The Tradition of the Evening Before

I tried to run a short-lived blog about holidays and the calendar. It didn’t go anywhere, but I wrote this for that blog and liked it enough to preserve it here.

It’s a curious quirk of Christian tradition that  a day in liturgical reckoning was not from sunrise to sunrise, as we casually tend to view it; or from a fixed point like midnight to midnight, as our society officially reckons it; but instead from sundown to sundown. Days began at sundown, and carried through until the next sundown.

Modern Western churches have generally abandoned “sundown reckoning,” but it lingers on in some of our calendar traditions. Halloween and Christmas Eve are remnants of this older way of marking time.

Halloween is the most interesting of these, I think, because it’s become completely detached from holiday it was originally preceding. The name Halloween comes from an abbreviation of All Hallows Eve or All Hallow’s Evening, meaning the night before All Saint’s Day (also called All Hallow’s Day). The Catholic Church still recognizes All Saint’s Day in the modern era, and there are parts of the world where it is still a popular holiday; but in many of the places where Halloween has taken the strongest root — like in the United States — Halloween is a celebration unto itself, completely disconnected from any Catholic feast day. In fact, many churches in America view Halloween as a decidedly non-religious — or even anti-religious — holiday.

Halloween certainly restricts itself to the evening. It’s rare to see people celebrating on the day of Halloween. We go about our day as usual and really only get into the spirit of things (no pun intended) as the sun goes down. Trick-of-treating probably has something to do with this, as it has steadfastly remained an evening activity despite attempts over the years by local civic authorities to promote trick-or-treating before the darkness falls.

And Christmas Eve, especially, has that distinct moment where all the stores close, and everyone arrives at their destination, and the sun dips below the horizon, and it’s Christmas Eve, like a time removed from the normal flow of things. To me, at least, that feeling of Christmas as a moment removed from normal time usually lasts until about noon on Christmas Day; then reality begins to seep back in. By Christmas Day evening, the holiday is over; Christmas Day ends at sundown.

Modern, non-liturgical holidays have abandoned this sundown reckoning. Can you imagine setting off fireworks on Independence Eve, July 3rd, before you barbeque? Of course not. We celebrate things on the day of, and if there’s an evening to be celebrated in, it’s the evening of the day. That way, the party can go on longer.

The slightly archaic emphasis on the evening that Halloween and Christmas Eve retain makes them stand out in the calendar, make them just a little more special. They are times when we step out of our normal routine and give deference to centuries past, even when we don’t always remember the reason why. It’s a connection, however tenuous, to those who came before us; a glimpse into the way they viewed the world.

[Oh, and in case you’re curious: Our modern reckoning of the day from midnight to midnight is actually a Roman invention. Originally, midnight wasn’t a precisely fixed time but instead the point halfway between sundown and sunrise — literally the middle of the night. It’s opposite, noon, is derived from the Latin nona hora, “ninth hour”; originally, “noon” was at what we’d now call 3pm. So even in the way we usually do things, we’re not exactly modern. ]

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