Ascension Day 2021: what is the Christian holiday, is it a holy day of obligation - and when is Pentecost?

The meaning of the day is the same all over the world, but some countries celebrate the day with a national holiday, while the UK does not.

Christians around the world will celebrate Ascension Day today (May 13), with some countries marking the occasion with an official holiday.

The UK doesn’t afford the day a national holiday, but a number of Christians will celebrate the day nonetheless - so what is it for, and why is it celebrated?

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What is Ascension Day?

Catholic churches often hold celebrations on the Sunday following the traditional Thursday date.

Ascension day marks the moment that Jesus ascended to heaven in front of his disciples in Bethany, near Jerusalem.

This supposedly took place in the 40 days after his resurrection on Easter Sunday, a period when Jesus travelled and preached alongside his apostles to prepare them for his ascension from Earth.

Acts of the Apostles in the fifth book of the New Testament gives an account of Jesus’s departure in which he asks them to continue preaching the word of God and tells them he’ll return for the day of judgement as a Second Coming.

“After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight,” the book says.

“They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven’.”

When is Ascension Day?

Ascension Day is usually celebrated on the sixth Thursday following Easter, which marks 40 days from Easter Sunday.

The Eastern Orthodox Church, however, uses a different calendar from other branches of Christianity and thus celebrates the day a week later than most other Christians.

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In what way is the day celebrated?

While Ascension Day isn’t usually a major event in Protestant communities, the Catholic Church marks it as a Holy Day of Obligation, meaning that Catholic believers are compelled to attend mass.

To allow the maximum number of people to attend services, some Catholic dioceses choose to celebrate Ascension Day on the Sunday following the traditional Thursday date.

Traditionally, the day is marked by a procession in which people carry banners and torches, with the practice still continuing in some parts of Europe.

Following Ascension Day, Christians go on to celebrate Pentecost, which marks the descent of the Holy Spirit on a gathering of early Christians.

This descent gave the group the ability to speak a number of different languages, thus enabling them to preach to people from around the world.

From the period of Ascension Day to Pentecost, church readings focus on the spreading of Christ’s word and hope for eternal salvation when the Second Coming happens.

In Germany, Father’s Day, dating back to the 18th century, coincides deliberately with Ascension Day to celebrate Jesus returning to the Holy Father.

“Traditionally men would be placed in a cart or carriage and brought to the town or village square, and the proud father who had sired the most children received a prize from the mayor, often a big piece of ham,” says German magazine Der Spiegel.