The calendar of saints’ days

It might be thought that the festivals of popular patron saints would be spread fairly evenly throughout the year, perhaps making allowances for the major festivals of Christmas and Easter. This is not so. If Essex is typical, then the great saints’ days of the Middle Ages were celebrated in the summer, between sowing and harvest, or in the early part of the winter. To illustrate this concentration of dates, here are the relevant festivals of the most popular patron saints:

Holy TrinityTrinity Sunday(May or June)
St. John the BaptistJune 24th(Midsummer)
St. Peter (with St.Paul)June 29th 
St. MargaretJuly 20th 
St. Mary MagdalenJuly 22nd 
St. LaurenceAugust 10th 
St. Mary the VirginAugust 15th(Assumption)
 September 8th(Nativity)
St. MichaelSeptember 29th(Michaelmas)
All SaintsNovember 1st(Hallowmas)
St. AndrewNovember 30th 
St. NicholasDecember 6th 

The pattern is reinforced if the festivals of the lesser saints are added to the list:

St. BotolphJune 17th 
St. James (& St.Christopher)July 25th 
St. GilesSeptember 1st 
Holy CrossSeptember 14th(? or early May)
St. LeonardNovember 6th 
St. MartinNovember 11th 
St. EdmundNovember 20th 
St. ClementNovember 23rd 
St. KatherineNovember 25th 
St. ThomasDecember 21st 
St. JohnDecember 27th 

It can be seen that the festival season effectively began after Easter with Trinity Sunday and continued until the harvest fairs at Michaelmas. October was an empty month, but a winter season began with Hallowmas and continued through Christmas until the new year.Two periods can be identified as particularly suitable for holidays, one towards the end of July and the other in November. There seems little doubt that the underlying structure of this ‘calendar’ was agricultural and related to seasonal patterns of activity. Weather and work presumably ruled out holidays in the first four months of the year. In a few cases (notably All Saints), the festivals were probably chosen to coincide with the customary seasonal rites of the earlier pagan calendar.

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