The practice of referring to the Wednesday of Holy Week as “Spy Wednesday” appears to be growing. I only heard it a few years ago, and I have long enjoyed learning about the details of the liturgical calendar. So I’m surprised I didn’t know about it. My wife is equally interested in liturgy, and between being a student and a teacher spent 22 years in Roman Catholic parochial schools. But she never heard it there.
She says she first encountered it through Lent Madness, which is only in its tenth year. (Lent Madness is fun, silly, educational, and devotional. Think March Madness but with Christian saints instead of college basketball teams, and votes from spectators, not shots by players. If you hurry you can still vote to determine the champion, the final round is always on Spy Wednesday.)
It turns out that the first reference that the Oxford English Dictionary provides for “Spy Wednesday” is from Samuel Lover’s Handy Andy: A Tale of Irish Life (1842). So at least in Ireland, it goes back at least to the nineteenth century. It is called Spy Wednesday, because according to the gospels it was on Wednesday that Judas Iscariot’s decided to betray Jesus.
For what it is worth, the nifty N-Gram viewer provided by Google Books suggests that the phrase “Spy Wednesday” was most popular in the 1940s, and then again around 1990. But Google only searches its data through 2000, so we don’t know about the past twenty years.
Of course “Spy Wednesday” is far less common than either of names for Thursday in Holy Week. I’m not surprised to see that “Holy Thursday” is ascending and “Maundy Thursday” is descending, but I still prefer Maundy.
Apparently the internet prefers Maundy Thursday too. Google gives me 3.23 million results for “Maundy Thursday” but only 1.83 million for “Holy Thursday.” Spy Wednesday has just 50,500, after all, it is far from the week’s main event.