Since it's Labor Day weekend, I thought I should blog about medieval holidays. (Hint: there was no Labor Day in the Middle Ages.)
Medieval holidays were religious holidays--or at least religion was the excuse for a holiday. Since every day of the year had been, at least since the seventh century, associated with one saint or another, every day was a saint's day. If that saint was worthy of special commemoration, then there was a holiday (literally "holy day") in his or her honor. The date for a saint's feast day would be associated with a special event, generally their death, less commonly birth or the date of translation of their relics from an old tomb to a new one.
Different localities would commemorate different local saints. A founding bishop would, for example, generally be commemorated in a cathedral town, especially if he had been martyred for his faith. Some saints, like Bercharius of Montier-en-Der, were scarcely known outside of their locales, but they were highly honored there. The saint's annual feast day was quite literally that, a day of feasting and festivity.
Then there were the universal saints. Saint Stephen protomartyr, the first Christian martyr, who is in fact recorded in the New Testament, had his feast day on December 26, for those who hadn't gotten enough celebrating on Christmas. The Feast of the Wise Men comes along twelve days after Christmas, as a last chance opportunity. The Assumption of the Virgin is still a big holiday in France today. Easter was the biggest of all.
In practice, there were probably four or five holidays a month worth having a special celebration. Work stopped on these days except for the most necessary chores (feeding the animals, milking cows). Since peasants were not expected to be answering email on holidays (just for example), they really did get a break from work.
Sunday was also supposed to be a day of rest. Medieval people did not treat this commandment quite as seriously as did the later Puritans, especially since a lot of people a lot of the time had no idea what day of the week it was. But a Sunday and/or a feast day gave a break in the work and also provided an opportunity for reflection and planning, which is as important in farming as in any other business. The Puritan idea of being very strict and proper on Sunday would have made no sense in the Middle Ages, where feast days were for fun. After all, Christianity is supposed to bring good news.
Humans have probably always had festivals to mark special transitional periods. In the Middle Ages, these were absorbed into Christian festivals: Easter for spring, Christmas for darkest day of the year, and so on. For more on Christmas in the Middle Ages, click here for my essay on Amazon.
Click here for more on the Feast of the Wise Men and here for more on medieval saints.