Category Archives: Special Days
The idea of reducing the working week from an average of five days to four is gaining traction around the world. Businesses and politicians have been considering a switch to fewer, but more productive hours spent working. But the idea has also been derided.
As a historian of leisure, it strikes me that there are a number of parallels between debates today and those that took place in the 19th century when the weekend as we now know it was first introduced. Having Saturdays as well as Sundays off work is actually a relatively modern phenomenon.
Throughout the 19th century, government legalisation reduced working hours in factories and prescribed regular breaks. But the weekend did not simply arise from government legislation – it was shaped by a combination of campaigns. Some were led by half-day holiday movements, others by trade unions, commercial leisure companies and employers themselves. The formation of the weekend in Britain was a piecemeal and uneven affair that had to overcome unofficial popular traditions that punctured the working week during the 19th century.
For much of the 19th century, for example, skilled artisan workers adopted their own work rhythms as they often hired workshop space and were responsible for producing items for their buyer on a weekly basis. This gave rise to the practice of “Saint Monday”. While Saint Monday mimicked the religious Saint Day holidays, it was in fact an entirely secular practice, instigated by workers to provide an extended break in the working week.
They worked intensively from Tuesday to finish products by Saturday night so they could then enjoy Sunday as a legitimate holiday but also took Mondays off to recover from Saturday night and the previous day’s excesses. By the mid-19th century, Saint Monday was a popular institution in British society. So much so that commercial leisure – like music halls, theatres and singing saloons – staged events on this unofficial holiday.
Workers in the early factory system also adopted the tradition of Saint Monday, despite manufacturers consistently opposing the practice, as it hurt productivity. But workers had a religious devotion to the unofficial holiday, which made it difficult for masters to break the habit. It continued to thrive into the 1870s and 1880s.
Nonetheless, religious bodies and trade unions were keen to instil a more formal holiday in the working week. Religious bodies argued that a break on Saturday would improve working class “mental and moral culture”. For example, in 1862 Reverend George Heaviside captured the optimistic tone of many religious leaders when, writing in the Coventry Herald newspaper, he claimed a weekend would allow for a refreshed workforce and greater attendance at church on Sundays.
Trade unions, meanwhile, wanted to secure a more formalised break in the working week that did not rely on custom. Indeed, the creation of the weekend is still cited as a proud achievement in trade union history.
In 1842 a campaign group called the Early Closing Association was formed. It lobbied government to keep Saturday afternoon free for worker leisure in return for a full day’s work on Monday. The association established branches in key manufacturing towns and its membership was drawn from local civic elites, manufacturers and the clergy. Employers were encouraged to establish half-day Saturdays as the Early Closing Association argued it would foster a sober and industrious workforce.
Trades unions and workers’ temperance groups also saw the half-day Saturday as a vehicle to advance working class respectability. It was hoped they would shun drunkenness and brutal sports like cock fighting, which had traditionally been associated with Saint Monday.
For these campaigners, Saturday afternoon was singled out as the day in which the working classes could enjoy “rational recreation”, a form of leisure designed to draw the worker from the public house and into elevating and educational pursuits. For example, in Birmingham during 1850s, the association wrote in the Daily News newspaper that Saturday afternoons would benefit men and women who could:
Take a trip into the country, or those who take delight in gardening, or any other pursuit which requires daylight, could usefully employ their half Saturday, instead of working on the Sabbath; or they could employ their time in mental or physical improvements.
Across the country a burgeoning leisure industry saw the new half-day Saturday as a business opportunity. Train operators embraced the idea, charging reduced fares for day-trippers to the countryside on Saturday afternoons. With increasing numbers of employers adopting the half-day Saturday, theatres and music halls also switched their star entertainment from a Monday to Saturday afternoon.
Perhaps the most influential leisure activity to help forge the modern week was the decision to stage football matches on Saturday afternoon. The “Football Craze”, as it was called, took off in the 1890s, just as the new working week was beginning to take shape. So Saturday afternoons became a very attractive holiday for workers, as it facilitated cheap excursions and new exciting forms of leisure.
The adoption of the modern weekend was neither swift nor uniform as, ultimately, the decision for a factory to adopt the half-day Saturday rested with the manufacturer. Campaigns for an established weekend had begun in the 1840s but it did not gain widespread adoption for another 50 years.
By the end of the 19th century, there was an irresistible pull towards marking out Saturday afternoon and Sunday as the weekend. While they had their different reasons, employers, religious groups, commercial leisure and workers all came to see Saturday afternoon as an advantageous break in the working week.
This laid the groundwork for the full 48-hour weekend as we now know it – although this was only established in the 1930s. Once again, it was embraced by employers who found that the full Saturday and Sunday break reduced absenteeism and improved efficiency.
Why are there seven days in a week? – Henry E., age 8, Somerville, Massachusetts
Waiting for the weekend can often seem unbearable, a whole six days between Saturdays. Having seven days in a week has been the case for a very long time, and so people don’t often stop to ask why.
Most of our time reckoning is due to the movements of the planets, Moon and stars. Our day is equal to one full rotation of the Earth around its axis. Our year is a revolution of the Earth around the Sun, which takes 365 and ¼ days, which is why we add an extra day in February every four years, for a leap year.
But the week and the month are a bit trickier. The phases of the Moon do not exactly coincide with the solar calendar. The Moon cycle is 27 days and seven hours long, and there are 13 phases of the Moon in each solar year.
Some of the earliest civilizations observed the cosmos and recorded the movements of planets, the Sun and Moon. The Babylonians, who lived in modern-day Iraq, were astute observers and interpreters of the heavens, and it is largely thanks to them that our weeks are seven days long.
The reason they adopted the number seven was that they observed seven celestial bodies – the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. So, that number held particular significance to them.
Other civilizations chose other numbers – like the Egyptians, whose week was 10 days long; or the Romans, whose week lasted eight.
The Babylonians divided their lunar months into seven-day weeks, with the final day of the week holding particular religious significance. The 28-day month, or a complete cycle of the Moon, is a bit too large a period of time to manage effectively, and so the Babylonians divided their months into four equal parts of seven.
The number seven is not especially well-suited to coincide with the solar year, or even the months, so it did create a few inconsistencies.
However, the Babylonians were such a dominant culture in the Near East, especially in the sixth and seventh centuries B.C., that this, and many of their other notions of time – such as a 60-minute hour – persisted.
The seven-day week spread throughout the Near East. It was adopted by the Jews, who had been captives of the Babylonians at the height of that civilization’s power. Other cultures in the surrounding areas got on board with the seven-day week, including the Persian empire and the Greeks.
Centuries later, when Alexander the Great began to spread Greek culture throughout the Near East as far as India, the concept of the seven-day week spread as well. Scholars think that perhaps India later introduced the seven-day week to China.
Finally, once the Romans began to conquer the territory influenced by Alexander the Great, they too eventually shifted to the seven-day week. It was Emperor Constantine who decreed that the seven-day week was the official Roman week and made Sunday a public holiday in A.D. 321.
The weekend was not adopted until modern times in the 20th century. Although there have been some recent attempts to change the seven-day week, it has been around for so long that it seems like it is here to stay.
Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com. Please tell us your name, age and the city where you live.
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This article has been updated to correct the details on Earth’s revolution around the Sun.
December 25, as we all know, is Jesus Christ’s birthday, a Christian celebration in which the myth of three kings who travelled far and wide to give gifts to the “new born king” inspires the modern Christian tradition of gift giving. Early gifts used to be fruits or nuts, but as this act took on more importance, gifts became larger and less modest, and were placed under a tree.
Midwinter has been a period of festivities for millenia, but Christmas as we know it today has its origins in Victorian Britain. It was in Victorian times that the idea of Christmas as a family holiday, with gift giving, a tree, and an intimate dinner became central to this celebration. Britons traditionally celebrate Christ’s birth with a religious mass. Hence the words “Christ” and “mass” coming together to form the word Christmas.
Charles Dickens defined the British Christmas with his story, A Christmas Carol, which linked Christian values with the idea of sharing and a “festive generosity of spirit”. His book helped popularise what was already occurring in Britain, and is credited with spreading the traditions of the festival. His book sold out in its first printing in 1843 and set the tone for the mid-Victorian revival of the Christmas holiday by reflecting and reinforcing the Dickensian vision of Christmas.
An early English folkloric tradition associated with this holiday celebration is “Old Father Christmas”, who can first be found in the mid-17th century as a symbol of good cheer. In the early part of the 19th century, he was depicted as a skinny man who promoted drinking and partying during the holiday season. But by 1874, Father Christmas had evolved into a round jolly man wearing red and green fur lined robes and holly on his head.
This early version of Father Christmas was mostly associated with the adult celebration, but during the Victorian times with their new focus on the family, Father Christmas began to be linked to the idea of giving gifts. Images of Christmas were reproduced in popular culture through mass mediums of newspapers; magazines and theatre. These images visually defined Christmas and how it should be celebrated.
By the 20th century, mass advertising became commonplace. Consumer messages were now broadcast to the public through billboards, magazines, radio, and later the moving image of television. Mass advertising was what allowed the slowly developing idea of Christmas as a time to give gifts to go mainstream, and eventually, to define Christmas itself.
Businesses realised that Christmas could be a brilliant money spinner. Seasonal advertisements began to emphasise the act of “giving gifts” as a major part of Christmas time by having Father Christmas physically display branded products to a growing consumer market. The link between this Christmas icon and consumer goods was made very obvious in advertising, as illustrated in this ad from Newball & Mason to sell an assortment of alcoholic spirits. Advertising took the fable of Father Christmas and linked him with physical brands, turning myth into a reality, something that could be touched, smelled, and experienced.
In 1937 Coca Cola introduced the world to a simplified and more accessible version of Father Christmas dressed in Coca-Cola red, this time without the traditional cape. In their ads he was named Santa Claus, in accordance with American tradition. Santa Claus became a personification of the brand and gave the brown liquid a personality and a face, associating the drink with one of the happiest yearly western celebrations. Coke repeated the same message every December, and the name “Santa” slowly replaced “Father Christmas” in popular parlance in the UK too. This led to the red suited man becoming the icon most associated with Christmas.
In Britain, brands continued to express the idea reflected by Dickens that Christmas was a time to celebrate and unite the family. Queen Victoria and Albert celebrated with a Christmas tree, and slowly the concept of putting presents under a decorated tree took hold. In the 20th century the idea of Father Christmas bringing presents and leaving them under the tree became popular, thereby linking the concept of Santa delivering presents with the joy of sharing.
One 1965 ad selling tape recorders, for example, shows a white British family opening presents on a Christmas morning recording a child playing on his new drum. This image attempts to convince the consumer that they can demonstrate “love” through the act of giving gifts, an idea that still has real traction today.
Modern Christmas advertising has moved on again in order to reflect our multicultural and ever more secular societies. In the latest Selfridges television ad, “A Christmas for Modern Times”, a multiracial group of friends are shown celebrating “future fantasy” of Christmas. This “chosen family” share gifts, food and drink with one another, and then go dancing in a nightclub. The addition of going to a disco to continue the Christmas celebration reflects ever newer forms of cheer and highlights just how far the idea of Christmas is now removed from religion.
Thankfully, the white nuclear family casts are now, mostly, consigned to historical Christmas ads. The 2019 John Lewis ad “Excitable Edgar” and Ikea’s #WonderfulEveryday both feature multiracial casts celebrating Christmas together. These visual representations of Christmas signpost the holiday’s evolution from a white one to an inclusive one. Christmas is no longer a Christian holiday – but a time to be celebrated by everyone.
This is of course something we should be thankful for – but now that it has been replaced by a religion of conspicuous consumption, it’s big business which will be most pleased of all.
The idea of hanging up decorations in the middle of winter is older than Christmas itself. Decorations are mentioned in ancient descriptions of the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which is thought to have originated in the 5th century BC.
Some 900 years later, a Christian bishop in Turkey wrote disapprovingly about members of his congregation who were drinking, feasting, dancing and “crowning their doors” with decorations in a pagan fashion at this time of year.
The 6th-century Pope Gregory the Great took a different line. The Venerable Bede, an English monk, records that English pagans had celebrated the start of their year at the winter solstice and called it “the night of the mothers”.
Gregory recommended that these celebrations should be reinvented rather than banned. So the construction of green boughs and natural adornments was instead focused on churches – using plants that have retained their festive significance to this day.
Nature, of course, has a role to play. In countries like the UK, midwinter greenery is limited. The leaves that are available – holly, ivy and mistletoe – became obvious choices for decorations. Mistletoe had long been revered by druids, while holly and ivy were celebrated in English songs at least from the 15th century.
King Henry VIII composed one which begins: “Green groweth the holly, So doth the ivy, Though winter blasts blow never so high, Green groweth the holly.” (I have modernised the spelling, but it was never very catchy.)
Greenery was cheap and perhaps for that reason is not mentioned in descriptions of domestic decorations from medieval Europe. Aristocratic households preferred to display their wealth by bringing out their best tapestries, jewels and gold platters.
Wax candles were another form of conspicuous consumption, as well as a nod to religious significance. But descriptions of Christmas festivities well into the 17th century focus on the decoration of the person rather than the house. Strange costumes, masks, role-reversing clothes and face-painting are all repeatedly mentioned.
Early emphasis on domestic decorations does appear in a Christmas song by the English poet and farmer Thomas Tusser, written in 1558. It opens: “Get ivy and hull [holly] woman, deck up thine house.” Clearly, the decoration of family homes was considered to be work for women – and this too has become a persistent tradition.
In the following century, Christmas celebrations became a matter of heated argument between reformers and traditionalists, with the reformers attacking what they saw as pagan revelries.
Creating modern traditions
It was the Industrial Revolution which came much closer to destroying Christmas than the puritans managed, by taking away traditional holidays in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Social reformers responded by energetically reinventing traditions.
The emphasis remained heavily on female responsibility for decorations, however. The British magazine, The Lady, asserted in 1896 that any hostess whose decorations were “meagre” was a disgrace to her family.
What then would be expected by this date? A middle-class woman might have been guided by the song which opens with the celebrated instruction to “Deck the hall[s] with boughs of holly”, published in 1862.
This song is itself a good example of the ongoing recreating of traditions throughout history. The new English lyrics were written to accompany a 16th-century Welsh melody, whose original words made no mention of holly or decorating. The 1862 lyrics were almost immediately updated to remove encouragement of heavy drinking.
Still relatively new in Britain and the US at this time, though rising in popularity, was the German custom of the decorated Christmas tree, which was first recorded in the Rhineland in the 16th century.
Its decorations were mainly candles and small presents, which were often homemade food and sweets. By 1896 the tree might be accompanied by a display of printed Christmas cards bearing images of holly, mistletoe, seasonal food and bells. Newer images included robins and, of course, Father Christmas. Another innovation was the arrival of electric lighting in the 1890s, which made possible the invention of fairy lights.
Arguably, the Industrial Revolution, having failed to destroy Christmas, eventually absorbed and expanded it. Affordable, mass-produced toys, gifts and decorations turned Christmas into the festival we know today and made decorations possible for almost all households, even in big cities where foliage was scarce.
One man who played a major part in creating and spreading affordable versions of decorations was the American entrepreneur and retail mogul, F W Woolworth. His decision to import large quantities of glass baubles and stars, originally produced by family workshops in Germany, did much to spread this new medium.
Alongside these came paper garlands and decorative Christmas stockings, as well as painted tin toys. Another idea which started in Germany was tinsel. This was originally fine, sparkling strips of silver, but was later mass produced – first in cheaper metals, and then plastic.
Today, of course, plastic is widely out of favour. As a result, perhaps we will see further reinvention of our Christmas decorations and traditions – which, from a historical perspective, is a tradition in itself.
There are many sides to the beloved figure of Santa Claus – a giant of pop culture, he also has “miraculous” powers and ties to the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Santa’s blend of religion and popular culture is, however, not modern at all. Several of Santa’s modern features, such as his generosity, miracle-working, and focus on morality (being “naughty or nice”), were part of his image from the very beginning. Others, like the reindeer, came later.
The original Santa, Saint Nicholas, was a fourth century CE bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) with a reputation for generosity and wonder-working. St Nicholas became an important figure in eighth century Byzantium before hitting pan-European stardom around the 11th century.
He became a focus not just for religious devotion, but Medieval dramas and popular festivals – some popular enough to be suppressed during the Reformation
The naughty list
St Nicholas had his own version of the naughty list, including the fourth century “arch-heretic” Arius, whose views annoyed the saint so much he supposedly smacked Arius in the face in front of Emperor Constantine and assembled bishops at Nicaea.
An even more surprising listee is the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis. In popular Byzantine stories, Nicholas acted like a one-man wrecking crew, personally pulling down her temples, and even demolishing the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It’s almost a shame, as they probably would have agreed about the importance of reindeer.
The idea of St Nicholas’ conflict with Artemis probably relates to religious change in Anatolia, where the goddess was hugely popular. Historically, the temple was sacked earlier, by a band of Gothic raiders in the 260s CE, but hagiographers had other ideas. Perhaps these furious northmen even count as Santa’s earliest “helpers”. He was after all (as part of his extensive saintly portfolio) the patron of the Varangians, the Viking bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperors.
Santa’s greatest miracle is intrinsic to modern Christmases: his ability to reach all the children on Earth in one night. NORAD, the US and Canadian air defence force, has tracked Santa’s sleigh since the 1950s, presumably trying to figure out the secret of his super speed. But really, they just need to check their ancient sources.
In one story, sailors in a wild storm in the eastern Mediterranean cried out for the already-famous wonderworker’s help. With the mast cracking and sails coming loose, a white-bearded man suddenly appeared and helped them haul the ropes, steady the tiller, and brought them safe to shore. Rushing up the hill to the local church to give thanks, the sailors were astonished to see Nicholas was already there, in the middle of saying mass.
Suddenly appearing to save people became a favourite trick in accounts of the saint’s life and in folklore. He once saved three innocents from execution, teleporting behind the executioner and grabbing his sword, before upbraiding the judges for taking bribes.
There’s also the tale of Adeodatus, a young boy kidnapped by raiders and made the cupbearer of an eastern potentate. Soon after, St Nicholas appeared out of nowhere, grabbed the cupbearer in front of his startled master, and zipped him back home.
Artists depicting this story stage the rescue differently, but the Italian artists who have St Nicholas swoop in from the sky, in full episcopal regalia, and grab the boy by the hair are worth special mention.
The flying reindeer
None of the old tales have Saint Nicholas carrying around stacks of gifts when teleporting, which brings us to the reindeer, who can pull the sleigh full of millions of presents. The popular link between Santa Claus and gifting came through the influence of stores advertising their Christmas shopping in the early 19th century. This advertising drew on the old elf’s increasing popularity, with the use of “live” Santa visits in department stores for children from the late 1800s.
Santa Claus became connected to reindeer largely through the influence of the 1823 anonymous poem, A visit from St Nicholas.. In this poem, “Saint Nicholas” arrives with eight tiny reindeer pulling a sleigh full of toys. The reindeer have the miraculous ability to fly.
The origins of the animals’ flight may link back to the Saami reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia. Here, the herders were said to feed their reindeer a type of red-and-white mushroom with psychedelic properties, known as fly agaric fungi (Amanita muscaria). The mushrooms made the reindeer leap about, giving the impression of flying.
The herders would then collect and consume the reindeer’s urine, with its toxins made safe by the reindeer’s metabolism. The reindeer herders could then possibly imagine the miraculous flight through the psychedelic properties of the mushroom.
The ninth reindeer, Rudolph, was created as part of a promotional campaign for the department store Montgomery Ward by Robert Lewis May in 1939. May himself was a small, frail child, who empathised with underdogs. In May’s story, Rudolph Shines Again (1954), the little reindeer is helped by an angel to save some lost baby rabbits, once again blending Santa’s religious and popular sides.
And … invisible polar bears
A number of modern depictions have connected Santa with polar bears, such as the 1994 film The Santa Clause. It seems likely the association grew as Santa’s home became accepted as the North Pole — though in one of the oldest stories, St Nicholas saves three Roman soldiers, one of whom is named Ursus (“Bear” in Latin).
Polar bears are undoubtedly useful companions for secretive Santa, and don’t even need his powers to move about unseen – the special properties of their fur mean they are hidden even from night-vision goggles.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters From Father Christmas (1976), written by the Lord of the Rings’ author to his children, features the (mis)adventures of the North Polar Bear. Like St. Nick, the North Polar Bear isn’t shy about getting physical with those he perceives as wrong-doers. In one letter, the North Polar Bear saves Santa, his elves, and Christmas from a murderous group of goblins.
So with Santa Claus once again coming to town, remember — ancient or modern – it’s better to be on the “nice” side of this teleporting saint and his motley crew of miracle-workers.
Our lives run on Roman time. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and public holidays are regulated by Pope Gregory XIII’s Gregorian Calendar, which is itself a modification of Julius Caesar’s calendar introduced in 45 B.C. The names of our months are therefore derived from the Roman gods, leaders, festivals, and numbers. If you’ve ever wondered why our 12-month year ends with September, October, November, and December – names which mean the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months – you can blame the Romans.
The calendar of Romulus
The Roman year originally had ten months, a calendar which was ascribed to the legendary first king, Romulus. Tradition had it that Romulus named the first month, Martius, after his own father, Mars, the god of war. This month was followed by Aprilis, Maius, and Iunius, names derived from deities or aspects of Roman culture. Thereafter, however, the months were simply called the fifth month (Quintilis), sixth month (Sixtilis) and so on, all the way through to the tenth month, December.
The institution of two additional months, Ianuarius and Februarius, at the beginning of the year was attributed to Numa, the second king of Rome. Despite the fact that there were now 12 months in the Roman year, the numerical names of the later months were left unchanged.
Further reading: Explainer: the gods behind the days of the week
Gods and rituals
While January takes its name from Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, February comes from the word februum (purification) and februa, the rites or instruments used for purification. These formed part of preparations for the coming of Spring in the northern hemisphere.
The februa included spelt and salt for cleaning houses, leaves worn by priests, and strips of goat skin. These strips were put to good use in the festival of the Lupercalia, held each year on February 15. Young men, naked except for a goat-skin cape, dashed around Rome’s sacred boundary playfully whipping women with the strips. This ancient nudie run was designed to purify the city and promote fertility.
The origins of some months were debated even by the Romans themselves. One tradition had it that Romulus named April after the goddess Aphrodite, who was born from the sea’s foam (aphros in Ancient Greek). Aphrodite, known as Venus to the Romans, was the mother of Aeneas, who fled from Troy to Italy and founded the Roman race. The other version was that the month derived from Latin verb aperio, “I open”. As the poet Ovid wrote:
For they say that April was named from the open season, because spring then opens all things, and the sharp frost-bound cold departs, and earth unlocks her teeming soil …
There were similar debates about the origins of May and June. There was a story that Romulus named them after the two divisions of the Roman male citizen body, the maiores (elders) and iuniores (juniors). However, it was also believed that their names came from deities. The nymph Maia, who was assimilated with the earth, gave her name to May, while Juno, the goddess of war and women, was honoured by the month of June.
Further reading: Explainer: the seasonal calendars of Indigenous Australia
The numerical names of the months in the second half of the year remained unchanged until the end of the Roman Republic. In 44 B.C., Quintilis was rebranded as Iulius, to celebrate the month in which the dictator Julius Caesar was born.
This change survived Caesar’s assassination (and the outrage of the orator M. Tullius Cicero, who complained about it in his letters). In 8 B.C., Caesar’s adoptive son and heir, the emperor Augustus, had Sextilis renamed in his honour. This was not his birth month (which was September), but the month when he first became consul and subjugated Egypt.
This change left four months – September, October, November and December – for later emperors to appropriate, though none of their new names survive today. Domitian renamed September, the month he became emperor, to Germanicus, in honour of his victory over Germany, while October, his birthday month, he modestly retitled Domitianus, after himself.
However, Domitian’s arrogance paled in comparison with the megalomaniacal Commodus, who rebranded all the months with his own imperial titles, including Amazonius (January) and Herculeus (October).
If these titles had survived Commodus’s death, we would not have the problem of our year ending with months carrying the wrong numerical names. But we would be celebrating Christmas on the 25th of Exsuperatorius (“All-Surpassing Conqueror”).
The origins of our days of the week lie with the Romans. The Romans named their days of the week after the planets, which in turn were named after the Roman gods:
- dies Solis “the day of the sun (then considered a planet)”
- dies Lunae “the day of the moon”
- dies Martis, “the day of Mars”
- dies Mercurii, “the day of Mercury”
- dies Iovis, “the day of Jupiter”
- dies Veneris, “the day of Venus”
- dies Saturni, “the day of Saturn”
When the Germanic-speaking peoples of western Europe adopted the seven-day week, which was probably in the early centuries of the Christian era, they named their days after those of their own gods who were closest in attributes and character to the Roman deities.
It was one of those peoples, the Anglo-Saxons, that brought their gods and language (what would become English) to the British Isles during the fifth and sixth centuries AD.
In English, Saturday, Sunday and Monday are named for Saturn, the sun and moon respectively, following the Latin.
The remaining four days (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) are named for gods that the Anglo-Saxons probably worshipped before they migrated to England and during the short time before they converted to Christianity after that.
Tuesday is named for the god Tiw, about whom relatively little is known. Tiw was probably associated with warfare, just like the Roman god Mars.
Wednesday is named for the god Woden, who is paralleled with the Roman god Mercury, probably because both gods shared attributes of eloquence, the ability to travel, and the guardianship of the dead.
Thursday is Thunor’s day, or, to give the word its Old English form, Thunresdæg “the day of Thunder”. This sits beside the Latin dies Iovis, the day of Jove or Jupiter. Both of these gods are associated with thunder in their respective mythologies.
You may recognise a similarity here with the name of the famous Norse god Thor. This may be more than coincidence. Vikings arrived in England in the ninth century, bringing their own very similar gods with them. Anglo-Saxons were already Christian by this time, but may have recognised the similarity between the name of their ancestors’ deity Thunor and the Norse god. We don’t know, but the word Thor does appear in written texts from the period.
Friday is the only weekday named for a female deity, Frig, who is hardly mentioned anywhere else in early English. The name does appear, however, as a common noun meaning “love, affection” in poetry. That is why Frig was chosen to pair with the Roman deity Venus, who was likewise associated with love and sex, and was commemorated in the Latin name for Friday.
Of gods and weekdays
The concept of the week, that is, a cycle of seven numbered or named days with one of them (usually Sunday or Monday) fixed as the first, was originally probably associated with the Jewish calendar. This was complicated by the fact that early medieval Europe inherited its idea of the week from imperial Rome, via the Christian church.
In early Christianity the reckoning of time was crucial to the proper celebration of the church’s feast days and holidays, especially the variable feast of Easter.
We find day names similar to English in related European languages, like Dutch, German, and all the Scandinavian or Norse languages. Gods with comparable names, like Tyr, Othinn, Thor and Frigg, were certainly known to the Scandinavians and gave their names to weekdays in Scandinavian languages (compare Modern Danish tisdag, onsdag, torsdag, fredag).
The Latin names for the days of the week, and the Roman gods for which they were named, still live on in all the European Romance languages, like French, Spanish and Italian. Think of French lundi, mardi, mercredi, jeudi and vendredi, for example, and you will find the Latin Luna, Mars, Mercurius, Iovis and Venus hidden behind them.