Why the Week Starts on Sunday

Karla S. asks: Why does the week start on Sunday? Why not Wednesday or Friday?

sundayAs with so many things passed down to us from antiquity, religion is the reason the calendar week starts (for many of us) on Sunday.

The first day of the week (for many), Sunday has been set aside as the “day of the sun” since ancient Egyptian times in honor of the sun-god, beginning with Ra. The Egyptians passed their idea of a 7-day week onto the Romans, who also started their week with the Sun’s day, dies solis. When translated into early German, the first day was called sunnon-dagaz, which made its way into Middle English as sone(n)day.

For some in the Christian tradition, the first day of the week is named in accordance with the creation tale in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, where one of the first things God did was say “let there be light, and there was light.”

Not every culture has Sunday as its first day, and notable exceptions are found in the Slavic languages, where Sunday is the last day of the week and is not named in honor of the sun. For example, in Hungary Sunday is called Vasárnap and means “market day,” and in Old Russian, where Sunday was sometimes called “free day.”

Monday, as you may expect, was named after the moon. In Latin, it was known as dies lunae (day of the moon), and this made its way into Old English as mon(an)dæg and the monday in Middle English. It is said that in early pagan traditions, Monday was dedicated to the goddess of the moon, although in some Christian traditions, assigning the moon to the second day also follows the story of Genesis, where in between the first and second days, darkness was separated from light and “evening came.”

Note that Monday is the first day of the week in the Slavic languages, and in the Chinese calendar, Monday is xīngqīyī, “day one of the week.”

Tuesday has always been dedicated to a war god, and in ancient Greek, it was known as hemera Areos (day of Ares), modified only slightly by the Roman dies Martis (day of Mars), and later in Old English Tiwesdæg, in honor of a Norse god of war and law, Tiwaz or Tiw.

Early on, Wednesday was dedicated to the messenger of the gods, and for the Greeks, it was known as hemera Hermu (day of Hermes), then to the Romans as dies Mercurii (day of Mercury). When it was adopted by the Anglo-Saxons, as Mercury’s areas of expertise overlapped with his, they dedicated the day to Odin, Woden in Old English (calling the day wodnesdæg).

Jupiter was awarded the fifth day, dies Jovis, by the Romans, and it was assigned to Thor by the Norse, where it was originally called thorsdgr, later modified by Old English into thurresdæg, and then into Middle English’s thur(e)sday.

For many the best day of the week, Friday was, fittingly, assigned to Aphrodite and Venus (in Latin dies Veneris). In Old Norse and English, Venus was associated with Frigg, a goddess of knowledge and wisdom. By Old English, the day’s name had been modified into frigedæg (Frigg’s day) and by Middle English, to fridai. (Notably, TGIF, for Thank God It’s Friday, dates back to 1946.)

The last day of the week for many, Saturday historically was dedicated to Saturn (Cronus to the Greeks), Jupiter’s father and a god associated with dissolution, renewal, generation, agriculture and wealth. In Latin, the day was originally called dies Saturni, which was transformed into sæter(nes)dæg in Old English and saterday in Middle English.

Notably, for some religions, Saturday, not Sunday, is celebrated as the weekly day of rest, known as the Shabbat in Judaism and Sabbath for Seventh Day Adventists.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Except for the seventh day, Shabbat, the days of the week in the Jewish calendar don’t have names and are simply referred to as 1st day, 2nd day, etc.
  • The first known mention of the word “week-end” was seen in an 1879 edition of Notes and Queries, and it described being off of work from Saturday afternoon through Monday morning.
  • The first 5-day workweek (where workers had all of Saturday off) in an American factory was instituted in a New England mill in 1908 in order to accommodate the religious practice of its Jewish workforce. By having a shorter workweek, factories were able to hire more workers, and during the Great Depression, the 5-day workweek is credited with lessening unemployment.
  • Surprisingly to many business owners, shortening the work week and work hours of employees also actually increased productivity per worker in many industries.  (See: Why the Work Day is Traditionally Eight Hours Long) Loosely backing this century old observation up, a 2008 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology determined that people who worked more than 55 hours a week performed worse on mental tests than those who worked only 40 hours a week.
  • A few companies have experimented with a four-day, 32-hour workweek and have found that the shorter week encourages focus and results in more efficient performance. Public health officials are also in favor of a shorter workweek, as they believe it would result in improvements in mental health and morale.
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  • FireBath

    So riddle me this why is it called the weekEND if it is made up of the last day of the week AND the FIRST day of the week ? In my culture the week ends in Saturday and Sunday so it is logically correct.

    • J. F. Gecik

      The term, “weekend,” to refer to Friday night, Saturday, Sunday, and sometimes even Monday (because of holidays), was derived from the standard “work week” of Monday through Friday, not from a “week” as seen on a calendar (Sunday to Saturday in many countries, Monday to Sunday in many others).

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  • LM

    I always thought it was the Americans who started the week with Sunday, with normal people starting it on Monday.

    • J. F. Gecik

      By throwing out an undeserved and meaningless insult, LM, you show your own self not to be “normal.” Taken as a whole, with good points and bad, Americans are not significantly better nor worse than any other group of people in the world. Please seek help to get rid of the hatred that is simmering inside yourself. You “always thought” wrongly, since some people have considered the week as starting with “Sunday” since thousands of years before there was an America.

      • azkan

        @JFGecik please tell, on an insult scale 1 to 10, exactly how would you rate “anal retentive”? And more specifically “self-sufficient anal retentive walking encyclopedia”?
        Many thanks

      • Kevin Perera

        Most of the world’s calendars are printed up with Sunday on the far right – as the seventh day. As an American I’ve always wondered why we split the weekend – We seem to be the exception. This article sheds some light on the historical rationale, but I don’t see the sense of it in our modern lives – I seek out and use calendars that show Sunday at the end of the week.

    • Casey

      I don’t know anybody in the States who starts the week with Sunday. That is absurd.

  • J. F. Gecik

    I’m sorry, folks, but you did not do quite enough “homework” in preparing this article. It contains a lot of good facts, but it also contains a few errors — two of commission and one of omission. (1) You wrote: “[N]otable exceptions [to Sunday as the first day of the week] are found in the Slavic languages, where Sunday is the last day of the week and is not named in honor of the sun. For example, in Hungary Sunday is called Vasárnap and means ‘market day’ … .” This sentence incorrectly includes Hungary among the nations with a “Slavic language,” when that is not the case; Hungarians (as they and their Slavic neighbors will attest) are most definitely not Slavs; they are descendants of very different groups of Asian immigrants, and they speak a language of the “Uralic” family — one of the few European languages (like Finnish and Estonian) that are not of the “Indo-European” family (to which the Slavic languages belong). (2) After showing that what we call “Sunday” has been set aside as “the day of the Sun” since ancient times, you wrote: “For some in the Christian tradition, the first day of the week is named in accordance with the creation tale in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, where one of the first things God did was say ‘let there be light, and there was light.'” Besides the regrettable use of the term, “creation tale” (which, due to its implication of “complete fiction,” could be insulting to many), your words show a misunderstanding of what is described in Genesis, where “light” was created by God on the first “day,” but the Sun was created onlyon the fourth “day” (our Wednesday)! (3) Finally, you wrote: “Notably, for some religions, Saturday, not Sunday, is celebrated as the weekly day of rest, known as the Shabbat in Judaism and Sabbath for Seventh Day Adventists.” It seems strange that you would mention this fact about two groups that together make up less than 1% of the world’s inhabitants, but you did not bother to mention that Moslems (who make up about 1/6 of all the world’s people) observe Friday as a day of special prayer and (de facto) rest. Thank you.

    • Casey

      Good point about the Hungarians, the Magyars, not being Slavic. Monday is the first day of the week on calendars I used in Europe. You can find them in the States, with effort.

  • Jan

    For your bonus facts:

    Even though most of the words for days go back to the German language, in Germany Monday is the first day of the week. (as it says in the bible: you shall rest on the seventh day: Sunday)

    in Farsi, like in hebrew, the days of the week are numbered.

    Friday is the special day: “jom’e”, Saturday the is “shanbeh” (day), Sunday “yek shanbe” (day one), Monda “doshanbe” (day two)

    • Rich

      The Bible does say that on the seventh day you shall rest, but that day is Saturday in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. That is why Jews celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday.

      • Casey

        Rich, Christians rest on the last day of the week, Sunday.

  • Miguel Gastelumendi

    It will be nice to mention ISO 8601 as well: “the ISO week-numbering year starts at the first day (Monday) of week 01 and ends at the Sunday”.

  • Rich

    While the word “Sunday” may be called that due to the reason’s stated, that meaning has nothing to do with why Christians go to church on that day. Christians go to church on Sunday to celebrate Jesus’s resurrection which happened on the first day of the week in the Jewish calendar. In Spanish, the day is called Domingo, which I believe translates to the Lord’s Day.

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  • Mezcalbert

    “Not every culture has Sunday as its first day, and notable exceptions are found in the Slavic languages”.

    Notable exceptions are found pretty much through most (if not all of) western Europe… And I’m talking about countries of Romance and Germanic languages (English being one) with a historic christian tradition. Those 2 points contradict most of your text.

    All in all, I think Sunday would actually be the exception.

    To settle this, asks yourself “of which days consist the week-end?”. If you want to be consistent, you’ll get your answer.

  • Casey

    Monday is the first day of the week. Saturday and Sunday are the “week-end”. Maybe for those of Jewish faith Saturday is the day of rest, but for Christians, Sunday is the last day of rest .It is irritating that in the States you have to make an effort to find calendars where the week beings properly with Monday, and ends Sunday.

    • Farid Hakim

      You are so right. I have been saying this for the past 45 years and everyone that I mentioned that says that did not realize that or they did not care. I care . Saturday and Sunday are “WEEKEND” and should be as such.

  • Adam

    I always considered the week to be like a line of string. There are two ends to a string. The top end and the bottom end. Sunday would be at the top, beginning the week, and Saturday at the bottom, ending the week. That’s why I think that Sunday is the first day of the week yet still part of the weekend. But then again I am not a religious person didn’t give any thought to religion when I created this theory.

  • ingenieurgeneral

    agreed with Mezcalbert. “The first day of the week (for most), Sunday …” –> you’re wrong. Usually nowadays, Monday is the first day of the week. That’s why the International Standards Organisation has decided that Monday is to be regarded as the first day of the week. Calendars in many European countries, in particular, now follow the ISO decision by starting the week on Monday. Airline timetables also number the days from Monday as 1, Tuesday as 2, Wednesday as 3, etc.