“It’s a great piece of luck, ma’am,” said Mrs Belfield, “that you should happen to come here, of a holiday! If my son had not been at home, I should have been ready to cry for a week: and you might come any day the year through but a Sunday, and not meet with him any more than if he had never a home to come to.”
“If Mr Belfield’s home-visits are so periodical,” said Cecilia, “it must be rather less, than more, difficult to meet with him.”
“Why you know, ma’am,” answered Mrs Belfield, “to-day is a red-letter day, so that’s the reason of it.”
“A red-letter day?”
“Good lack, madam, why have not you heard that my son is turned book- keeper?”Fanny Burney. Cecilia: Or, Memoirs of an Heiress.
“Red-letter day” is one of those expressions we use quite frequently without really thinking about its ancestry. Everyone knows that a “red letter day” is one that stands out as important, or “Memorably happy,” as the AHD puts it. Behind the idiom lies an actual medieval calendar tradition.
In the middle ages, the wealthy had expensive and often luxuriously illustrated prayer books known as books of hours. These personal prayer boks provided prayers and readings tied to the various times of days, and to particular feast days in the Catholic ecclesiastic calendar. The book of hours associated the feasts days, saint’s days, and other religious days in the church calendar with specific images, and prayers. Each month of the year was represented, with a list of the important dates, and, typically, an image of a seasonal agricultural or aristocratic practice (hawking in May, for instance, or harvesting nuts in November) and an illustration showing the zodiac sign for that month, for instance Gemini in May and Scorpio in November.
The illustration was either accompanied by or incorporated into a list of dates for the particular month. This list or calendar used color-coding to indicate the really important dates from the less important dates. The major religious feast days like Easter were in gold leaf; while the lesser but still important dates were in red— hence “red letter day.”
To the left of this paragraph I’ve linked to an image of a calendar page from a book of hours in the Glasgow University Library Special Collections Department. This particular Book of Hours manuscript Sp Coll MS Euing 4 is known as the Glasgow Hours and was made in North-East France in about 1460. The “red letter” days displayed on the calendar are the feasts of Saint Nicholas (December 6), the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (December 8) and the feast of Saint Nicasius (December 14). The particular saints and feasts recorded on a calendar in a book of hours often help indicate where the manuscript was produced, and when, since there were particular saints favored more or less in different areas and times. The phrase “red-letter day”is first noted by the OED in 1704; the quotation from Burney’s novel in the opening of this post was published in 1782. In the context of the passage, I suspect that “red-letter day” is meant to suggest that not only is it “special,” but that it is special in particular for Mr. Belfield, who works as a book-keeper, because the day in question is a bank holiday, and thus a holiday for him.