New York: Schocken Books, 1984.

Feldman, Aharon. The River, the Kettle, and the Bird: A Torah Guide to Successful Marriage. New York: C.S.B., 1987: Jewish marriage and Jewish divorce.

Goitein, Samuel D. Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973: conditional divorce in merchants' families.

Biale, Rachel. Women and Jewish Law: An Exploration of Women's Issues in Halakhic Sources. New York: Schocken Books, 1984: the agunah.

Celebrating the Sabbath

Grossman, Grace Cohen. Jewish Art. New York: Beaux Arts Editions, 1995.

Gutmann, Joseph. Jewish Ceremonial Art. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1968.

Kanos, Abram. Jewish Ceremonial Art and Religious Observance. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1969.

Kedourie, Elie. The Jewish World: History and Culture of the Jewish People. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979.

Metzger, Therese, and Mendel Metzger. Jewish Life in the Middle Ages—Illuminated Hebrew Manuscripts of the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Centuries. Fribourg, N.Y.: Alpine Fine Arts, 1982.

Roth, Cecil, and Bezalel Narkiss. Jewish Art. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1971.

Wigoder, Geoffrey. Jewish Art and Civilization. New York: Walker, 1972: Jewish ceremonial articles.

Baron, Salo Wittmeyer. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press and Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America. 1967. Vols. 3–8, High Middle Ages, 500–1200. Vols. 9–13, Later Middle Ages 1200–1650.

Mansoor, Menahem. Jewish History and Thought. Hoboken, N.J.: KTAV, 1991.

Yerushalmi Y. S. From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971: Sabbath instructions in the Book of the Pious.

Baron, Salo Wittmeyer. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press and Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America. 1967. Vols. 3–8, High Middle Ages, 500–1200. Vols. 9–13, Later Middle Ages 1200–1650.

Schirmann, Jefim. "Samuel Hannagid, the Man, the Soldier, the Politician." Jewish Social Studies 9, no. 2 (April 1951): 99–126: armies and Sabbath observance.

Greenberg, Susan. The History and Art of the Sabbath Lamp. Master's thesis, Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, City College of City University of New York, 1978: the Judenstern.

Gutmann, Joseph. Jewish Ceremonial Art. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1968.

Kanos, Abram. Jewish Ceremonial Art and Religious Observance. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1969.

Roth, Cecil, and Bezalel Narkiss. Jewish Art. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1971.

Wigoder, Geoffrey. Jewish Art and Civilization. New York: Walker, 1972: Sabbath candles and lamps.

Baron, Salo Wittmeyer. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press and Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America. 1967. Vols. 3–8, High Middle Ages, 500–1200. Vols. 9–13, Later Middle Ages 1200–1650.

Metzger, Therese, and Mendel Metzger. Jewish Life in the Middle Ages—Illuminated Hebrew Manuscripts of the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Centuries. Fribourg, N.Y.: Alpine Fine Arts, 1982: Sabbath rituals.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. New York: George Braziller, 1976: Sabbath food.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. "Medical and Scientific Gold." A review of The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance, by Wayne Shumaker. Journal of the History of Medicine 36 (1981): 93–94: Sabbath food.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. "Medical and Scientific Gold." A review of The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance, by Wayne Shumaker. Journal of the History of Medicine 36 (1981): 93–94: Sabbath food: Sabbath sex.

Narkiss, Mordechai. "An Italian Niello Casket of the 15th Century." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 21 (1958): Sabbath boxes.

Calendar of Jewish Festivals

Baron, Salo Wittmeyer. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press and Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America. 1967. Vols. 3–8, High Middle Ages, 500–1200. Vols. 9–13, Later Middle Ages 1200–1650.

Mansoor, Menahem. Jewish History and Thought. Hoboken, N.J.: KTAV, 1991: Jewish ritual calendar.

Baron, Salo Wittmeyer. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press and Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America. 1967. Vols. 3–8, High Middle Ages, 500–1200. Vols. 9–13, Later Middle Ages 1200–1650.

Mansoor, Menahem. Jewish History and Thought. Hoboken, N.J.: KTAV, 1991.

Baron, Salo Wittmeyer. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press and Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America. 1967. Vols. 3–8, High Middle Ages, 500–1200. Vols. 9–13, Later Middle Ages 1200–1650.

Mansoor, Menahem. Jewish History and Thought. Hoboken, N.J.: KTAV, 1991.

Baron, Salo Wittmeyer. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press and Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America. 1967. Vols. 3–8, High Middle Ages, 500–1200. Vols. 9–13, Later Middle Ages 1200–1650.

Mansoor, Menahem. Jewish History and Thought. Hoboken, N.J.: KTAV, 1991.

Baron, Salo Wittmeyer. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press and Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America. 1967. Vols. 3–8, High Middle Ages, 500–1200. Vols. 9–13, Later Middle Ages 1200–1650.

Mansoor, Menahem. Jewish History and Thought. Hoboken, N.J.: KTAV, 1991.

Caspi, M. M. Oral Tradition and Hispanic Literature. New York: Garland, 1995.

Kanos, Abram. Jewish Ceremonial Art and Religious Observance. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1969.

Mansoor, Menahem. Jewish History and Thought. Hoboken, N.J.: KTAV, 1991.

Marcus, Jacob R. The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book 315–1791. New York: Jewish Publications Society, 1938: medieval versions of the Book of Esther and Purim rituals.

Narkiss, Bezalel. Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts. Jerusalem: Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1969.

Sed-Rajna, Gabrielle. The Hebrew Bible in Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Rizzoli, 1987: Book of Esther.

Grossman, Grace Cohen. Jewish Art. New York: Beaux Arts Editions, 1995.

Gutmann, Joseph. Jewish Ceremonial Art. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1968.

Kanos, Abram. Jewish Ceremonial Art and Religious Observance. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1969.

Metzger, Therese, and Mendel Metzger. Jewish Life in the Middle Ages—Illuminated Hebrew Manuscripts of the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Centuries. Fribourg, N.Y.: Alpine Fine Arts, 1982: grogger.

Baron, Salo Wittmeyer. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press and Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America. 1967. Vols. 3–8, High Middle Ages, 500–1200. Vols. 9–13, Later Middle Ages 1200–1650.

Marcus, Jacob R. The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book 315–1791. New York: Jewish Publications Society, 1938: Purim parodies.

Baron, Salo Wittmeyer. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press and Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America. 1967. Vols. 3–8, High Middle Ages, 500–1200. Vols. 9–13, Later Middle Ages 1200–1650.: special Purims celebrating local escapes from persecution.

Islamic Holidays and Festivals

Pilgrimage and Ramadan

Westermarck, Edward. Ritual and Belief in Morocco. 2 vols. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1926: Islamic liturgical calendar.

Ahsan, M. M. Muslim Festivals. Vero Beach, Fla.: Rourke Enterprises, 1987.

Bousquet, Georges Henri. Les grandes pratiques rituelles de l'Islam. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1949.

Goldziher, Ignaz. "Veneration of Saints in Islam." Muslim Studies 2 (1966).

Gulevich, Tanya. Understanding Islam and Muslim Traditions: An Introduction to the Religious Practices, Celebrations, Festivals, Observances, Beliefs, Folklore, Customs, and Calendar System of the World's Muslim Communities. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 2004.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Hughes, Thomas P. Dictionary of Islam. London: W. H. Allen, 1895.

Kuban, Dogan. Muslim Religious Architecture. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974.

Macdonald, Duncan B. The Religious Attitude and Life in Islam. Beirut: Khayats, 1965.

Sakr, Ahmad H. Feast, Festivities and Holidays. Lombard, Ill.: Foundation for Islamic Knowledge, 1999.

Sanders, Paula. "Feasts and Festivals, Islamic." In Dictionary of the Middle Ages, edited by Joseph R. Strayer. 12 vols. New York: Scribner, 1982–89.: festival and holiday observances.

Ghazi, Suhaib Hamid. Ramadan. New York: Holiday House, 1996.

Gulevich, Tanya. Understanding Islam and Muslim Traditions: An Introduction to the Religious Practices, Celebrations, Festivals, Observances, Beliefs, Folklore, Customs, and Calendar System of the World's Muslim Communities. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 2004.

Wagtendonck, K. Fasting in the Koran. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1968: religious fasting.

Supererogatory Rituals

Gulevich, Tanya. Understanding Islam and Muslim Traditions: An Introduction to the Religious Practices, Celebrations, Festivals, Observances, Beliefs, Folklore, Customs, and Calendar System of the World's Muslim Communities. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 2004.

Sakr, Ahmad H. Feast, Festivities and Holidays. Lombard, Ill.: Foundation for Islamic Knowledge, 1999.

Usmani, Mufti Muhammad Taqi. Islamic Months: Merits and Precepts. Karachi: Maktabah Ma'riful Quran, 2002: ritual celebrations.

Knappert, Jan. Islamic Legends: Histories of the Heroes, Saints and Prophets of Islam. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1985.

Smith, Margaret. Rabia the Mystic and Her Fellow-Saints in Islam: Being the Life and Teachings of Rabia al-Adawiyya Al-Qaysiyya of Basra Together with Some Accounts of the Place of the Women Saints in Islam. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Plessner, Martin. "Ramadan." Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed., Vol. 8. 417–418. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1999: Laylat al-Baraa.

Kaptein, N. J. G., Muhammad's Birthday Festival: Early History in the Central Muslim Lands and Development in the Muslim West until the 10th/16th Century. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1993: Muhammad's birthday festival.

Fierro Bello, María Isabel. "The Celebration of 'Ashura' in Sunni Islam." The Arabist 1 (1995): 193–208.

Hawting, G. R. The Development of Islamic Ritual. Vol. 26, The Formation of the Classical Islamic World. London: Ashgate, 1994: Ashura in Sunni Islam.

Wagtendonck, K. Fasting in the Koran. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1968: religious fasting.

Shiite Festivals

Momen, Moojan. An Intoduction to Shi'i Islam. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.

Tabataba'i, Muhammad Husayn. Shi'ite Islam (tr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr), Persian Studies Series. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1975.

Ahsan, M. M. Muslim Festivals. Vero Beach, Fla.: Rourke Enterprises, 1987.

Gulevich, Tanya. Understanding Islam and Muslim Traditions: An Introduction to the Religious Practices, Celebrations, Festivals, Observances, Beliefs, Folklore, Customs, and Calendar System of the World's Muslim Communities. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 2004.

Vecchia Valieri, L. "Ghadir Khumm." Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed. Vol. 2. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1999. 993–994: Ghadir Khumm.

Ayoub, Mahmoud. Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of 'Ashura in Twelver Shi'ism. The Hague: Mouton, 1978.

Hawting, G. R. The Development of Islamic Ritual. Vol. 26, The Formation of the Classical Islamic World. London: Ashgate, 1994: Ashura and taziyeh plays.

Knappert, Jan. Islamic Legends: Histories of the Heroes, Saints and Prophets of Islam. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1985: saints and hagiography.

Christian Celebrations

Bousquet, Georges Henri. Les grandes pratiques rituelles de l'Islam. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1949.

de la Granja, Fernando. "Fiestas cristianas en Al-Ándalus." Al-Ándalus 34 (1970): 1–53 and idem, 35 (1970): 119–142.

Goldziher, Ignaz. "Veneration of Saints in Islam." Muslim Studies 2 (1966).

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Hughes, Thomas P. Dictionary of Islam. London: W. H. Allen, 1895.

Kuban, Dogan. Muslim Religious Architecture. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974.

Macdonald, Duncan B. The Religious Attitude and Life in Islam. Beirut: Khayats, 1965.

Memon, Muhammad Umar. Ibn Taimiya's Struggle Against Popular Religion: With An Annotated Translation of His Kitab iqtida' as-sirat al-mustaqim mukhalafat ashab al-jahl. The Hague: Mouton, 1976.

Secular Festivals, Rites of Passage

Ahsan, M. M. Muslim Festivals. Vero Beach, Fla.: Rourke Enterprises, 1987.

Gulevich, Tanya. Understanding Islam and Muslim Traditions: An Introduction to the Religious Practices, Celebrations, Festivals, Observances, Beliefs, Folklore, Customs, and Calendar System of the World's Muslim Communities. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 2004.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Bousquet, Georges Henri. Les grandes pratiques rituelles de l'Islam. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1949.

Goldziher, Ignaz. "Veneration of Saints in Islam." Muslim Studies 2 (1966).

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Hughes, Thomas P. Dictionary of Islam. London: W. H. Allen, 1895.

Kuban, Dogan. Muslim Religious Architecture. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974.

Macdonald, Duncan B. The Religious Attitude and Life in Islam. Beirut: Khayats, 1965.

Sakr, Ahmad H. Feast, Festivities and Holidays. Lombard, Ill.: Foundation for Islamic Knowledge, 1999.

Sanders, Paula. "Feasts and Festivals, Islamic." In Dictionary of the Middle Ages, edited by Joseph R. Strayer. 12 vols. New York: Scribner, 1982–89: khitan, tahara, Chronicle of Ibn Iyas.

Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner, and Linda Gale Jones. "holidays and festivals in the Middle Ages." Handbook to Life in the Medieval World. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2008. Ancient and Medieval History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE49&iPin=HBLMW11&SingleRecord=True (accessed April 29, 2016).

Other Citation Formats:

Modern Language Association (MLA) Format
American Psychological Association (APA) Format

Additional Citation Information


Return to Top

Record URL: