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Four times a year, you may hear the term Ember Days used. But what are Ember Days? When do they occur? And how are Ember Days observed? Learn more about the history, meaning, and folklore surrounding Ember Days and how they are observed in the Christian faith.
What is an Ember Day?
Ember Days occur four times a year. They coincide with the four seasons and present an opportunity to embrace the practices of prayer, fasting, abstinence, and for the ordination of clergy to occur. Each set of Ember Days is a way to give thanks for specific natural gifts, such as the increase in daylight and the harvest times of wheat, grapes, and olives.
The word “ember” is thought to be a corruption of the Latin quatuor tempora, meaning “four times.”
There are a total of 12 Ember Days each year. They are observed on the Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays following the first Sunday in Lent, Whitsunday-Pentecost, the Feast of the Holy Cross, and the Feast of St. Lucia. While the first Sunday in Lent and Whitsunday-Pentecost change each year based on Easter, the Feast of the Holy Cross and the Feast of St. Lucia are fixed dates, on September 14 and December 13, respectively.
In 2023, Ember Days are observed on March 1, 3, and 4; May 31, June 2, and 3; September 20, 22, and 23; and December 20, 22, and 23.
In 2024, Ember Days are observed on February 21, 23, and 24; May 22, 24, and 25; September 18, 20, and 21; and December 18, 20, and 21.
History of Ember Days
It is believed that Ember Days observances date back to the time of Pope Leo I in the 5th century, when observers would thank God for the gifts of nature, embrace those gifts in moderation, and assist the needy.
Ember Days began in Rome with fasts in June, September, and December, but the days were not fixed. The fourth set of days were added near the end of the 5th century. It was at that time that the conferring of ordinations was permitted on ember Saturdays, when previously, the practice was only held at Easter. Pope Gregory VII expanded the observance of Ember Days, making it a large part of the Catholic faith.
It is said that Ember Days may have been created in response to the excessive celebrations that surrounded the pagan festivals in Rome.
How Are Ember Days Celebrated?
Ember Days can be thought of as a mini-Lent with some fasting and abstinence to refocus spiritual beliefs.
On Ember Days, observers traditionally fast as they would on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, except that they are allowed to eat meat as part of their main meal on the Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Ember Days Folklore
Folklore says that the weather on each Ember Day foretells the weather for the next 3 months. For instance, in September, the Wednesday forecasts the weather for October; Friday predicts November; and Saturdays foretells December.
Pennsylvania Dutch proverbs and sayings have a deep connection to Ember Days. The following were included in Edwin Fogel’s Beliefs and Superstitions of the Pennsylvania Germans:
Persons born on Ember Days can see ghosts
Grain will be high in price if the Ember Days come late in the month
Rain on an Ember Day is followed by three weeks of rain
Washing on an Ember Day is unlucky
An old English rhyme allowed people to remember the occurrence of Ember Days throughout the year:
Fasting days and Emberings be Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie.
Do you celebrate Ember Days? Have you ever heard of them? Tell us what you think of this celebration.