“Red-letter days”

Words about words

red-letter days - Police Week Blue Mass

Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection / Public Domain
At a Police Week Blue Mass, U.S. Border Patrol Honor Guard enters St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Everyone knows what holidays are about. Almost. A glance at a commonplace wall calendar or pocket diary for the year will reveal many sorts of holidays. Most familiar are the public holidays, noteworthy or memorable days when people in ordinary jobs do no work. In English they are called “red-letter days,” from the traditional practice of printing their numbers in red on calendars. The equivalent term in Norwegian is merkedager, as other means of setting the days graphically apart also are used, such as background shading on wall calendars. Slightly less familiar but nonetheless well-known are noteworthy days that usually are not holidays, such as the equinoxes and solstices each year, and memorable days, such as frigjøringsdagen, 1945 (Liberation day 1945).

Then there are historically significant religious holidays celebrated by churches, but not in general by the public. In Norway, four are marked on calendars. Even so, they are almost arcane, as not all bilingual dictionaries list them.

First in a year is Kyndelmesse (Candlemas), a Christian festival held on Feb. 2, 40 days after Christmas. It commemorates the purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. It takes its name from the candles used to illuminate churches in the Celtic celebration of Imbloc, a festival held on Feb. 1 to mark the beginning of spring.

The second is Maria budskapsdag or Marimesse (Annunciation), also called “Lady Day” in England, where it was declared to be the start of the year from 1155 to 1752, when Jan. 1 was officially made the start of the year. Originally held on March 25, it now is a bevegelig helligdag (“moveable feast”), to prevent its celebration conflicting with those of Easter. This year (2018) in Norway it is held on Sunday, March 18.

The third is Mikkelmesse (Michaelmas) held on Sept. 29 to commemorate the Archangel Michael, considered in Western Christianity to be the greatest of all the Archangels. In medieval England, Michaelmas marked the end of the harvest as well as the beginning and ending of the husbandman’s year. Today in North America, Saint Michael is regarded to be the patron saint of some contingents of public safety workers, including police, border patrols, and firefighters. Accordingly it’s celebrated each year in a Blue Mass, blue being the color of most (but not all) public service uniforms.

The fourth is Reformasjonsdagen (Reformation Day), celebrated on Oct. 31 in remembrance of the Reformation. It is observed in most Protestant countries, particularly Lutheran ones like Norway.

In the Middle Ages in Britain and Ireland, two of these four days—Marimesse and Mikkelmesse—were also “Quarter Days,” the dates in each year on which rents were due, servants hired, and school terms started. The other two Quarter Days were Midsummer Day and Christmas Day. Today, Quarter Days are of lesser significance, though in England leasehold payments for land and premises often still are due on the traditional Quarter Days.

Originally published in Norwegian on the Clue dictionaries blog at blogg.clue.no.

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 23, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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