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The mere mention of “Sunday” will immediately conjure up a rich mix of memories, associations, and ideas for most anyone of any age. Whatever we think of—be it attending church, reading a bulky newspaper, eating brunch, or watching football— Sunday occupies a unique place in Western civilization. But how did we come to have a day with such a singular set of traditions?
Here, historian Craig Harline examines Sunday from its ancient beginnings to recent America in a fascinating blend of facts and anecdotes. For early Christians, the first day of the week was a time to celebrate the liturgy and observe the Resurrection. But over time, Sunday in the Western world took on still other meanings and rituals, especially in the addition of both rest and recreation to the day’s activities. Harline illuminates these changes in enlightening profiles of Sunday in medieval Catholic England, Sunday in the Reformation, and Sunday in nineteenth-century France—home of the most envied and sometimes despised Sunday of the modern world. He continues with moving portraits of soldiers and civilians observing Sunday during World War I, examines the quiet Sunday of England in the 1930s, and concludes with the convergence of various European traditions in the American Sunday, which also adds some distinctly original habits of its own, including in the realms of commerce and professional sports.
With engaging prose and scholarly integrity, Sunday is an entertaining and long-overdue look at a significant hallmark of Western culture.
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CRAIG HARLINE, a professor of history at Brigham Young University, is the author of A Bishop’s Tale, The Burdens of Sister Margaret, and Miracles at the Jesus Oak. His research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society, the American Council of Learned Societies, and other granting agencies. He lives in Orem, Utah.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
PROLOGUE: SUNDAY ASCENDANT
Origins to Around AD 800
Trying to find the origins of Sunday, the biblical scholar Eugene Laverdière once observed, is like trying to find the source of a great river. The delta at the end, and the long channel flowing into the delta, are easily recognizable. Yet the farther one moves upstream toward the source of the river, the trickier the going: tributaries multiply, lead astray, or go underground. And when finally located, the humble source may bear so little resemblance to the massive amounts of water downstream that one will surely wonder what the beginning can possibly have to do with the end.
But if the orgins of Sunday are vague, and thus regularly debated, a few things seem clear enough.
THE DAY OF THE SUN
It is fairly clear, for instance, that “Sun Day” emerged in the ancient Middle East, as part of a seven–day planetary week. Many early civilizations calculated a solar year at roughly 360 days (it’s actually closer to 365.2422) and a lunar month at 29 (a modern mean figure is 29.5306). But these civilizations showed infinite variety and imagination in subdividing years and months into more manageable weeks and days: around the ancient world, weeks lasted anywhere from five to sixteen days, while days were parceled into myriad arrangements of hours. That parts of the ancient Middle East and then the Roman Empire settled on a seven–day week, with each day twenty–four hours long and named for a planet, was hardly inevitable.
One early step toward such a week was taken in Babylonia, where by 600 BC observers had identified and carefully tracked seven heavenly planets, or “wanderers,” moving about the Earth. This was done largely for astrological purposes: each planet was believed to be governed by a god or goddess who exerted influence upon earthly events according to that planet’s position at a given moment—hence the need to track not only where the planets moved but when.
Yet the idea of organizing a seven-day week around the planets did not come from the Babylonians themselves, who preferred lunar months. Rather, it came from the later Greek or "Hellenistic" world, which included the great centers of learning at Alexandria, Egypt, during the second century BC. Wishing to measure even more precisely the influences of the seven planets upon the Earth, Hellenistic observers laid down the basic features of a new week. First, they fixed the number of days in the earthly week at seven, to match the number of planets, with each day under the influence of a particular planet. Second, they fixed the order of distance from Earth of all planets: Saturn was farthest, then Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon. (*) Third, they fixed the order of days in the week: Saturn Day was the first day, Sun Day the second, then Moon Day, Mars Day (Tuesday), Mercury Day (Wednesday), Jupiter Day (Thursday), and Venus Day (Friday). And fourth, they fixed the number of hours in a day at twenty–four, as each such hour signified the length of time that a particular planet’s influence held sway. (*) In short, everything about this seven–day planetary week was meant to link the heavens to Earth.
So far, there was nothing that made Sun Day, the second day, or for that matter any other day, stand out; although the planets possessed different qualities and were honored with distinct rituals, all planetary days were basically equal in stature. The idea that one day in the week was superior to others came from another ancient seven–day system: that of the Jews.
SUN DAY BECOMES THE FIRST DAY
It is not entirely settled which week is older: planetary or Jewish. But it is certainly clear that the Jews had a seven–day week of their own and were largely responsible for the custom of singling out one day of the week for special attention.
For the Jews, this extraordinary day was the seventh, which ideally was to be devoted solely to their God. They showed this devotion by coming together to worship him, by resting from ordinary labors, and by engaging in other rituals reserved for that day—helping to explain the day’s name, “Sabbath,” the root meaning of which is “to cease,” as in ceasing from the everyday. The Jewish week and its all–important Sabbath may have emerged as early as the reigns of David and Solomon near 1000 BC, but it was certainly present around the time of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 587 BC. Some scholars suggest that Jewish enthusiasm for a seven–day week and especially its seventh day rubbed off on the Babylonians, who likewise developed a taste for the number, as in their seven planets or their special taboos every seven days. Still more scholars, however, believe that the Jewish preference for seven was the result of forced contact with the Babylonians. Thus, with their temple destroyed and their people scattered across Babylon, exiled Jews developed sacred time (the Sabbath) to compensate for the loss of sacred space (the temple), but they measured that time under Babylonian influence.
These are just some of the chicken–and–egg problems involved in searching for the origins of the Jewish and planetary weeks, which are never likely to be settled from remaining historical evidence. For many believers in the Judeo–Christian tradition, such evidence has hardly mattered anyway: in their minds, the Jewish week came directly from God at creation, when He labored six days and rested on the seventh, setting the pattern for mortals as well. But all long–standing calendar systems—and there have been many around the globe—seem divine, eternal, natural, and self–evident to those who follow them centuries later. What can be said from historical evidence is that the Jews were observing a seven–day week organized around their Sabbath from at least the sixth century BC, and that the Jewish custom of treating the Sabbath in exceptional fashion would eventually have a big impact on the planetary Sun Day too.
It can also be said that the Jewish week, unlike many weeks around the world, was not meant to be shoehorned into nature’s cycles: in other words, the seven–day Jewish week did not multiply neatly into a 29–day lunar month or a 365–day solar year, but was an artifical number deliberately imposed by the Jewish God as a sign of his superiority to nature and its pagan gods. (*) The Jewish week therefore stood outside of nature, on purpose, unlike the planetary week. That the Jewish total of seven days happened to equal nature’s total of seven planets mattered little to the Jews: except for the Sabbath and the day before the Sabbath, called the Day of Preparation, days of the Jewish week were numbered, not named, and had nothing to do with planets. Moreover, while days and gods of the planetary week were, as noted above, more or less equal, the Jewish week derived virtually all of its meaning from a single day devoted entirely to their single God.
Although the Jewish week wanted nothing to do with any planetary week, two seven–day systems born in the eastern Mediterranean could hardly avoid bumping into and influencing one another. Yet whatever the degree of their mutual influence, by the first century AD they were clearly both exerting influence upon timekeeping in the new Roman Empire. The Roman calendar had long featured numerous annual festivals and an eight–day market cycle, but it had no tradition of a weekly commemoration of a particular day. During the first century AD, this changed, as Rome adopted a seven–day week of its own, shaped by Jewish, planetary, and native Roman traditions. In fact, scholars believe that if the Jews and the Hellenistic Greeks should be given credit for inventing a seven–day week, then the Romans deserve credit for popularizing it—as well as for popularizing the notion that one day of the week outshone the others.
Jewish influence on the Roman week was apparent by the mid–first century, when a growing number of Roman pagans began observing a weekly rest day. Their initial choice seems to have been Saturn Day (Saturday), first day of the planetary week, which fell on the same day as the Sabbath, seventh day of the Jewish week. Jewish influence on society, trade, and traffic had been widening around the eastern Mediterranean for three centuries, so that by this time gentiles too found it convenient to adopt Jewish rhythms of work and rest. This is suggested by the Jewish historian Josephus, who proudly noted that the Jewish custom of refraining from work on every seventh day had spread to all peoples of the eastern Roman Empire. Perhaps because of this, by at least AD 100 Romans too regarded Saturn Day no longer as the first day of their week but as the seventh. Naturally this caused every other planetary day to shift in Rome as well—including Sun Day, which became the new first day. Hence Jewish and Roman weeks were now aligned: the Jewish Sabbath and Roman Saturn Day were both the seventh day, and the Jewish first day was equal to the Roman first day, or Sun Day.
Like the Jewish week, the old planetary week also exerted influence on the new Roman week, most obviously in the naming of Rome’s seven days. Moreover, Romans divided their days into the twenty–four hours of the old astrologers, if with a Roman wrinkle: while planetary (and Jewish) days began and ended at sunset, the Romans continued their custom of beginning and ending days at midnight.
Hence by the end of the first century AD, the Roman week, the week that would come to dominate the Western world, was nearly complete: each day was named after a planet, Sun Day was the first day and Saturn Day the last, one day stood somewhat above others in prestige, and days ended and began at midnight. Only one element of this now–fam...
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