Fasting & Fast-Free Seasons of the Church

Fasting Seasons

Nativity (St. Philip’s Fast) - Nov. 15 through Dec. 24
Meatfast - Monday after the Sunday of Last Judgment through Cheesefare Sunday
Great Lent & Holy Week - 1st Monday of Great Lent through Great and Holy Saturday
Apostles’ (Peter & Paul) Fast - June 11 through June 28
Dormition (Theotokos) Fast - Aug. 1 through Aug. 14

Fast-Free Weeks

Afterfeast of the Nativity of Christ to Theophany Eve - Dec. 25 through Jan. 4
The week following the Sunday of the Publican & Pharisee - 2nd Week of the Lenten Triodion
Bright Week - The week after Pascha until St Thomas Sunday
Trinity Week - The week after Pentecost until the Saturday before All Saints Sunday

Fast Days

The Wednesdays and Fridays of the Year, except for Fast-Free Weeks
The Eve of Theophany - January 5
The Beheading of St. John the Baptist - August 29
The Elevation of the Cross - September 14

Concerning Fasting

On the Calendar will be found notations concerning Fasting days and seasons. Where there is no indication of a fast given, this means that all foods may be eaten (except during Cheesefare Week, when meat is forbidden for every day). where the notation Fast Day is found, this means that a strict fast is observed, in which no meat, eggs, dairy products, fish, wine or oil are to be eaten.

These rules are dependent on the Church’s cycle of feasts and fasts, and are contained in the Typikon, mainly in Chapters 32 and 33, repeated in appropriate places of the Menaion and Triodion. In general, except where otherwise noted, all Wednesdays and Fridays (Mondays also, in some monasteries) are kept as days of fasting (an exception being during the Fast Free periods), as well as the four canonical fasting periods (Great Lent, the Apostles’ Fast, the Nativity Fast and the Dormition Fast), and certain other days, including the Eve of Theophany, the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, and the Elevation of the Cross. We note here that there are many local variations in the allowances of wine and oil (and sometimes fish), such as on patronal feast days of a parish or monastery, or when the feast of a great Saint (or Saints) is celebrated which has particular local or national significance.

While most Orthodox Christians are perhaps aware of the general rules of fasting for Great Lent, the rules for the other fasting periods are less known. During the Dormition Fast, wine and oil are allowed only on Saturdays and Sundays (and sometimes on a few feast days and vigils). During the Apostles’ Fast and the Nativity Fast, the general rules are as follows (from Chapter 33 of the Typikon):

“It should be noted that in the Fast of the Holy Apostles and of the Nativity of Christ, on Tuesday and Thursday we do not eat fish, but only oil or wine. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we eat neither oil nor wine…. On Saturday and Sunday we eat fish. If there occur on Tuesday or Thursday a Saint who has a [Great] Doxology, we eat fish; if on Monday, the same; but if on Wednesday or Friday, we allow only oil and wine…. If it be a Saint who has a Vigil on Wednesday or Friday, or the Saint whose temple it is, we allow oil and wine and fish…. But from the 20th of December until the 25th, even if it be Saturday or Sunday, we do not allow fish.”

Concerning the rules of fasting during the Great Lent, we quote the article, “The Rules of Fasting,” contained in The Lenten Triodion, translated by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos (Ware), Faber & Faber, London, 1978, pp. 35-37:

What “precisely do the rules of fasting demand? Neither in ancient nor in modern times has there ever been exact uniformity, but most Orthodox authorities agree on the following rules:

  1. During the week between the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee and that of the Prodigal Son, there is a general dispensation from all fasting. Meat and animal product may be eaten even on Wednesday and Friday.
  2. In the following week…the usual fast is kept on Wednesday and Friday. Otherwise there is no special fasting.
  3. In the week before Lent, meat is forbidden, but eggs, cheese and other dairy products (as well as fish) may be eaten on all days, including Wednesday and Friday.
  4. On weekdays (Monday to Friday inclusive) during the seven weeks of Lent, there are restrictions both on the number of meals taken daily and on the types of food permitted; but when a meal is allowed, there is no fixed limitation on the quantity of food to be eaten.
    1. On weekdays in the first week, fasting is particularly severe. According to strict observance, in the course of the five initial days of Lent, only two meals are eaten, one on Wednesday and the other on Friday, in both cases after the Liturgy of the Presanctified. On the other three days, those who have the strength are encouraged to keep an absolute fast; those for whom this proves impracticable may eat on Tuesday and Thursday (but not, if possible, on Monday), in the evening after Vespers, when they may take bread and water, or perhaps tea or fruit-juice, but not a cooked meal. It should be added at once that in practice today these rules are commonly relaxed. At the meals on Wednesday and Friday xerophagy is prescribed. Literally this means ‘dry eating’. Strictly interpreted, it signifies that we may eat only vegetables cooked with water and salt, and also such things as fruit, nuts, bread and honey. In practice, octopus and shell-fish are also allowed on days of xerophagy; likewise vegetable margarine and corn or other vegetable oil, not made from olives. But the following categories of food are definitely excluded:
      1. meat;
      2. animal products (cheese, milk, butter, eggs, lard, drippings);
      3. fish (i.e., fish with backbones);
      4. oil (i.e., olive oil) and wine (i.e., all alcoholic drinks).
    2. On weekdays (Monday to Friday inclusive) in the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth weeks, one meal a day is permitted, to be taken in the afternoon following Vespers, and at this one meal xerophagy is to be observed.
    3. Holy Week. On the first three days there is one meal each day, with xerophagy; but some try to keep a complete fast on these days, or else they eat only uncooked food, as on the opening days of the first week. On Holy Thursday one meal is eaten, with wine and oil (i.e., olive oil). On Great Friday those who have the strength follow the practice of the early Church and keep a total fast. Those unable to do this may eat bread, with a little water, tea or fruit-juice, but not until sunset, or at any rate not until after the veneration of the [Plashchanitsa] at Vespers. On Holy Saturday there is in principle no meal, since according to the ancient practice after the end of the Liturgy of St. Basil the faithful remained in church for the reading of the Acts of the Apostles, and for their sustenance were given a little bread and dried fruit, with a cup of wine. If, as usually happens now, they return home for a meal, they may use wine but not oil; for on this one Saturday, alone among Saturdays of the year, olive oil is not permitted.

The rule of xerophagy is relaxed on the following days:

  1. On Saturdays and Sundays in Lent, with the exception of Holy Saturday, two main meals may be taken in the usual way, around mid-day and in the evening, with wine and olive oil; but meat, animal products and fish are not allowed.
  2. On the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25) and Palm Sunday fish is permitted as well as wine and oil, but meat and animal products are not allowed….
  3. Wine and oil are permitted on the following days, if they fall on a weekday in the second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth week: [First and Second Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist (Feb. 24), Repose of St. Raphael (Feb. 27), Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (Mar. 9), Forefeast of the Annunciation (Mar. 24), Synaxis of the Archangel Gabriel (Mar. 26), Repose of St. Innocent (Mar. 31), Repose of St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow (Apr. 7), Holy Greatmartyr and Victorybearer George (Apr. 23), Holy Apostle and Evangelist Mark (Apr. 25), as well as the Patronal Feast of the church or monastery].
  4. Wine and oil are also allowed on Wednesday and Thursday of the fifth week, because of the vigil for the Great Canon. Wine is allowed-and, according to some authorities, oil as well-on Friday in the same week, because of the vigil for the Akathist Hymn.

It has always been held that these rules of fasting should be relaxed in the case of anyone elderly or in poor health. In present-day practice, even for those in good health, the full strictness of the fast is usually mitigated…. On weekdays-except, perhaps, during the first week or Holy Week-it is now common to eat two cooked meals daily instead of one. From the second until the sixth week, many Orthodox use wine, and perhaps oil also, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and less commonly on Mondays as well. Permission is often given to eat fish in these weeks. Personal factors need to be taken into account, as for example, the situation of an isolated Orthodox living in the same household as non-Orthodox, or obliged to take meals in a factory or school [lunchroom]. In cases of uncertainty each should seek the advice of his or her spiritual father [emphasis mine].”

The following statement is extremely important to consider when we speak of fasting and fasting rules in the Church. “At all times it is essential to bear in mind that ‘you are not under the law but under grace’ (Rom. 6:14), and that ‘the letter kills, but the spirit gives life’ (2 Cor. 3:6). The rules of fasting, while they need to be taken seriously, are not to be interpreted with dour and pedantic legalism; ‘for the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Rom. 14:17).”