Question: For how many days do we celebrate the Great Feasts?
Answer: Many people mistakenly think they are celebrated for 8 days, but this is not true for most of the Great Feasts.
Great Feasts of the Lord
Sept. 14/27 Exaltation of the Cross 8 days (including feast day)
Dec. 25/ Jan. 7 Nativity of the Lord 7 days
Jan. 6 / 19 Theophany of our Lord 9 days
Feb. 2 / Feb. 15 Meeting of our Lord 1 – 8 days (depending on Triodion calendar)
6th Sunday of Lent Palm Sunday 1 day
1st Sunday after Pascha Thomas Sunday 7 days
Thurs. of 6th wk of Pascha Ascension 9 days
7th Sun. after Pascha Pentecost 7 days
Aug. 6 / 19 Transfiguration 8 days
Characteristics of Great Feasts of the Lord: When they occur on Sunday, the normal Sunday order including the Octoechos is set aside and the feast is performed just as on a weekday (the only exception being the 1st Kathisma of Vespers).
Great Feasts of the Theotokos
Sept. 8 /21 Nativity of the Theotokos 5 days
Nov. 21/ Dec. 4 Entry of the Theotokos 5 days
Mar. 25 / Apr. 7 Annunciation 1 – 2 days (depending on Triodion calendar)
Aug. 15 / 28 Dormition of the Theotokos 9 days
Characteristics of Great Feasts of the Theotokos: When they occur on Sunday, the feast is combined with the normal Sunday order, and the Octoechos is used. However, the Matins Gospel and hymns following Psalm 50 are for the feast. In the Matins Canon, “My soul doth magnify” is sung as normal, and the festal refrains are set aside.
Note: Just because a feast is celebrated for more or less days, does not necessarily make one more important than another. For example, liturgically we celebrate the Nativity of the Theotokos and the Dormition equally, yet one is celebrated for 5 days and the other 9 days. Likewise, the number of fasting days preceding a feast does not necessarily mean a feast is more important. For example, we might have 42 days of fasting preceding the feast of Saints Peter & Paul, yet this does not mean this day is more important than the Dormition which is preceded by 14 days of fasting.
The Nativity of the Lord (because we really like Christmas in America) is often mistakenly thought to be greater than the other Great Feasts of the Lord,(except Pascha), but this is not quite true. Liturgically, the feasts of Theophany and Nativity of the Lord are equal in importance. Each has a 5 day pre-feast, which is different from the other great feasts that have only 1 day of forefeast. Both feasts are preceded by a sequence which includes Royal Hours, a Vesper/Liturgy on the eve, and Vigil with Great Compline. This sequence mimics in a reduced way, the preparation for Pascha. Also, the eves of these 2 feasts contain a Canon which is modeled after the Canon we sing on Holy Saturday. Comparing the Irmosii of Ode 1 for these feasts we see: Holy Saturday (Matins Canon) “He who in ancient times hid the pursuing tyrant beneath the waves of the sea, is hidden beneath the earth…”; Nativity (from Compline of Dec. 24): – “He who in ancient times hid the pursuing tyrant beneath the waves of the sea, is hidden in a manger …”; Theophany (Compline Canon of Jan 5) “He who in ancient times hid the pursuing tyrant beneath the waves of the sea, is now cloaked and hidden in the streams of the Jordan…”. A further example of the symmetry between Pascha, Nativity and Theophany, differentiating these high feasts from other Great Feasts, is the order of readings during the Vesper/Liturgy on the eve. On Holy Saturday, in Vespers, we have the 15 Old Testament readings, on the Eve of Theophany 13 readings, and on the Eve of Nativity 8 readings, compared to the normal 3 Readings on other feasts.
The fact that there is a long fast period before Nativity/Christmas, while before Theophany only one fast day, does not affect how greatly we consider these two feasts. Historically, Theophany is the more ancient feast. Actually, Nativity and Theophany were originally celebrated together as one feast on January 6. When the feast of Nativity was established preceding Theophany, the preparatory period was also moved. So the 40 day fast before Nativity can actually be considered preparation for both feasts. Simply preceding a feast with a long fast period does not mean the feast is more important, or else we would consider the feast of Saints Peter and Paul to be greater than most of the Great Feasts of the Lord which are not preceded by fast periods.