Red Letter Days
Humankind holds a singular mania for timekeeping. To this end, moons are watched, bells toll and red letter days—or days of special significance—become tradition. A handful of holidays, such as Valentine’s Day, Good Friday and Pentecost, grew out of pagan roots and were transplanted to modern soil. The calendar of history, in fact, can start to look like one long run of red letter days.
In medieval times, monks marked important dates on the calendar with vermilion ink. These became known as red letter days. Catholics in particular have an abiding love for red. Cardinals don crimson robes, and some editions of the Bible print Jesus’s words in red. The Christian flag, devised in the early 20th century by Charles Overton, the superintendent of a New York Sunday school, uses a red cross to symbolize Christ’s blood sacrifice.
On the modern calendar, red is the color of love. Rufescence predominates on Valentine’s Day as eager Romeos woo with roses and chocolate hearts wrapped in red foil. The truth behind Saint Valentine, however, is rather bloody. At least three romantics named Valentine were executed and later beatified in early Catholic history. One such Valentine allegedly defied Emperor Claudius II’s decree that young men had to enlist in the military and therefore could not marry. Another Valentine, locked away in a dungeon, fell for the jailor’s daughter and sent her love notes. Their spilled blood is remembered every year on February 14 in the guise of rosy greeting cards.
Several Christian holidays carry the remnants of pagan beliefs. Christmas trees, for a familiar example, are rooted in religions of old; ancient Egyptians observed the solstice with green palms, early Romans celebrated Saturnalia by decorating with tree branches, and Druids hung evergreen boughs in temples to represent everlasting life. Easter derives its name from that of the Germanic pagan fertility goddess Eostre. And Pentecost was originally a large pagan party with horse races, feasts and parades—a celebration that, over time, Christians transformed into an observation of the Holy Spirit’s descent on Christ’s apostles.
Most pagan rituals are no longer practiced and exist only as historical footnotes. For instance, in ancient Rome during the two-day February fertility festival Lupercalia, priests wore the skins of sacrificial goats, and drunken bachelors whipped young women. Meanwhile, some ladies slipped their names into urns to be picked in a bawdy lottery. Lupercalia, or the Wolf Festival, dwindled in the fifth century, when Pope Gelasius I combined it with the feast of Saint Valentine and demanded decency. Today no one shows up at a candlelit bistro wearing a goatskin, least of all priests.
On medieval Christian calendars Good Friday was marked in red to signal the importance of Christ’s Crucifixion. Though this red letter day is observed on the Friday before Easter Sunday, nobody is sure of the exact day Christ was crucified. According to the biblical Book of Joel, “The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come.” This line has led theologians to believe a lunar eclipse may have occurred on the day of the Crucifixion.
During a lunar eclipse, sunlight is refracted through dust in the earth’s atmosphere, blocking out all blue from the color spectrum. When observers look at the moon through the dust-filtered light, it appears reddish copper. If, however, volcanic ash is floating around in the atmosphere, the moon will appear blue. In 2011 a volcanic eruption in Chile coincided with a full lunar eclipse, very nearly resulting in a blue moon. But “once in a blue moon” is rare indeed, because in the end the dust won out over the ash, painting the moon blood-red for stargazers in Asia. As for the Crucifixion eclipse theory, it’s probably just a red herring.
The moon normally appears to be white or butter yellow, and looks bluish only on the rare occasion when volcanic ash is abundant in the atmosphere. Blue moons are so rare in fact that when Henry VIII’s advisor Cardinal Thomas Wolsey said his detractors would “have you believe the moon is blue,” he was calling them liars. Though blue moon came to signify something that could never happen, nobody knows who picked the color or why. One theory is that blue is related to belewe, Old English for “betrayer.” Early Christians tracked the days of Lent by the moons, so counting the “belewe moon” could betray their cosmic calendar—although not enough to believe the last day of fasting, or Good Friday, had come early.
In the 19th century, the Maine Farmers’ Almanac described as blue the third full moon in a season that has four (there are normally only three full moons in a season). But in 1946, amateur astronomer James Hugh Pruett misinterpreted the Maine Farmers’ Almanac to mean a “blue moon” occurs when there is a second full moon within a month. Pruett’s misunderstanding has become the current notion of blue moon, completing this lexical lunar cycle.
Bells do not ring just every once in a blue moon. Churches have generally clanged large iron bells with strict regularity to mark the passage of time—and to rouse the pious or the puffy-eyed for prayer. In the seventh century, not long after church bells were introduced in France, the King of Neustria, Clotaire II, led an army on the city of Sens, whose bishop hustled to the church and rang the bells to alert his defenseless parishioners. His action had an unintended effect: Clotaire’s army was so frightened by the unfamiliar, hollow knells that it turned tail and fled. Being a church bell ringer eventually became a high honor, and by the 16th century, men were paid handsomely to ding bells. In the 17th century, bell ringing was akin to an exercise craze for European aristocrats, who rang bells in cutthroat competitions. In the 18th century, however, rural bell ringers were widely considered to be drunks.
NASA scientists have discovered that the moon itself can seem to ring. After astronauts placed seismometers on the lunar surface, they recorded “moonquakes.” Geologist Clive R. Neal observed, “The moon was ringing like a bell.”
The world of Christian holidays is byzantine. For one thing, they have a downright criminal number of aliases. Good Friday has been called Black Friday or Sorrowful Friday or Long Friday. And for the more enthusiastic, there was Great Friday. Meanwhile, Pentecost is also known as Whitsun or, simply, Whit. The origins of these terms are enough to cause contractions. To wit: Good Friday may be a corruption of “God’s Friday” and Whitsun may be a contraction of “White Sunday.” Or Whitsun may derive from wit.
Both Good Friday and Whitsun, if that’s what you decide to call them, circle around the movable feast of Easter, changing calendar dates from year to year. Black Friday occurs the Friday before Easter; Whitsun lumbers along seven weeks later. But then there’s the question of what to wear on these holy days. The clergy tend to dress in red on Sorrowful Friday, although some say black is the way to go. Red can also be worn for Pentecost, although white robes are traditional (hence “White Sunday”). Perhaps the costume change came about to avoid confusing Whit with Easter, when white robes are required. There’s certainly fashion, if not sense, in holiday tradition.
Sometimes the large, cavernous bells hanging in the belfries of the world’s great churches resound with superstition. After Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket was murdered, in 1170, many believed the bells of the cathedral clanged to mourn his death without a human ringer pulling the rope. During medieval times, people believed church bells could fend off evil spirits and even knock witches off their broomsticks. The tolling of bells was particularly important during thunderstorms, when ghosts were allegedly most active. In any event, church bells have rung every day since Paulinus, Bishop of Nola on the Italian peninsula, introduced them around 400 A.D.
There are times, however, when bell ringing is suspended. For example, church bells do not ring on Good Friday, in recognition of quietude as the appropriate response to the death of Christ. (Good Friday is possibly derived from “God’s Friday,” a day evil spirits may want to be wary of anyway.) In England during World War II, church bells were largely silent, ringing only to warn of an impending attack. This policy would accord with American poet Ezra Pound, who wrote that bell ringing is the “pointless interference with the quiet of other people.”