Before the revision of the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar in 1969, the Church celebrated Ember Days four times each year. They were tied to the changing of the seasons, but also to the liturgical cycles of the Church.
The spring Ember Days were the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the First Sunday of Lent; the summer Ember Days were the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Pentecost; the fall Ember Days were the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the third Sunday in September (not, as is often said, after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross); and the winter Ember Days were the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the Feast of Saint Lucy (December 13).
The origin of the word “ember” in “Ember Days” is not obvious, not even to those who know Latin. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Ember” is a corruption (or we might say, a contraction) of the Latin phrase Quatuor Tempora, which simply means “four times,” since the Ember Days are celebrated four times per year.
The Ember Days are celebrated with fasting (no food between meals) and half-abstinence, meaning that meat is allowed at one meal per day. (If you observe the traditional Friday abstinence from meat, then you would observe complete abstinence on an Ember Friday.)
With the revision of the liturgical calendar in 1969, the Vatican left the celebration of Ember Days up to the discretion of each national conference of bishops. They’re still commonly celebrated in Europe, particularly in rural areas.
In the United States, the bishops’ conference has decided not to celebrate them, but individual Catholics can, and many traditional Catholics still do, because it’s a nice way to focus our minds on the changing of the liturgical seasons and the seasons of the year. The Ember Days that fall during Lent and Advent are especially useful to remind children of the reasons for those seasons. (8:8)