What is a red-letter day

00:00 Mon 16th Jul 2001 |

A. Red-letter days were originally the holy days and saints' days indicated in early ecclesiastical calendars by letters marked in red ink. So, by extension, a red-letter day is a special day, one to be remembered. In the past, saints' days were celebrated with extra festivities and these special days turned into lucky days, days to be recalled with pleasure.

Q. Who decided which days should be distinguished in this way

A. The days were approved at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.

Q. The Council of Nicaea

A. This was the first ecumenical council of the Christian church, and was called by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great in 325 at Nicaea in Bithynia, Asia Minor, now Iznik in Turkey. It primarily dealt with a condemnation of Arian heresy, put forward by Arius of Alexandria, which stated that Christ is not divine, but a created being.

Q. Do red-letter days still have any significance today

A. Today red-letter days still have a legal importance, as judges of the Queen's Bench Division wear scarlet robes on red-letter days falling during the law sittings.

The days designated as red-letter days for this purpose are:

  • Holy Days and Saints' Days - The Conversion of St Paul, the Purification, Ash Wednesday, the Annunciation, the Ascension, the feasts of St Mark, SS Philip and James, St Matthias, St Barnabas, St John the Baptist, St Peter, St Thomas, St James, St Luke, SS Simon and Jude, All Saints and St Andrew.
  • Civil calendar - The anniversaries of the Queen's accession, the Queen's coronation, the Queen's actual birthday, the Queen's official birthday, the birthday of the Duke of Edinburgh, the birthday of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, the birthday of the Prince of Wales, St David's Day and Lord Mayor's Day.

Q. And a black-letter day

A. A black-letter day is an inauspicious or unlucky day. Incidentally the Romans marked unlucky days with a piece of charcoal and their lucky ones with white chalk.

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By Simon Smith

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