Where Did the Holy Days of Obligation Come From?

Saturday is the Sabbath, but Sunday is the day of the Lord (the day of Resurrection), and Christians worshiped Christ as the Son of God on Sunday from the very beginning, even when they were still part of the Jewish religion.

But where did the other days come from? Christianity was born from Judaism and the Jewish religion is loaded with religious feasts and holidays that commemorate a religious event in salvation history, seek God’s blessings on seasons of the year for bountiful harvest, or celebrate mysteries of faith.

Likewise, the Christian Church developed its own religious feasts and holidays in addition to the regular Sunday worship of God. The first and foremost holy day is Easter because it is the day of Resurrection. Forty days after Easter, Jesus ascended into heaven, so the feast of the Ascension soon followed. Ten days later, and fifty days after Easter, the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and the Virgin Mary in the upper room at Pentecost. That feast was also celebrated very early on.

After deciding on a liturgical celebration of the birth of Christ (December 25), eight days later would have been his circumcision, so January 1 was initially when that feast was celebrated. Later, that date changed to the feast of Mary, the Mother of God (after the Second Vatican Council). Twelve days after Christmas (January 6) is the feast of Epiphany, which is a holy day in most of the world; in the United States, it is celebrated on the first Sunday after New Year’s.

The Assumption (August 15) and Immaculate Conception (December 8) of the Virgin Mary go back to antiquity, but are not considered the actual historical calendar dates since those specifics are unknown. All Saints Day (November 1) is better known by the secular world as the day after Halloween; the word Halloween actually means “All Hallows’ Eve.” Hallows is an old English word for Saints.

Catholics in England and in the American Colonies until 1777 had thirty-four holy days of obligation. The following year, Pope Pius VI reduced them to eleven. The 1983 Code of Canon Law lists ten universal holy days, but national conferences of bishops can ask for dispensations from particular holy days for their countries.

The ten universal holy days are:

Immaculate Conception (December 8)
Christmas (Nativity of Our Lord) (December 25) Saint Mary, the Mother of God (January 1) Epiphany (January 6)
Saint Joseph (March 19)
Saint Peter and Saint Paul (June 29)
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15) All Saints (November 1)
Ascension of Our Lord (forty days after Easter)
Corpus Christi (Body and Blood of Christ) (sixty days after Easter)

The USA is exempt from four of those ten and therefore has six holy days of obligation:

1. January 1, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
2. Forty days after Easter, Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, Solemnity of the Ascension.
3. August 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
4. November 1, the Solemnity of All Saints.
5. December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
6. December 25, the Solemnity of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Whenever January 1, August 15, or November 1 fall on a Saturday or on a Monday, the requirement to attend Mass does not apply.

Here are what some other English-speaking countries have as their holy days of obligation:

Canada

Christmas

Epiphany (observed on the following Sunday)

Ascension of Our Lord (observed on the following Sunday)

Corpus Christi (observed on the following Sunday)

England and Wales

Christmas (December 25)

Epiphany (January 6)

Saints Peter and Paul (June 29)

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15)

All Saints (November 1)

Ascension of Our Lord

Ireland

Immaculate Conception (December 8)

Christmas (December 25)

Epiphany (January 6)

Saint Patrick’s Day (March 17)

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15)

All Saints (November 1)

Australia

Christmas (December 25)

Epiphany (observed on the following Sunday)

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15)

Ascension of Our Lord (observed on the following Sunday)

Corpus Christi (observed on the following Sunday)

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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