The Twelve Major Feasts

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In the Orthodox Church we celebrate the memory of many saints and events every day in the Church, but out of these thousands of “feasts” there are the 12 major feasts. The Major Feasts (according to the Ecclesiastical Calendar, which is September-August) are: The Nativity (Birth) of the Theotokos (Sept 6) 1, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Sept 14) 2, the Meeting of the Theotokos to the Temple (Nov 21) 3, the Nativity of Christ (Dec 25) 4, Epiphany (Baptism of Jesus, Jan 6) 5, the Meeting of Christ to the Temple (Feb 2) 6, the Annunciation (Mar 25) 7, Palm Sunday (one week prior to Pascha) 8, the Ascension (40 days after Pascha) 9, Pentecost (50 days after Pascha) 10, the Transfiguration (Aug 6) 11, and the Dormition(Falling Asleep) of the Theotokos (Aug 15) 12. As you might have noticed, Pascha is not considered one of the 12 Great Feasts because it is too big to put on the list as it is called “the feast of feasts.” These 12 feasts are either focused on the major events in the life of Christ as well as the Theotokos. Many times, the icons of these great feasts are found on the Iconostasis, usually in their own horizontal row.

As you can tell, some of the feasts have standard days, such as December 25th, September 14th and August 15th, just to give some examples. Other feasts are celebrated in their relationship to Pascha. Each year, as the date of Pascha is calculated, the other feasts can be found. We know that the Ascension happened 40 days after the day of Resurrection, and that Pentecost followed 10 days later. Though it may seem contradictory, some of these “Feasts” are held during fasting periods, such as the Meeting of the Theotokos to the Temple, the Annunciation, Palm Sunday and the Transfiguration. In each occasion when these feasts land during a fast, the fast is alleviated, allowing fish, wine and olive oil. (November 21st isn’t exactly alleviated, as the fast period always allows for fish, wine, and olive oil except for on Wednesday and Fridays until later in December.)

Due to our busy schedules in the 21st Century, it seems very difficult to celebrate these feasts days appropriately when we find them in the middle of the week. Of these twelve, the Nativity of Christ (Dec 25) and the Dormition of the Theotokos (Aug 15) are the feasts that the majority of Greek Orthodox Christians celebrate. All of these feasts are crucial to faith as they teach us about God, our relationship, and ourselves with God. I have also observed that even some of our Churches will not even hold services on what we consider more “obscure” feasts, such as the Birth and Meeting with the Temple of the Theotokos. This is not to criticize our clergy, but rather a wake-up call. We each have to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, are we willing to be “full” Orthodox Christians, then at the minimum we have to celebrate these feasts.

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This post was written by Andrew Athanasiou

About Andrew Athanasiou

Andrew is a student of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, located in Brookline, Massachusetts. Andrew is a Masters of Divinity Student who is also a Seminarian. Andrew is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and his knowledge comes from five major sources: Greek Orthodox Seminary; Greek Orthodox Summer Camp; both being taught and teaching in Greek Orthodox Sunday School; and finally further readings and interests in other theological areas.