The eight days of Christmas

Octaves follow the important feasts of Christmas and Easter

Those who have had any musical training will recognize an octave as the eight notes of the musical scale: “Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do.”

Other octaves, those on the church calendar, that have nothing to do with music, but do form a complete whole. They are the eight days (“octo” in Latin means “eight”) that surround some church feasts.

The most important of these are the octaves of Easter and Christmas. The octave can mean both the eight days in total as well as the eighth day at the end: such as Divine Mercy Sunday after Easter and the feast of Mary the Mother God after Christmas.

Celebrating the octave of a feast day goes back at least to the fourth century and began with Easter. The reasons are a bit obscure, but the most commonly cited is that the eighth day simply meant the Sunday that followed a week of celebration for the newly initiated, as well as a week of Easter joy for all the church.

However, eight-day feasts also have Jewish roots.

  • For example, the Temple of Solomon was dedicated with an eight-day ceremony (2Chr 7:8-9) around the year 953 B.C. After the Babylonian Exile, the Temple was rebuilt and rededicated with an eight-day ceremony (1Mac 4:59). The modern eight-day celebration of Hanukkah marks this event and an associated miracle that allowed a single day’s worth of sacred oil to burn for the entire eight days.
  • The Jewish feast of Passover also lasts eight days. For Jews, the Passover event marks their beginning as a separate nation, a people dedicated to God.
  • Another major Jewish feast, Sukkoth, commemorates the Israelites’ arrival in the Promised Land. Each year, this harvest festival of Thanksgiving lasts eight days and concludes (Lev 23:36, Num 29:35) with a special feast, called Shemini Atzeret. This translates as “the assembly of the eighth day” and is considered a time of direct summons by God. It serves to remind participants of how God provided — and continues to provide — for his people.
  • Another Jewish tradition is the circumcision of male children on their eighth day of life. This important eight-day event, called brit milah, is found in Jewish history (Gen. 17:10).  God ordered all Abraham’s male descendants to be circumcised as an everlasting sign of the covenant between God and Abraham. Luke tells us that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day (Lk 2:21).

Jesus’ circumcision is also marked on Jan. 1, the end of the Christmas octave. Celebrating a Christmas octave developed after the octave of Easter did. Not long after that, another octave — for Pentecost — evolved, followed later by octaves of Epiphany, the Ascension and Corpus Christi.

Around the eighth century, octaves of various saints’ feasts were also celebrated, such as Peter and Paul and Francis of Assisi. Eventually, at least 15 saints’ feasts had octaves associated with them. However, all this changed when the liturgy was reformed in 1969, following the Second Vatican Council. Today, only Christmas and Easter have octave celebrations in the liturgy of the church.

While the octave days of Easter override the celebration of any saints’ feasts that fall on those days — since each day is considered to be part of an ongoing, one-day celebration of Easter — the same is not true for the Christmas octave. In fact, remembering the saints whose feasts take place during the Christmas octave serves to deepen our joy in God’s plan of salvation that the Nativity of our Lord reveals. These Christmas octave feasts are:

Dec. 26: St. Stephen Stephen is the church’s first martyr. His feast reminds us that we must always be prepared to confess the Lord Jesus with our lives.

Dec. 27: St. John the Evangelist John was the only Apostle who did not die a martyr. He is known as the Beloved Disciple and is credited with writing the last of the four Gospels.

Dec. 28: Holy Innocents These children of Bethlehem, all under the age of two, were killed by King Herod in his attempt to destroy the “newborn King of the Jews.” Under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a cave traditionally honored as the tomb of these Holy Innocents.

Dec. 29: St. Thomas Becket This English archbishop was martyred as he prepared to celebrate Mass in Canterbury Cathedral on Dec. 29, 1170. His murder was instigated by King Henry II.

Dec. 30: Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph Normally, this feast of the Holy Family is celebrated on the Sunday between Christmas and Jan. 1. However, on years when Christmas falls on a Sunday (as it does this year), the feast is moved to Dec. 30.

Dec. 31: St. Sylvester I This pope, who died in 335 A.D., oversaw the Council of Nicea, which gave us the Nicene Creed that we pray on Sundays and major feast days. During his time as pope, the basilicas of St. John Lateran and St. Peter were also built and dedicated.

Jan. 1: Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God This feast honors both Mary, and Jesus, born of Mary, true God and true man.

Christmas, as well as Easter, offers us an overwhelming experience of God. So much takes place, so much amazes us and so much about salvation and eternal life are tied up in these two feasts. This is why the church, in its wisdom, allows us more than a week of “little Christmases” and “little Easters” to take it all in.

 

Kasten is the author of several books, including her latest: “Journeys with the Magi. From Persia to Bethlehem… and Beyond” (Amor Deus Publishing at amordeus.com).

 

Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; Catholicculture.org; thecatholicthing.org; OSV Newsweekly; Judaism 101 at jewfaq.com; The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership; virtualjerusalem.com; “The Jerusalem Post”; and seetheholyland.net.