Christian Calendar

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1958 Article

European Mennonites and those American Mennonites who kept closer to their European background paid more attention to the holidays of the church year than the American Mennonite groups with a longer American history. However, most American Mennonite groups had no consciousness of a "church year" in the 1950s.

Among the older Mennonite churches in America, Good Friday, Ascension, and Pentecost were no longer observed (except for possibly using the day for special programs unrelated to the real meaning of the day), and seldom was Christmas Day observed with church services. In Ontario there was more observance of such days, except by the Old Order Amish. The observance of all or part of Passion Week by special church services grew among Mennonites in the mid-20th century.

The Old Order Amish, having retained more of the older traditions, manifest a different pattern. They celebrated a "second Christmas" 6 January in addition to 25 December, known in their German as "Alt Christtag" (Old Christmas). They celebrate this day, as well as Good Friday, Ascension, and Pentecost, with fasting, i.e., omitting breakfast, but without church services, and follow by visiting relatives and friends on these days. Pentecost Monday and Easter Monday are also observed as holidays, but with visiting only and not fasting.

Because of the somewhat military character of the observance of Independence Day (July 4) and Memorial Day (May 30) most U.S. Mennonites disliked joining in the common observance of these civil holidays. A considerable number of congregations have at one time or another deliberately placed special church meetings on one or both of these days to counteract the influence of the common type of celebrations. Sunday-school or congregational picnics were often held on July 4.

The use of the Christmas trees in connection with the Christmas season was seriously objected to by the more conservative groups, as was formerly the case among practically all the American Mennonites, as a pagan survival which has no place among Christians.

Most European German, Swiss, and French Mennonites customarily observed the following holidays, usually with a church service in the morning: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, "Buss- und Bettag" (Day of Repentance and Prayer). At Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, the day following was also celebrated as a holiday, but without services.

In the Dutch Mennonite congregations services were formerly held on Good Friday evening, at which communion was usually observed. On Ascension Day church services were held only in a few congregations. Days of Repentance and Prayer were unusual among the Dutch Mennonites. On the day following Christmas there was often a Christmas celebration for children in the churches. On New Year's Eve services were held in all the churches; services on New Year's Day were very rare.

Anniversaries were not celebrated in America nearly as frequently, nor with as much emphasis, as in Europe. Particularly in Germany anniversaries (25th, etc.) of pastoral service, weddings, birthdays, ordinations, dedications, etc., have often been observed with much ceremony, and even by ministers with special sermons and publications, and by gifts or medals from the congregations.

The Mennonites of Prussian background in Prussia, Poland, Russia, and America have as a rule observed the Christian holidays of Protestantism, viz., Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. The Mennonites broke completely with the Catholic tradition of observing the festivities connected with the saints and other occasions of the Catholic church calendar. In Russia they never adjusted themselves to the observance of the holidays of the Greek Catholic Church in as far as they differed from Protestant holidays, although they used the Julian calendar. As a rule Mennonites observed the customary number of holidays of the country in which they lived. In Prussia, Poland, and Russia they celebrated Christmas and Easter for three days. Gradually the third day was not strictly observed. After the immigration to America the number was reduced to two days. By the 1950s only rarely was a second day observed. Some churches still had worship services on the second holiday, sometimes in the German language.

As a rule the worship centered around the event of the holiday. In the afternoon and evening relatives visited each other, often traveling long distances for this occasion. -- Harold S. Bender

1990 Update

The Christian calendar developed in the church of the 2nd-4th century as (1) an elaboration of the Jewish religious holidays and (2) a deliberate effort to offer an alternative to pagan festivities. The Christian calendar was the universal calendar used for dating documents and setting work and school schedules in Europe until the modern era. It was attacked by radical Protestant groups, e.g., the Puritans in England, whose refusal even to celebrate Christmas left its mark. This was particularly evident in the United States, where the Puritan antipathy to religious holidays combined with the doctrine of separation of church and state and religious pluralism to produce a secular, nationalistic calendar. In Europe, the general secularization that followed upon the French Revolution (1789) never completely eliminated traditional religious holidays, although they were emptied of most religious meaning.

Although Anabaptists opposed special commemorations of saints, they used the calendar of Christian feasts and saints' days, as did all of society in the 16th century, as a way of marking time. (See for example, Martyrs Mirror, 448-49, 651, 963-65.)

The traditionalist Mennonite groups (Amish, Old Colony Mennonites, Sommerfeld Mennonites, Hutterites) continued to celebrate the main festivals of the Christian year with special worship services, fasting, and other practices at the same time that the more acculturated groups abandoned them. The Amish "Alt-Christtag" (or "Second Christmas) on January 6, corresponds to the feast of Epiphany, the oldest form of celebrating Christ's birth and one of the four main festivals of the traditional church year (Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, Epiphany).

The use of a Christmas tree in connection with the Christmas has been objected to by the more traditionalist groups, as was formerly the case among most North American Mennonites. They believed it was a pagan practice which had no place among Christians.

The most extensive cycle of holidays is maintained by the Hutterian Brethren, who, in addition to the above, also observe January 1 as the day of Christ's circumcision; March 25, or the nearest Sunday, as Annunciation Day (Schmiedeleut); Ascension Day; and Palm Sunday as a baptismal day.

The continued celebration of Pentecost, Ascension Day, Easter Monday (and Easter Tuesday by Hutterites), and Pentecost Monday by traditionalist Mennonite groups may be related to the retention of the German language and the traditional culture that went with it (Toews, 85-104). In 1987 Old Order Mennonites in the Mt. Forest, Ontario, area, finding themselves to be the only church still holding Ascension Day services, invited their non-Mennonite neighbors to join them. Christmas and Easter were never lost by any of the Mennonite groups, although special services on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve (which usually do not fall on a Sunday) were largely dropped by the more acculturated groups.

In the 1980s special services on festival weekdays at Christmas and Easter (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday) began to return in a few congregations. For many Mennonite groups a communion service before Easter remained traditional, keeping the Maundy Thursday or Good Friday commemoration visible. Some congregations participate in community-wide, interdenominational Good Friday services. Mennonite periodicals take some account of the themes of the church year but do so intermittently.

Some traditional elements of the Christian calendar were modified even as they were retained. Russian Mennonites continued to observe Epiphany and baptized new members at Pentecost. The traditional practice of the early church was to baptize primarily at Easter, with Pentecost and Epiphany as secondary times of baptism. Hutterites also gave great prominence to Pentecost and Ascension Day. Sommerfeld Mennonites in Paraguay continue this practice, holding baptismal instruction classes from Easter to Pentecost, a modification of the early church practice, in which Lent was the period of baptismal instruction leading to baptisms during the Easter Vigil service at midnight on Holy Saturday-Easter Sunday.

The more acculturated Mennonite groups in North America print church calendars in the front of their yearbooks and directories. The main Christian holidays are listed but they are outnumbered by a great variety of days of special emphasis for church boards and institutions. Renewed interest in public worship has led to a variety of efforts to restore observance of the church year in Mennonite congregations. Ironically, of the four main seasons of the Christian year, the preparation seasons of Lent and Advent have been the most popular, with much less attention given to restoration of the celebrative Christmas (December 25-January 6) and Easter (seven weeks from Easter to Pentecost) seasons. Some congregations, often those in urban settings or in Mennonite university towns, have begun to follow the three-year lectionary cycle of Scripture readings adopted by the main Protestant and Catholic denominations in the 1970s. Hutterites and Amish traditionally follow their own lectionary cycles. The series of pamphlets on worship resources published by North American Mennonites in the late 1970s and 1980s had, as of 1988, devoted no specific pamphlet to explaining and implementing the church calendar, although a portion of one pamphlet offered special prayers and litanies for parts of the church year. Mennonite emphasis on biblical authority at the expense of tradition, or, in some cases, an extreme form of restitutionism that rejects the development of the Christian calendar as a corruption of apostolic teaching, has led some to advocate following the Jewish cycle of festivals (Passover, Pentecost [Feast of Weeks], Feast of Tabernacles or Succoth). Mennonite missionaries on occasions sought to establish Christian festivals to replace the Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist festivals they encountered; more often their own ambivalence toward the legitimacy of a cycle of religious holidays inclined them to denounce non-Christian festivals as pagan, superstitious, and immoral without offering Christian alternatives. -- Dennis D. Martin


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Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Dennis D. Martin
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. and Dennis D. Martin. "Christian Calendar." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 12 Apr 2024.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. and Dennis D. Martin. (1990). Christian Calendar. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 12 April 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 789-790; v. 5, pp. 143-144. All rights reserved.

©1996-2024 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.