The Octave of Christmas
“On the 8th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...“ Everyone is familiar with the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” And although some people have already thrown their Christmas tree to the curb and taken down their Christmas decorations, there are the reminders that “Remember, Christmas is not just one day.”
True, Catholics recognize that Christmas is not only on December 25. The secular carol reminds us there are twelve days of Christmas to January 6, the Epiphany. But the Church’s liturgy actually emphasizes the eight days or octave of Christmas. The Church recognizes that the days of the Christmas Octave are repeating the solemnness of Christmas for eight days, concluding on a high note with another solemnity that echoes the solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord.
Two Principal Solemnities
There are two principal feasts in the Liturgical Year: Easter and Christmas. These are both solemnities (and holydays of obligation) and in the current Liturgical Calendar are the only feasts that have octaves attached (the 1962 calendar also has an octave of Pentecost). Solemnities are festive and exceptional days, the highest ranked feasts of the liturgical calendar marked with special characteristics:
11. Solemnities are counted as the principal days in the calendar and their observance begins with Evening Prayer I of the preceding day. Some also have their own vigil Mass for use when Mass is celebrated in the evening of the preceding day.
The celebration of Easter and Christmas, the two greatest solemnities, continues for eight days, with each octave governed by its own rules. (General Norms of the Liturgical Calendar)
And according to Canon 1251, if a solemnity falls on a Friday, there is no obligation for abstinence.
What Is an Octave?
An octave is the eight-day period during which Easter or Christmas is celebrated, and includes the actual feast. The eighth day is also called the octave or “octave day,” and days in between are said to be “within the octave”:
Octave means an eight-day celebration, that is, the prolongation of a feast to the eighth day (dies octava) inclusive. The feast itself is considered the first day, and it is followed by six days called “days within the octave.” The eighth or octave day is kept with greater solemnity than the “days within the octave” (With Christ Through the Year, Bernard Strasser, 1947, p. 39).
The Easter Octave is from Easter Sunday to the Second Sunday of Easter or Divine Mercy Sunday, each day being another “little Easter.” The Easter octave “overrides” any other feasts on the calendar. Christmas also has an octave, but it is very different from Easter, because it is filled with various feast days, but yet each day is still another “little Christmas.”
From Christmas Day until January 1st, the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, is the Octave Day of Christmas. The Liturgy gives the clues that every day within the octave is treated the same as the original feast day of the Nativity of our Lord. The Liturgy of the Hours repeats Sunday Week I every day of the octave. The Mass has a special Communicantes (In communion...) to insert every day of the Octave when Eucharistic Prayer I is used:
Celebrating the most sacred night (day)
on which blessed Mary the immaculate Virgin
brought forth the Savior for this world,
and in communion with those whose memory we venerate,
especially the glorious ever-Virgin Mary,
Mother of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ...
Finally, the Gloria is repeated each day of the Octave.
Despite having four days within the octave that are feasts: St. Stephen, St. John the Evangelist, the Holy Innocents and the Holy Family, each of these days is another “day of the octave of Christmas.”
The main difference between the Easter Octave and the Christmas Octave is that every day in Easter is another solemnity, and Christmas only has two solemnities, December 25, Christmas and January 1, Mary Mother of God. The days in-between are varying levels of feast days.
Why An Octave?
It has often been said that Catholics know how to celebrate. The Church has a built-in pattern within the liturgical calendar that provides what man needs to celebrate the feasts of the year: times of preparation and penance building to major feasts that are prolonged, and multi-level feast days spread throughout the year. Rev. Pius Parsch sums it perfectly when he was writing about today’s feast, January 1, the Octave Day of Christmas:
Today is the octave or the eighth day after the feast of Christmas. In the spirit of the Church the great feasts of redemption should not be restricted to a single celebration but should continue on through a full week. Mother Church is good psychologist; she understands human nature perfectly. When a feast comes, the soul is amazed and not quite prepared to think profoundly upon its mystery; but on the following days the mind finds it easy to consider the mystery from all sides, sympathetically and deeply; and an eighth day affords a wonderful opportunity to make a synthesis of all points covered. The octave of Christmas is not the best example because other feasts distract one from the Christmas theme; this octave day, therefore, takes on greater importance. Today for the last time the Church leads us to the crib at Bethlehem (The Church’s Year of Grace, Volume I, pp. 244-245).
The octave gives us time to impress upon our souls the mysteries, joys and graces of the principal feasts of the Church year.
Our family likes to imitate the Church pattern within our family. We extend our family birthday and anniversary celebrations to more than just a day. We jokingly call it our “Birthday Octave,” but the reasoning behind it is similar to Father Parsch’s: we can’t celebrate completely in one day. I’m not saying family celebrations are the same as the Liturgy, but our human nature is still the same. We recognize that schedules are busy, and there are different people and activities that will be too much to fit in one day. My birthday plans might include an intimate dinner with my husband, cake and presents with my children, and perhaps a gathering with extended family. It is more pleasing (and a recognition of our human nature) to prolong the celebration for more than just a day.
What’s in a Number? Bringing Us Back to “Do”
Why eight days? The number eight is supposed to represent perfection or rest. Some have traced the origins back to Jewish festival customs, such as circumcision of the Jewish boy was on the eighth day, the feast of Tabernacles lasted seven days and concluded with a solemnity, forming an octave, and the feast of the Dedication of the Temple by Solomon and purification lasted eight days. It is also said that Jesus rose from the dead on the eighth day (which is why Sundays are considered on par with solemnities). The development of the octaves within the liturgy was gradual, and it was not until the 8th century that Rome celebrated octaves for certain feasts.
We are probably most familiar with the term octave as it is used in a musical scale. Whether we sing it with solfege, DO RE MI... or play the eight notes within a scale, knowing the musical connection can help understand how the Church views the octave as applied to the Liturgical Year:
Octave (from the Latin octo, eight; octava dies, the eighth day) is used to signify both a period of eight days and the eighth day of that period. This liturgical use conforms to the musical denomination of an octave as the eighth note in a diatonic sequence and also as the whole compass of notes comprised between the first and the eighth (including both extremes) in a diatonic scale. In one sense, then, the octave of Christmas is the feast of the Circumcision, or New Year’s Day. In another sense, it is the whole period within these feasts, inclusive of both.
An octave continues the celebration of a feast for eight days. The eighth day, however, whilst of inferior liturgical important to the feast-day itself, is nevertheless of higher important than any of the preceding six days. Here, again, there is almost a symbolic correspondence with the musical use of the word; for the eighth note, while not possessing the basic value of the first, still is considered as repeating it, for it merges with the first in physical vibration, sounds like it, and bears its name (Catholic Customs and Symbols, Hugh Henry, 1925, p. 203-204).
Hugh Henry wrote the above in 1925, since then the title of the feast for January 1st has changed from the “Circumcision of the Lord” to “Mary, Mother of God,” but everything else applies. Octaves in the liturgy mean every day within the octave is the feast all over again. There are subtleties, so it is more of a “little” Christmas rather than the actual solemnity, but technically days in the octave is Christmas all over again.
One question arose in trying to explain this application of music theory to the liturgy. If January 1st is a feast of Mary, how is this repeating the feast of Christmas? I found a two-fold answer.
First, the actual title of this feast is “the Octave Day of Christmas and the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.” Within this feast is multiple layers, but the title itself indicates it is a feast of our Lord, repeating the solemnity of Christmas, but also honors Mary as the Mother of God. The Mass readings return to the stable at Bethlehem, picking up right after the Gospel from Midnight Mass of Christmas. The shepherds went in haste to the stable...with Mary pondering all these things in her heart, and ends with the Circumcision. The Gospel indicates this is both a feast of Jesus and Mary.
I also found a profound explanation from recently beatified Pope Paul VI from his Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultis from 1974:
5. The Christmas Season is a prolonged commemoration of the divine, virginal and salvific Motherhood of her whose “inviolate virginity brought the Saviour into the world”. In fact, on the Solemnity of the Birth of Christ the Church both adores the Saviour and venerates his glorious Mother. On the Epiphany, when she celebrates the universal call to salvation, the Church contemplates the Blessed Virgin, the true Seat of Wisdom and true Mother of the King, who presents to the Wise Men for their adoration the Redeemer of all peoples (cf. Mt. 2:11). On the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (the Sunday within the octave of Christmas) the Church meditates with profound reverence upon the holy life led in the house at Nazareth by Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man, Mary his Mother, and Joseph the just man (cf. Mt. 1:19).
In the revised ordering of the Christmas period it seems to us that the attention of all should be directed towards the restored Solemnity of Mary the holy Mother of God. This celebration, placed on January 1 in conformity with the ancient indication of the liturgy of the City of Rome, is meant to commemorate the part played by Mary in this mystery of salvation. It is meant also to exalt the singular dignity which this mystery brings to the “holy Mother...through whom we were found worthy to receive the Author of Life”. It is likewise a fitting occasion for renewing adoration to the newborn Prince of Peace, for listening once more to the glad tidings of the Angels (cf. Lk 2:14): and for imploring from God, through the Queen of Peace, the supreme gift of peace.... (Marialis Cultis, St. Pope Paul VI).
While Christmas is considered primarily a feast of our Lord on the liturgical calendar, “the Church both adores the Saviour and venerates his glorious Mother.“ So today, the Octave Day of Christmas IS repeating again this feast of Christmas, honoring both Jesus and Mary.
The Octave of Christmas emphasizes truth in the words of the Christmas carol, because the days of the Christmas Octave are actual days of Christmas. After today, the Church continues the Christmas season, which is a season of Christmastide, but not the actual solemnity of Christmas (for further reading, see Christmas to Candlemas: When Is the Real End of the Christmas Season?). There are special feast days, such as the Solemnity of Epiphany and the feast of the Baptism of the Lord' which leads me to the conclusion that we are sorely lacking a Christmas carol that emphasizes the special nature of the eight days of Christmas.