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The Forgotten Customs of Assumption Day

You have crowned the year with your bounty, and your paths overflow with a rich harvest; The untilled meadows overflow with it, and rejoicing clothes the hills. The fields are garmented with flocks and the valleys blanketed with grain. They shout and sing for joy.

-Blessing of Herbs on Assumption Day

The Importance of the Liturgical Year

 The Church’s Liturgical Year is a harmonious interplay of feasts and fasts interwoven in both the temporal and sanctoral cycles that define the rhythm and rhyme of Catholic life. In days gone by, cycles of feasts punctuated all aspects of Catholic life. Far from merely observing the minimum of assisting at Holy Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, our forefathers sought to live out the faith in all aspects of life. Early Christians would gather throughout the day to join in the praying of the Divine Office. The faithful would memorize the Psalms so that even when they were working in the fields they could lift up their hearts and minds to God when they heard the Church bells ring.

Closer to our era, weekly devotions ranging from Tuesdays in honor of St. Anthony, First Fridays and First Saturdays, Novenas, Eucharistic Processions, Sunday afternoon Benediction, and dozens of other devotions were not merely extras—they were gladly part of a Catholic’s life. These customs and traditions—including traditional fasting days which occurred throughout the year—were hallmarks of Catholic life and remained as such until only a few generations ago.

Yet we need not rely on the reminiscence of nostalgic Catholics for these seemingly bygone days. They too are our heritage! To rediscover the Catholic Faith in the aftermath of decades of collapsing faith and morals necessitates a familiarity with and a passing down of these customs. Traditional days of fasting and abstinence throughout the year and the unique prayers of the Roman Ritual offered on various feastdays are two ways to incorporate into our lives these connections with the Church and the ever-advancing cycles of feastdays and seasons which draw us closer—day by day—to the eventual return of the Messiah Himself Who will establish a new heaven and a new earth. And until that happy day comes for the glory of the faithful and for the horror of obstinate sinners we can, following the example of St. Pius X, seek to restore all things in Christ. To this end, knowing, sharing, and observing the customs of the liturgical year will allow us to connect on a deeper physical and spiritual level with the Church’s Year.

Fasting on the Vigil of the Assumption

It is only fitting that before any feast, there be a fast. We see this most clearly manifested at Easter with the conclusion of Great Lent, the forty days fast. Other traditional periods of fasting throughout the Church’s history included the Advent Fast, the Apostles Fast in June, the Assumption Fast in August, and other devotional fasts like St. Michael’s Lent—championed by the Franciscans—for forty days leading up to Michaelmas.

As fasting has consistently waned throughout the centuries, even in the decades before Vatican II, only a small remnant of those days remained in practice by the time the Code of Canon Law was codified in 1917. In general, fasting was required on Ember Days, Vigils, and Lent. The number of Vigils changed over time and many localities observed their own fasting rules as dispensations and indults varied considerably not only over time but from region to region.

Yet, despite this, the Vigil of the Assumption was observed as a fasting day for centuries. For American Catholics in particular, the 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia mentions: “In the United States only four of these vigils are fast days: the vigils of Christmas, Pentecost, the Assumption, and All Saints.”

On July 25, 1957, Pope Pius XII commuted the fast in the Universal Church from the Vigil of the Assumption to the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception on December 7, even though he had a few years prior abrogated the Mass for the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception. Despite this recent change, its observance as a fast day is ancient, which the Catholic Encyclopedia affirms: “Pope Nicholas I (d. 867), in his answer to the Bulgarians, speaks of the fast on the eves of Christmas and of the Assumption … The Synod of Seligenstadt in 1022 AD mentions vigils on the eves of Christmas, Epiphany, the feast of the Apostles, the Assumption of Mary, St. Laurence, and All Saints, besides the fast of two weeks before the Nativity of St. John.”

The Vigil of the Assumption can, of course, still be observed as a fast day by the faithful even if it has not been listed as obligatory since 1957. To have a greater appreciation for Our Lady’s Assumption, it is fitting that we should fast and abstain in her honor.

The Blessing of Herbs

God, who on this day raised up to highest heaven the rod of Jesse, the Mother of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, that by her prayers and patronage you might communicate to our mortal nature the fruit of her womb, your very Son; we humbly implore you to help us use these fruits of the soil for our temporal and everlasting welfare, aided by the power of your Son and the prayers of his glorious Mother; through Christ our Lord.
-The Third of Three Prayers in the Blessing of Herbs on Assumption Day.[1]

Illustrating the great harmony in Catholic life between seasonal customs and the liturgical year, the Church instituted at this time of year the blessing of Herbs in connection with Our Lady’s glorious Assumption into Heaven. This blessing found in the Rituale Romanum was only to be offered on this particular day and was observed for centuries before the dogma of the Assumption was infallibly defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950. Gregory DiPippo in a 2015 article at New Liturgical Movement wrote:

The blessing originated in Germany and is first attested in the 10th century; one version of it or another is found in a great many of the liturgical books which contain blessings of this sort. In the 1614 Roman Ritual of Pope Paul V, it consists of a psalm, a series of versicles and responses, three prayers, and the blessing, after which the flowers are sprinkled with holy water; the blessing is supposed to be done before the principal Mass of the day.

Why the blessing of Herbs? It is connected with an ancient tradition that states that after Our Lady’s Assumption into Heaven, beautiful and sweet-smelling flowers began to grow out of the stone sarcophagus, confirming to the Apostles that she had truly been assumed by her divine son. Regardless of whether this manifestation of flowers actually occurred, our custom for keeping Assumption Day as a day for blessing herbs helps unite us to the Apostles and centuries of Catholics who knew of and believed in her triumph over death. Like Our Lady, we too look forward to our eventual Resurrection, confident in the mercy of God if we preserve in the state of sanctifying grace until death.

Herbs also show a connection with the life of the average agrarian Catholic who would at this time be observing the fall harvest. Father Weiser in his opus magnum Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs—which all Catholics should read—notes this connection especially led Hungary and Poland to observe Assumption Day as a celebration of God’s blessings upon the harvest:

In the Christian era the custom of celebrating a thanksgiving harvest festival began in the High Middle Ages. For lack of any definite liturgical day or ceremony prescribed by the Church, various practices came to be observed locally. In many places, as in Hungary, the Feast of the Assumption included great thanksgiving solemnities for the grain harvest. Delegates from all parts of the country came for the solemn procession to Budapest, carrying the best samples of their produce. A similar ceremony was observed in Poland, where harvest wreaths brought to Warsaw from all sections were bestowed on the president in a colorful pageant. These wreaths (wieniec), made up of the straw of the last sheaf (broda), were beautifully decorated with flowers, apples, nuts, and ribbons, and blessed in churches by the priests.

The blessing of herbs is preserved in the 1962 and 1964 Rituale Romanum (which are nearly identical aside from some alterations to the Rite of Marriage). A PDF of the 1962 Rituale may be found online and the blessing of herbs may be said by any priest. Ask your priest in advance to publicly bless herbs on Assumption Day and invite the faithful to bring their own herbs from home for this unique tradition.

Forty Hours Devotion

The Blessing of Herbs is not the only custom associated with Assumption Day. The Forty Hours Devotion—which we often associate with the days leading up to Ash Wednesday—were previously kept especially around Easter, Pentecost, Christmas Day, and Assumption Day. On this, Father Weiser notes the following:

Usually, the origin of the Forty Hours’ Devotion is ascribed to the city of Milan, where, in 1527, in a time of war and calamities, the faithful were invited to visit the exposed Blessed Sacrament four times a year and to pray to the Eucharistic Lord, imploring His mercy and help. The dates for this devotion, which was called Forty Hours’ Prayer, were Easter, Pentecost, Feast of the Assumption, and Christmas.

Priests, help us rediscover the customs in honor of Our Blessed Lady’s Assumption. Bless herbs for us. Offer the Forty Hours Devotion. Preach a sermon after First Vespers on August 14th in honor of her Assumption highlighting that her physical Assumption into Heaven was believed for centuries before the dogmatic proclamation in 1950. Encourage everyone to fast and abstain on August 14.[2]

Together may we restore the Church’s venerable customs and traditions brick by brick and in so doing give greater honor to God.

[1] Taken from Philip T. Weller, S.T.D. The Roman Ritual (The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, WI, 1964).

[2] In years when August 14th falls on a Sunday, the fasting can be observed on the Saturday beforehand (i.e. August 13th). This is in keeping with the practice that was observed right up until the codification of the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

Photo credit: Cochem, Germany by Kai Pilger via

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