Ember Day Lore

Written by Forrest Moyer on December 10, 2020

Each of the four seasons has an Ember Day (image source: Wikipedia).

Several years ago, while transcribing a Bucks County Mennonite family register, I came across an unfamiliar phrase noting that Henry Angeny was born December 20, 1843 “auf den quatember [on the Quatember]”.

The Quatuor Tempora “Four Seasons” (called in German “Quatember”) were four groups of “Ember Days” or “Embertides” in the church year that were set aside seasonally for fasting and prayer. Early in Roman church practice they were instituted to replace pre-Christian festivals of prayer and sacrifice for good harvest, etc.  While the Quatuor Tempora were not observed universally by the church outside Rome, German Europe widely adopted the practice upon conversion to Christianity.

Embertides are groups of three days—Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday—following the first Sunday of Lent (spring), Pentecost Sunday (summer), the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (autumn), and the third Sunday of Advent (winter). In Catholic and Anglican tradition, the Saturday of an Embertide is the traditional time for ordination of priests and deacons in the context of prayer and fasting.

For Protestant Pennsylvania Germans, Ember Days had no particular religious significance, but medieval folklore about the days and their spiritual significance persisted in the minds of some Pa. Germans, and is probably the reason that birth on an Ember Day would be noteworthy.

Some Germans in Pennsylvania practiced “parallel folk religion” in addition to formal religion (email from historian Alan Keyser, 1/26/16). It was rooted in pre-Christian and medieval practice, and was at times discouraged by educated clergy of the Lutheran and Reformed churches. Old-fashioned Mennonites and Amish were more tolerant of folk practices, including rites of powwowing/braucherei (healing), planting by the signs of the moon, etc.

German farm scene from Arndt’s Wahren Christenthum. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection.

There are sayings and proverbs in the Pennsylvania Dutch language that relate to Quatember, and the Wednesday of each Embertide was noted in the Kalender [almanac] used by families to guide their growing cycles and farm activities.

The following sayings are from Edwin Fogel’s Beliefs and Superstitions of the Pennsylvania Germans (1915), available in the MHC library. Fogel collected the sayings by word of mouth in fourteen German counties of Pennsylvania, and noted in which county he heard each saying, and whether he was able to locate it in European sources (including manuscript and folklore collections at the universities of Heidelberg, Stuttgart, etc.):

[p. 32] Kinner uf der Gwatember gebore kenne gschpuker sene.
Persons born on Emberdays can see ghosts.
(heard by Fogel in Berks, Carbon, Lancaster, Monroe, Northampton, York; also European source)

[p. 125] Wammer der Quatember Mittwoch wescht un waert grank waert mer nimmi gsund.
If you wash on the Wednesday nearest an Emberday and are taken sick, you will never get well.
(Lebanon; European source)

[p. 195] Wann di quatemberdak hoch im munet sin waert di frucht deier.
Grain will be high in price if the Emberdays come late in the month.
(“all of the fourteen Pennsylvania German counties” including Bucks and Montgomery; European source)

[p. 232] Wanns regert uf Quatember gebts enunzwanzich dak rege.
Rain on an Emberday is followed by three weeks of rain.
(Lebanon and York; European source)

[p. 232] Wanns drei dak regert faer Quatember is es drei munet nass; wanns druke is is es drei munet druke.
The weather three days before Emberday foretells the weather for the next quarter.
(Lebanon, Schuylkill and York; European source)

[p. 252] Uf Quatember daerf mer ken fi schlachte aber feimache.
You must not butcher beef on an Ember day but you may cut it up.
(Dauphin, Lebanon, Lehigh, Monroe, Northampton, Schuylkill; European source)

[p. 252] Uf der Quatember daerf mer net wesche oder mer hot unglik.
Washing on an Ember day is unlucky.
(Berks, Carbon, Lebanon, Lehigh, Lancaster, Monroe, Northampton, Schuylkill, Snyder, York; European source)

[p. 252] Uf Quatember daerf mer ken flesch eisalze.
Never cure meat on an Ember day.
(Lebanon and Schuylkill; European source)

[p. 252] Uf Quatember daerf mer net schlachte.
Never slaughter any cattle on an Ember day.
(Monroe and Schuylkill; European source)

[p. 252] Waer uf Quatember wescht waert grank.
You will become sick if you do any washing on an Ember day.
(Berks, Carbon, Lancaster, Montgomery, Northampton, Schuylkill; European source)

[p. 252] Wammer uf Quatember wescht get em en schtik fi dod.
If you wash on an Ember day a head of cattle will die.

[p. 252] Wammer uf der Quatember wescht get em ken fi dod bis der Quatember wider kummt.
If you do washing on an Ember day none of your cattle will die before the next Ember day.
(Berks and Lancaster; European source)

[p. 253] Uf Quatember daerf mer net schlachte oders gen em sell jor so fil schtik fi dod as mer uf Quatember gschlacht hot.
As many cattle will die during the year as are slaughtered on any Ember day.

It is interesting how, in oral tradition, proverbs may become contradictory, even within the same county. Should I wash on Quatember or not?! In Fogel’s survey, the opinion of most was that washing was unlucky. Somehow a few folks in Berks and Lancaster got confused and thought it beneficial to wash on Ember Day. I wouldn’t want to be at the local tavern when those folks got in an argument with the fellow from Northumberland County who was sure that cattle would die if one washed on Quatember!

Everyone seems agreed about the price of grain benefitting from Ember Days late in a month. Perhaps this had to do with European economics around festival days.

I suppose the avoidance of butchering on Ember Days could have connection to the history of fasting. Dr. Michael Foley, in his essay on Ember Days, points out that in the Catholic Church, “fasting and partial abstinence during the Ember days were enjoined on the faithful from time immemorial until the 1960s.”

Dr. Foley’s article sheds light on the importance of Ember Days as a remembrance of nature in Christian spirituality: “The Ember days are the only time in the Church calendar where nature qua [being] nature is singled out and acknowledged. Certainly the liturgical year as a whole presupposes nature’s annual rhythm (Easter coincides with the vernal equinox, Christmas with the winter solstice, etc.), yet here we celebrate not the natural phenomena per se but the supernatural mysteries which they evoke. The Rogation days commemorate nature, but mostly in light of its agricultural significance (that is, vis-à-vis its cultivation by man), not on its own terms, so to speak.”

You can read more about how medieval Christians understood the significance of Ember Days in The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints compiled in 1275 by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa.

Dr. Foley mentions, in footnote 14, that “there was also an old superstition that [on Ember Days] the souls in Purgatory were temporarily released from their plight in order to thank their relatives for their prayers and beg for more.” This is likely the origin of the Pa. German superstition that people born on Ember Days see ghosts.

I doubt that David & Elizabeth Kulp Angeny were concerned that their son Henry would see ghosts. Their record does indicate that as late as 1843 a Mennonite couple in Hilltown Township viewed the Advent Ember Day (Wednesday, December 20) as significant. Perhaps they hoped it would be a good omen for the life of their firstborn son. Unfortunately, Henry lived only one year, and was buried in the Blooming Glen Mennonite Cemetery. The Angeny’s later had three children—Jacob, Anna and Mary—who lived full lives.

Full record of David and Elizabeth Angeny’s family. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection. A translation may be found in the catalog record.
This beautiful show towel belonged to the father, David, before his marriage to Elizabeth. It was made for him, probably by his sister-in-law Anna Kulp Angeny (a cousin of Elizabeth), and passed down in the family to Stella Yoder Schantz of Hereford Township. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection; gift of Hiram & Mary Jane Lederach Hershey. (1999.11.28)