It feels a little like the Grinch comes on Christmas Night for real. The same way that troubled green creature hauled out every trace of Christmas from Whoville, our culture removes all the signs that the Holy Day ever happened.
Trees wrapped in plastic are cast onto the curb, Christmas items are deep-discounted for quick sale on the Dec. 26 shopping holiday and Christmas music all but disappears from the airwaves.
When it comes to Christmas, the world could learn something about partying from Catholics.
The 36 hours from Christmas Eve through Christmas Night are just the beginning–our festivities go on for eight days. This liturgical octave of Christmas starts on Christmas Day and continues until the Solemnity of the Mother of God (New Year’s Day).
Besides offering seven more days for feasting and merriment, the Church has a serious reason for designating an octave celebration of Christ’s birth, along with octaves for Easter and Pentecost. It’s to help us contemplate the mysteries of these feasts experienced in the Church’s liturgies.
Old Testament roots
The octave commemoration has its origins in the Old Testament. On the eighth day, circumcision occurs in the Jewish faith, representing God’s covenant with Abraham and the Jewish people. The Feast of Tabernacles and other feasts were celebrated for seven days but the eighth day also carried special significance.
In the fourth century, the Church gave Easter and Pentecost octaves possibly because it allowed for an extended retreat for the newly-baptized. Also, since both of those feasts always fall on Sunday, the octave day of the following Sunday seems like a natural closing for a week of festivities.
The Church introduced the octave of Christmas in the eighth century. Other octaves were added for Epiphany, Corpus Christi and saints. Until the middle of the 20th century, octaves were ranked in importance. For the most “privileged” octaves, no work was done nor other feasts celebrated.
In 1955, Pope Pius XII simplified the calendar so that the Church recognizes only the octaves of Easter, Pentecost and Christmas.
Feasts within the Feast
As she celebrates Christ’s Nativity, the Church also commemorates these feasts during the octave of Christmas:
- Dec. 26: Feast of St. Stephen
- Dec. 27: Feast of St. John the Evangelist
- Dec. 28: Feast of the Holy Innocents
- Dec. 30: Feast of the Holy Family
- Jan. 1: Octave day of the Nativity, Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
One of the ways to commemorate the octave of Christmas is by attending daily Mass:
The octave’s primary observation is by celebrating daily Mass in thanksgiving for Christ, with the gospel readings centered around the Incarnation and early years of Jesus’ life. The wisdom of the Church begins the octave with the birth of Jesus and ends it on the eighth day with the veneration of Mary’s role in the Incarnation.
Feasting and merriment are both in order for the octave of Christmas, as well as visiting family, visiting the sick and elderly, and helping the poor. Also, here are prayers and activities for each of the octave days.
In the end, the Grinch was converted and embraced Christmas. Maybe as we give this Holy feast its proper place on the calendar, our culture won’t unplug the Christmas lights so fast and will let the Nativity celebration continue.