A little known day of celebration to most ‘Westerners’, May 24,
the Day of Saints Cyril and Methodius, is a huge festival for those in Eastern Europe: a day to celebrate cultural heritage. The peoples of Russia, Slovakia, Macedonia, Serbia, Czech Republic, Hungary, etc. venerate Saints Cyril and Methodius who created a Slavonic alphabet, translating the Bible and other writings from Greek and Latin into the language of the Slavic peoples. The invention of this ‘Cyrillic Alphabet’ is seen as the keystone that gave the Slavs access to written culture, vast sources of knowledge, and ultimately allowed them cultural independence from Muslim (as part of the Turkish Empire) and other religious or social invasions.

So what is Saints Cyril and Methodius Day?

Cyrillic Alphabet Day Parade Sofia (see Ann Marie's Istanbul)

Saints Cyril and Methodius celebrations have been the major cultural event of the year for generations in this part of the world. Even during communist times, these were the only saints to be celebrated officially, publicly and nationally. In many countries, May 24 is an official national holiday. Festivities are accompanied by parades, local and national cultural events, cultural ceremonies and other activities which celebrate education and enlightenment. This day is also celebrated, in many countries, as the ‘Day of Education’ when teachers and their students and pupils gather together for all kinds of events.  Although May 24th is the official holiday, it is a secular day with the religious ‘Saints Day’ falling on May11th.

What is the importance?

The Cyrillic Alphabet, based on the Greek, was created to translate the Bible and other texts into the Slavic languages in order to help convert the people of the region to Christianity. However, after the adoption of Christianity, in the various regions, religious ceremonies were always conductied in Greek by clergy sent from the Byzantine Empire. Fearing growing Byzantine influence and weakening of the state, the adoption of the Old Slavonic language was a way to preserve the political independence and stability of the kingdoms. Eventually, the Roman Pope permitted the Mass to be said in the Slavic language, but not to the exclusion of Latin.

Through their work, Cyril and Methodius influenced the cultural development of all Slavs, for which they received the title “Apostles to the Slavs”. In 1980, Pope John Paul II declared them co-patron saints of Europe, together with Benedict of Nursia.

Different days for commemoration

Confusingly, different religious sects and different countries commemorate the day on other dates:

  • In Bulgaria, 24 May is known as ‘Bulgarian Education and Culture, and Slavonic Literature Day’
  • In the Republic of Macedonia, May 24 is celebrated as ‘Saints Cyril and Methodius, Slavonic Enlighteners’
  • In the Czech Republic it is celebrated on 5 July as ‘Slavic Missionaries Cyril and Methodius Day’
  • In Slovakia, it is celebrated on 5 July as ‘St. Cyril and Metod Day’
  • In Russia, it is celebrated on 24 May and is known as the ‘Slavonic Literature and Culture Day’
  • The Eastern Orthodox Church recognises the day on 11th May
  • The Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches celebrate the day on 14th February
  • (Not to be confused with St Cyril of Jerusalem feast observed in 18th March)

Sts Cyril & Methody Church, Toronto taken by Leon Balaban, 2010

Who were Cyril and Methodius?

These two Byzantine Greek brothers were born in Thessalonica of a senatorial family. Saint Cyril was sent to Constantinople to study, where he became known as the Philosopher and was ordained a priest (he became know as Constantine the Philosopher). While Cyril was still young, the Patriarch of Constantinople recommended to the reigning Emperor to place him at the head of a mission which was to be sent to the Khazars of the eastern Danube region (in 848). Their king desired to learn of Christianity and had requested missionaries. Cyril asked for the time to learn the Turkish language which this people spoke, and after quickly acquiring the skill he was ready to preach. The prince of the Khazars received Baptism and the entire nation soon followed his example.

He was next missioned to Bulgaria with his brother Methodius, also a monk. This nation, which had migrated like the Khazars from the east, had settled in the Moldavian region and a part of Hungary. When Saint Methodius, an excellent artist, was delegated to paint  a scene, in the king’s palace, which would frighten everyone who looked upon it, he chose the subject of The Last Judgment. The king was so impressed that he was baptised as a Christian in 865, with forty-eight of his followers. The nation followed.

The two brothers preached also in Moravia, invited there by the pious king of that nation, whom they baptised with most of his subjects. It was there that Saint Cyril invented a Slavonic alphabet, translating the Bible and other writings from Greek and Latin into the language of the Slavic peoples.

In 867 the missionaries went to Rome, where Saint Cyril died soon afterwards. Saint Methodius was named bishop of Moravia and Pannonia (Hungary). Difficulties not lacking, the Pope permitted the Mass to be said in the Slavic language, not to the exclusion, however, of Latin. Saint Methodius also baptized the king of the Bohemians, and again many of the king’s subjects followed his example. The Saint lived for about 20 years after his brother’s death.

Also in May:

World No-Tobacco Day – May 31st

International Day for UN Peacekeepers – May 29th

Africa Day – May 25th

International Day for Biological Diversity – May 22nd

Cultural Diversity Day – May 21st

Cultural Diversity Day: A Special ‘Hello!’

World Day Against Homophobia – May 17th

World Telecommunications and Information Society Day – May 17th

Mastering the Art of Cheek Kissing

International Day of Families – May 15th

World Fair Trade Day – May 12th

Red Cross Crescent Day – May 8th

Europe Day – May 9th

Wesak – May 5th

World Press Freedom Day – May 3rd

May Day – May 1st

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