What Is a Red Letter Day?
A red letter day has come to mean an important day when some noteworthy event or celebration is taking place. Originally the phrase came from the habit of ecclesiastics of marking special saint’s days in red ink in their calendars. This custom started very early on in the days of hand-written manuscripts. There are 29 red letter days in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
There are also “black letter days” in the ecclesiastical calendar, but these are not days of sadness and repentance as one might imagine from their name. They signify days of lesser feasts and obligations. It is a little known fact that a devout Anglican could ask for his children to be excused school on red letter days to attend religious services.
In medieval manuscripts, initial capitals and highlighted words (known as rubrics) were written in red ink. The practice was continued after the invention of the printing press, including in Catholic liturgical books. Many calendars still indicate special dates and holidays in red instead of black. The practice did not originate, as is often assumed, from Medieval church calendars or a requirement that important holy days be marked in red from First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, as has widely been claimed.
On red letter days, judges of the English High Court (Queen’s Bench Division) wear, at sittings of the Court of Law, their scarlet robes. Also in the United Kingdom, other civil dates have been added to the original religious dates. These include anniversaries of the Monarch’s birthday, official birthday, accession and coronation. In the universities of the UK, scarlet days are when doctors may wear their scarlet ‘festal’ or full dress gowns instead of their undress (‘black’) gown.
During medieval times Christian festivals were asked to be highlighted in the calendars in the red colour. This started the process of marking events on calendars and seems to have begun from Europe and UK. In Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Hong Kong and South Korea and some Latin American countries, a public holiday is sometimes referred to as “red day” as it is printed in red in calendars.