The Octave of Christmas

James McDevitt (Head Teacher, Holy Cross Primary School, Edinburgh)

Over the past few years I have got into the habit of going to Mass on most days during the school holidays. One of the great benefits is that such regular attendance at Mass helps one to see how the liturgical calendar works. Nowhere has this been brought home to me more clearly than in my discovery of the significance and the beauty of the Octave of Christmas.

The Octave begins on Christmas Day on the Feast of the Nativity and concludes on New Year’s Day, The Feast of Mary, Mother of God. The period of eight days is a period of celebration. The Incarnation is such a joyous event that one day of celebration is not enough!

In addition to the feasts which start and end the Octave, there are a number of important feast days to note. The principal of these is the Feast of the Holy Family, which is celebrated on the Sunday of the Octave, or on 30 December when Christmas Day falls on a Sunday. The others are the feast days of St Stephen on 26 December and of the Holy Innocents on 28 December.

These beautiful feasts are not celebrated at this time of year due to chance. Rather, the Church has carefully constructed the Octave to remind us of the true origins of Jesus- his incarnation, teaching, passion, death and resurrection. This period also reminds us of the Church’s beginning and of our role in making Christ present in the world. A look at how these feast days fit into the Octave this Christmas helps to illustrate these points more clearly.

The Octave begins on Christmas Day, 25 December. It continues the next day with the Feast of St Stephen. As the first martyr of the Church, Stephen points the way to the many martyrs who will follow, not just in the first four centuries of the Church but throughout its history. St Stephen’s martyrdom is therefore a new chapter in the life of the Church. After some years of attending Mass on 26 December, I now find it natural to refer to that date as St Stephen’s Day rather by the term Boxing Day used by our secular society.

This year, the third day of the Octave is Sunday 27 December, so the Feast of the Holy Family is celebrated. This feast celebrates the unity of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as the perfect model of family life, a model to which we should all aspire.

On the fourth day of the Octave, 28 December, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents. King Herod intended to eliminate the new born “king of the Jews” and ordered the killing of all Jewish males under the age of two in Bethlehem. Joseph was advised by an angel to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt. Jesus, escapes to safety, the Holy Innocents are glorified in heaven, and eternal life triumphs over evil.

The Octave continues into its fifth day on Tuesday 29 December with the Feast of St Thomas Becket (in England), who was Archbishop of Canterbury and was murdered in his cathedral in 1170 as a result of an early clash between Church and state. He was immediately acknowledged as a martyr, and many more priests would suffer a similar fate four centuries later during the Reformation.

Other notable feast days which occur during the Octave of Christmas are those of St John the Evangelist, and St Sylvester I, Pope. The former is normally celebrated on 27 December but is displaced this year by the Feast of the Holy Family. John’s Gospel reminds us of the eternal nature of Jesus, that before there was anything, Jesus was. Over and over again, Jesus calls himself “I am”, the special name for God. St Sylvester was Pope from 314-335. Medieval legend made him responsible for the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity.

The Octave is concluded on 1st January, the Feast of Mary, Mother of God. Dedicating this day to the Holy Mother of God means we entrust ourselves and the New Year to Our Blessed Lady. What better way could there be to conclude the celebration of the beautiful feasts during the Octave of Christmas and begin a new year?

Each year the Octave of Christmas unfailingly provides a rich source of spiritual inspiration. May it bring the Christ child and the Holy Family into our homes and hearts this year.

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