Catholics come in many different types, and each celebrates the Catholic holidays in their own way. Devout Catholics follow the liturgical calendar to the letter, attending mass on every Saint’s day and each of the holy days of obligation. Casual Catholics make sure that they attend mass each Sunday and all of the major holidays, and may observe some of the more minor holidays such as Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday.
And then there are the recovering Catholics… Most people in this group eschew Sunday mass, forego all minor holidays and may or may not attend mass on the high holy days. They celebrate the major holidays more for their commercial value than religious sentiment.
Easter commemorates the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Ash Wednesday, which always falls 46 days before Easter on the church calendar, kicks off the season. This is not one of the church’s holy days of obligation, but many Catholics head to mass anyway to have ceremonial ashes placed on their forehead. The ashes are meant to be a symbol that: “…thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”
Ash Wednesday also kicks off the season of Lent, a 40-day period of repentance that ends on Holy Thursday. During Lent, many Catholics will perform some fasting, give up some luxury, attend daily mass or perform the ritual called the “stations of the cross.” The week leading up to Easter Sunday, which usually falls in April, begins with Palm Sunday, followed by Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and, finally, Easter Sunday.
Jesus the Messiah’s birth is celebrated on Christmas day, which is always observed on December 25th. Unlike Easter, Christmas is a one-day celebration, usually kicked off by a ceremonial midnight mass. There is a period called Advent that leads up to Christmas, but it more or less ignored by most Catholics.
Like the Jewish Chanukah holiday, which falls a few weeks before, Christmas has become completely commercialized. You can even find some atheists and non-Christians who celebrate the holiday by exchanging gifts and hosting a Christmas dinner with no regard to the religious meaning of the holiday.
Other Holy Days of Obligation
The remaining holy days of obligation can be placed into two groups: those celebrated by the most devout Catholics and those where both devout and casual Catholics observe the day. Most Catholics do observe All Saint’s Day, which falls in November, and New Year’s Day, which is the feast of Mary, Mother of God. The most minor holy days of obligation include: Divine Mercy Sunday the week following Easter, the feast of the Ascension and Pentecost Sunday in May, Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi in June, the Assumption of Mary in August and the feast of the Immaculate Conception in December.