Red-letter day


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Red letter day'?

In earlier times a church festival or saint’s day; more recently, any special day.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Red letter day'?

This comes from the practice of marking the dates of church festivals on calendars in red.

The first explicit reference to the term in print that we have comes from America. This is a simple use of the term “Red letter day” in the diary of Sarah Knight – The journals of Madam Knight, and Rev. Mr. Buckingham … written in 1704 & 1710, which was published in American Speech in 1940.

The practice is much earlier than that though. William Caxton, referred to it in The boke of Eneydos, translated and printed in 1490:

“We wryte yet in oure kalenders the hyghe festes wyth rede lettres of coloure of purpre.”

The term came into wider use in 1549 when the first Book of Common Prayer included a calendar with holy days marked in red ink; for example, Annunciation (Lady Day), 25th March, was designated in the book as a red-letter day.

The term is sometimes written without the hyphen – ‘red letter day’.

See other ‘red’ phrases:

Red-handed (caught)

Red herring

Red in tooth and claw

Red rag to a bull – A

Red sky at night …

Red tape

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.

Trend of red – letter day in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.