Additional Ideas on the Christmas Octave

A few days before Christmas I posted my thoughts on St. Stephen’s day, the fairly new feast of the Holy Family, and the rubrics around the Christmas Octave. The comments by PrayTell readers raised a lot of interesting aspects, and some of you even contacted me privately.

Some voted for the old practice of celebrating two feasts at once, as it was custom before the Second Vatican Council e.g. by doubling of the collects in the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours. I am not familiar with this practice from my own experience and I tend to believe that this is a little too much against the Council’s option for clarity and comprehensibility in the Roman rite—unlike e.g. the Byzantine rite where even Good Friday, Holy Saturday, or Easter Sunday can coincide with the Solemnity of the Annunciation on March 25 (with a lot of rubricistic challenges).

A colleague wrote to me that if we regard Jesus’ birth in a human family as a divine revelation, then the feast of the Holy Family should clearly have more weight than St. Stephen.

I had not known that not only some Eastern churches celebrate St. Stephen on December 27, but also some Anglican churches transferred St. Stephen to December 29 or the Sunday after Christmas.

And then even more oddities came to my mind:

I have never understood why the feast days in the Christmas Octave are celebrated in such a strange way: The Lauds are from the feast, the Vespers are from Christmas—I mean: Is this an octave or not? Is it a feast day or not? Is the morning different from the evening, and if so, then: why? All this looks very arbitrary as if the calendar wants too much at the same time.

And maybe the most profound: When Pope John XXIII. introduced the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, in 1960 for January 1, the Roman church refrained from the memorial of the circumcision and naming of Jesus; although on this very day the respective Gospel is still read according to the biblical chronology: the eighth day since Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:21). Recently several theologians and even bishops in Germany have pleaded for a reintroduction of the Solemnity of Naming and Circumcision of the Lord, not only because of its ecumenical tradition, but also with regard to the Jewish roots and theological background of Christianity that too many Christians have forgotten. With all due respect to the Mother of God: Do we really need an additional feast for her, especially when she is a part of the Holy Family anyway?

Eventually I had a completely new idea and I would like to know what PrayTell readers think of it: What if we created a more continuous and consistent Christmas octave where the liturgy brings up certain aspects of Incarnation as well as traditional feasts that have (more or less) always had a calendrical connection to Christmas?

For a full liturgical octave we need eight celebrations. We already have:

  • Christmas itself (Dec 25)
  • St. Stephen (Dec 26 in the current Roman calendar)
  • St. John the Apostle and Evangelist (Dec 27)
  • Holy Innocents (Dec 28)
  • Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (Sunday)

My proposal is to re-dedicate January 1 to the Naming and Circumcision, so we have:

  • Naming and Circumcision (Jan 1)

Now we need two more feasts, and here I would propose two new topics:

  • Holy Forerunners from the Old Testament
  • Holy Prophets Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22—38)

Old Testaments saints play a major role in many—mainly Eastern—liturgies, but the history of the city of Rome and the Roman influence on the entire Western world let them be mostly forgotten in occidental churches. A renewed Christmas octave could bring them back to Catholic consciousness.

Simeon and Anna might look a bit out of place here, and maybe there are better options. In the Biblical chronology they belong to February 2 as the 40th day since Christmas. I know medieval manuscripts that call that day “Sancti Simeonis,” but in the current order it is strictly regarded as a feast of the Lord. Those two prophets represent the connection between the Old and the New Testament, so they would be a good addition to a feast of the forerunners. And to be honest: The liturgical chronology in the Christmas season is not perfect anyway, since we celebrate Holy Innocents nine days before Epiphany, although the biblical events take place the other way round (Matt 2,1—18).

What would the liturgical rubrics be? Christmas and Circumcision would be solemnities, all other days could be celebrated as feasts. The Eucharist on the Sunday after Christmas would be celebrated as its respective feast day, but with the Creed and an additional reading (maybe Hebr 1:1—4). Thus parishes that come together exclusively on Sundays would be introduced into a diversified seven-year-cycle of theological aspects around Christmas—including a feast of Old Testament Saints which might be a salutary “aha-experience” to a lot of people. The Liturgy of the Hours could be made more like a consistent octave, e.g. with the same psalmody on every day in every hour, but variable hymns, collects, readings, prayers, and antiphons depending on the feast day.

A rather “conservative” Christmas octave could eventually look like this:

  • Dec 25: Christmas (of course)
  • Dec 26: St. Stephen
  • Dec 27: St. John
  • Dec 28: Holy Innocents
  • Dec 29: Holy Family
  • Dec 30: Holy Forerunners
  • Dec 31: Sts. Simeon and Anna
  • Jan 1: Naming and Circumcision

A more “ambitious” version, trying to circle theologically around Christmas in concentric circles, could look like this:

  • Dec 25: Christmas
  • Dec 26: Holy Family
  • Dec 27: Holy Forerunners
  • Dec 28: Holy Innocents
  • Dec 29: St. Stephen
  • Dec 30: Ss. Simeon and Anna
  • Dec 31: St. John
  • Jan 1: Naming and Circumcision

I could also imagine more radical solutions like transferring St. Stephen or St. John to other seasons of the year, or Holy Innocents somewhere after Epiphany, but maybe I am too cautious and boring for that. I also know other Saints are quite popular in some regions of the world, like Thomas Becket (Dec 29) or Pope Sylvester (Dec 31), so probably my proposal could and should be altered in certain countries, with Saints from “my” octave being transferred to other days between Jan 1 and Jan 6 or around Feb 2. But at least I hope that this proposal raises such a vivid discussion as my recent one!

26 comments

  1. All Holy Ancestors of Our Lord is already December 24th, King David is December 29th. The Roman Martyrology provides an abundance of saints not inscribed in the General Calendar.

    1. Thank you! But I think it is crucial that the liturgy does not reflect the Martyrology in all its details. Only very small groups would ever (or: do ever) hear anything about the Holy Ancestors on December 24. How could they have chances to get into the minds of regular Catholic churchgoers?

  2. Interesting proposal. I too was struck this year by the oddity of the morning office reflecting the feast and the evening office reflecting the octave. I guess they were trying to split the difference.

    I am intrigued by the proposal that the intervening Sunday would reflect what ever feast fell on that date. I like the idea that Sunday assemblies would be exposed to different aspects of the celebration of the Incarnation, but is there any precedent for this sort of thing? Maybe precedent doesn’t matter, but it does tend to soothe my traditionalist sensibilities.

  3. I guess when discussing liturgical changes, it is important who these will impact. There are three (technically four types) of Catholics involved. I)Those who rarely or never attend liturgy, II) regular or semi-regular Sunday attendees, III) Regular Sunday Mass goes and those who frequent Holy Days of Obligation, IV) those whose prayer and devotional life revolves around the liturgical calendar such as daily mass attendees, laity who pray the LOTH, and those who use devotional materials that are calendar based like the Word Among Us and Magnificat Magazine etc. Included of course are priests, deacons and religious.

    For each of these four groups, I guess any liturgical changes that would potentially renew the spirituality of those impacted and hopefully inspire greater devotion to spreading the Gospel and healing of creation has to be weighed by the disruption caused by any liturgical changes of a Calendar that has been in place for nearly 50 years.

    I am in favor of celebrating Holy Name on Jan 1 for the reasons you list, but I don’t think there is any reason why it could not be a duel celebration of the Maternity of Mary. If this cannot be, I would move Mary’s Day to Dec. 31st. Otherwise I would leave the Octave alone. Mary on Jan 1st is a nearly 50 year old tradition and a feast of Mary during the Octave has ancient roots.

    For St. Simeon and Anna, I would suggest near Feb 2nd. The only people who would be impacted directly would be group IV, and these would benefit equally as well by either an octave or February date. Likewise, I would advocate for an Advent Date for the Holy Forerunners.

    I would also suggest a memorial for St. Joachim and Anna, December 9th would be my choice. Near the conception of Mary, in fact December 9th was the original day for this feast.

  4. Random thoughts:

    If it were to be added, the Saturday falling from December 17-23 would be the best fit for Holy Forerunners.

    Pope John Paul II, IIRC, created the day of consecrated life around February 2nd with SS Simeon and Anna the Prophetess as inspirations. February 1 as S Brigid’s day was historically important in Ireland and the Irish diaspora in churches. And February 3 as S Blaise’s day is perhaps the only saint’s memorial with strong residual popularity in the pews. I wouldn’t displace either for something new because it seemed more rational/logical.

    The feast of St Anna the Mother of the BVM in July is too huge and longstanding to move. It would be like moving the feast of St James the Greater to a winter month; there would be a lot of people with noses out of joint. Those are big “summer” saints feasts in the Northern Hemisphere for a lot of different places.

    The principal feast of the BVM in the universal calendar is August 15th.

    Overall, however, I am not sure the 20th century tinkering did much to improve Advent-Christmastide and don’t see any proposals for the 21st century that would be a a clear and convincing improvement. If there’s to be any logic, a narrow logic of undoing a made muddle may do the least damage if further changes are contemplated.

    1. I) I agree that your Saturday date would be the best fit for the Holy Forerunners.

      2) I was thinking may be Feb. 4th for SS Simeon and Anna? Or would it be too disruptive to move St. Blaise to Feb 4th and then place Simeon and Anna on Feb. 3rd?

      3) You are probably right about leaving St. Ann (& Joachim) alone in July. Though I was thinking initially about having two feast days. On the current calendar in the east, the Dormition of St. Ann is celebrated on July 25, and both St. Ann and St. Joachim have a day together on Sept 9, the day after Mary’s Nativity. So I was thinking something similar, though I know the Reform had wanted to avoid duplications on the calendar, so that is probably a none starter.

      1. 1) This “forerunners” terminology is problematic. Isn’t there only one forerunner of Christ, St. John the Baptist? The Eastern Churches using the Byzantine rite have on the calendar for the two Sundays prior to the feast of the Nativity: 1) the Holy Forefathers (or Ancestors) of Christ, celebrating those of Christ’s lineage and 2) the Sunday of the Holy Fathers which actually celebrates the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament, who I think you are speaking of as forerunners. Aren’t there are plenty of open dates during Advent on the revised Roman calendar to commemorate one or the other of them?

        2) The Eastern Churches commemorate the Righteous Simeon and the Prophetess Anna on the 3rd of February as part of the after-feast of the Meeting in the Temple, but this would be problematic on the Roman calendar considering there is no octave and the lonstanding association with St. Blaise on that date. The 4th appears free, put them there as it’s still close to the feast.

        3) St. Anna’s Dormition on July 25th/26th and the commemoration of Sts. Joachim and Anna on the 9th of September as part of the after-feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God are two entirely different feasts and not duplication.

        4) The less additional disruptions to the new calendar, the better–it’s barely 50 years, and there are people still who remember and follow the old calendar. Put Epiphany back on the 6th (as a day of precept), where every other Church has it, and remove the obligation from January 1st.

  5. The Christmas octave seems “messy” because some of the observances pre-date Christmas.

    The pre-1955 Roman Rite has Epiphany at a higher rank than Christmas, with an octave that allows almost no interruption…reflecting the fact that Epiphany is a more ancient observance than Christmas, and a more important one.

    The Christmas octave has peculiar Office and other features because the octave was historically of lower rank than, e .g., the Epiphany octave.

    1 January has always been a composite liturgy (reflecting multiple Masses offered on the day, with different themes). While Bugnini abhorred such things, his voice is a rather lonely one in both West and East, historically speaking.

    Pre-1955 had it best, in my view: the “comites Christi” of 26-27-28 December are always observed; the Sunday within the Octave is observed; 1 January is Circumcision/Octave Day; the Sunday closest to 1 January is Holy Name; Epiphany on the sixth with full octave; Holy Family on the free Sunday within the octave; 13 January = Octave Day and end of the season. (And Thomas and Sylvester have strong associations with local customs in some locales.) Much stronger emphasis on the Epiphany, as is appropriate.

    (N.B.: in the 1962 rubrics, 13 January appears as the Commemoration of the Baptism and not the Feast, because 6 January is already the Feast of the Baptism as one of the three manifestations celebrated on Epiphany. Bugnini decided on introducing a separate “Feast of the Baptism,” despite his usual abhorrence of duplication.)

    The Forerunners belong to Advent. And S. Lazarus was traditionally celebrated on 17 December…a theologically significant choice of day.

  6. The Communion of International Catholic Communities, a body derived from the Old Catholic tradition of which I am a priest, is adopting the following alteration next year (if our Missal is complete in time):

    Dec 25 – Solemn Vigil of Christmas and Christmas Day
    Sunday on the Octave – Presentation
    Sunday after the Octave – Epiphany
    Tuesday after Epiphany – Holy Innocents
    Thursday after Epiphany – Holy Family
    Saturday after Epiphany – Holy Name
    Sunday after Epiphany – Baptism of our Lord

    The Christmas vigil will follow the pattern of the Pentecost Vigil.

    We will then re-order the readings to be thematic through the Octave and the rest of the season.

    Saint Stephen moves to August 3.
    Saint John to May 6.

    Finally, we are including a sequence for Christmas and the Octave.

  7. I applaud the creative thinking that went into this post, but I think we need to walk carefully.

    For instance, I am not so sure that giving prominence to the feast of the circumcision will improve Catholics’ relationship to Judaism. Just on a practical level, circumcision is currently controversial from a health perspective. It seems like leaning on this subject at this point in time is bound to awaken ambivalent responses in the pews rather than solidarity. It could backfire, in other words.

    I also suspect that using the term “forerunners” — not only for John the Baptist, who is clearly in a category of his own with respect to preparing the way for Jesus, but for all the Hebrew prophets — would be problematic for Jewish-Christian relations. At least some would see it as a narrowing and exclusionary gesture.

    1. Anything that disrupts the sequential gospel readings of the second part of
      Advent seems a bad idea.. Besides, 17 December already Jas the Martha fan genealogy.

  8. I agree with Lee in this one. I would not change the dates of the Comites, some of them are more ancient that the Nativity, as is Epiphany, too. I share the idea of renaming January 1st as Naming and Circumsicion and moving the feast of the Maternity to its original and very significant date of October 11th. As in the reformed Ambrosian Rite, I would elevate the feasts of St. Stephen, St. John and Holy Innocents over Sundays of Christmas, assign permanently the Sunday of the Octave or the Holy Family to December 30th and observe St. Thomas Becket and St. Sylvester on their traditional dates. After all, in German December 31st is called Sylvester.
    Then the Epiphany, as expressed by Lee, with the Feast of the Baptism on January 13th. I’m all for octaves for Epiphany, Ascension and Pentecost. Not much more, but no less.

  9. Well, another possible arrangement of Christmastide:

    Dec. 25 Christmas
    Maternity of Mary – Sunday in the Octave using either Lk 2: 22-40 or Luke 2:22, 39-52 as the Gospel
    Dec. 26 – St. Stephen
    Dec. 27- St. John
    Dec. 28. Holy Innocents
    Dec. 30 Holy Family
    Jan. 1st Holy Name & Circumcision
    Sunday Before Jan. 6 – Magi and Flight into Egypt. Mt 2: 1-23 Propers of Epiphany
    Jan. 6 Baptism
    Sunday after Jan. 6 Wedding Feast of Cana ( Use prayers from Second Sunday after Christmas with some slight editing)

    Decisions would need to be made when either. Jan. 1 or Jan. 6 fell on a Sunday.

    My solution would be taken from Palm Sunday.

    For Sun. Jan. 1st
    Open with collect of Circumcision and Gospel then Process to altar and use the rest of epiphany Sunday.

    For. Sun Jan 6
    Open with collect and Gospel of Epiphany, Procession and then Baptism.

  10. Devin: about last comment, I think they are good ideas, but they suffer from USA-centrism. There are many countries, so different as Germany or Bolivia, where Epiphany falls in January 6th. Also, there is no precedent for processions in those feasts. I read a certain dominguitis (Sunday-itis) too: in Argentina, for example, people go to church on Christmas or Good Friday, even on Ash Wednesday, but Sundays are not that packed.
    I would not mess around dates.

  11. Two feasts are not celebrated at once in the preconciliar liturgy. One is commemorated, and all you get is the Lauds or Magnificat antiphon, the versicle and response, and the collect in the office and the three orations at Mass. The very-rare exceptions to this don’t even apply to MR1962. As to the Christmas offices, as was mentioned elsewhere, the octave came second after the institution of the Comites, so Vespers in particular takes from both. I find it to be an elegant solution.

    St John XXIII simply renamed January 1 to the Octave of the Nativity; it was either the Circumcision of the Lord or, over a thousand years ago, the Octave of the Lord. Calendarium Romanum established the new feast on January 1, about which St Paul VI speaks about in Marialis Cultus. By the way, as Dom Jacques-Marie Guilmard of Solesmes wrote in Ecclesia Orans (“Une Antique Fête mariale dans la ville de Rome?” from 1994), the thesis of Dom Botte that the Marian feast gave way to the Circumcision is contestable even if one likes the new celebration, and that thesis was contested as early as 1935, two years after its original publication.

    Lee Fratantuono is completely correct as to which liturgy works the best. It would be negligent to omit that the Ambrosian rite celebrates the Comites on Sunday, the practice being so ancient that the Milanese break their usual custom of not celebrating even the Assumption on Sunday. This feast, that of St Charles, and other solemnities/first-class feasts are moved to Monday. The Holy Family is moved to approximately its pre-1921 place, on the last Sunday of January. I don’t think that the Holy Name as a recapitulation is celebrated at all, but the Circumcision is kept on January 1.

    Paul Cavendish’s comment from the first post deserves new attention: the problem began in 1960, and the 1969 missal did not fix this. That said, Holy Family should not interrupt the sequence after Epiphany regardless of the calendar. It breaks up the 1962 Divine Office (the incipit of I Cor. is omitted.).

    1. (I see that I have partially duplicated Raymi Acebo Vietto’s comments on the Milanese liturgy. Credit to that poster!)

      The epistle of Holy is simply a repetition, and the feast, in some years, keeps the Mass of the previous Sunday within the octave/1st Sunday from being read.

      Regardless of the missal and lectionary used, the chronological jump is too big to satisfactorily move to the Sunday before Epiphany, which in any case should always be the vigil of the Epiphany if Sunday falls on January 5.

      St Simeon and St Anna are celebrated on February 3 in the East; John Kohanski describes well the problem, to which I will add this: The feasts of these saints from Scripture are more frequent, not necessarily more prominent, and we shouldn’t rob the treasury of the Eastern liturgies to insert things that fit our fancy at any given moment, particularly if it has nothing to do with either the Roman rite or the rite from which we’ve taken something.

      I’d also like to keep the pre-1955 Epiphany octave, i.e. without having a new feast that is also treated as insignificant, because even II class feasts use the psalms and antiphons of the feria at the day hours. It’s a mess.

  12. “When Pope John XXIII. introduced the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, in 1960 for January 1, ”
    That is incorrect, as has been noted in the comments. All John XXIII did, or rather the Liturgical Commission for General Liturgical Reform established by his predecessor, was to remove the co-title ‘Circumcision’ from the Circumcision and Octave of the Nativity of the Lord as January 1st had been styled .

    WRT Byzantines celebrating St Stephen on December 27th that is a displacement due to the Synaxis of the Mother of God being celebrated on the 26th, the first day after Christmas, the common praxis for synaxes in that rite.

    In the unlikely event that any old calendar Armenians read this ‘blog a very happy Theophany!

  13. Some respondents are obviously more knowledgeable than I about church calendars and the importance of feasts in various cultures. Nevertheless:
    1. I do not think that octaves mean much in contemporary culture. They are no longer linked to social practices.
    2. I think it would be very good to get the sequence of events in the life of Jesus in proper order for consciousness of the laity. Birth, Naming/Circumcision, Epiphany, Holy Innocents, Flight and Return from Egypt, Temple Visit, Baptism of Jesus.
    3. It might be a good idea to separate Christmas from the Sanctoral Cycle all together. Among other things, it would help separate it from Yuletide and the solstice. If the Nativity were the last Sunday of the year, then five or all six of the feasts listed above could be on the succeeding Sundays and not conflict with the Forty Days before the Resurrection.
    [ASIDE: I have an interest in discontinuing the use of the pagan words ‘lent’ and ‘easter’. (Would it help lay understanding to use the English translation of ‘epiphany’, Revelation, as the name of the feast?)]
    4. Another possibility is a longer season pre-Nativity in the Temporal Cycle, with more emphasis on ancestors of Jesus and Salvation History including [in the various lectionary cycles]: Creation/Adam, Noah, Abraham bargaining with God, Moses, David; then the birth of John the Baptist and the Visitation, keeping the Annunciation nine months earlier.

    Granted, this is much more radical than any of the other proposals, but I think it actually does a better job of addressing the expressed concerns. It leaves all the feasts and commemorations of saints on their calendar dates, avoiding the disruption of local customs. It makes clear that the Nativity Season extends much more than one week. It shows the time before the Nativity feast as focusing on the historic preparation for Jesus instead of on repentance. Instead of moving Epiphany back to the Sanctoral Cycle, it also moves Nativity to the Temporal Cycle along with the Resurrection.

    1. “It shows the time before the Nativity feast as focusing on the historic preparation for Jesus instead of on repentance. ”

      Why is that a value? That preparation still is the focus of “late” Advent, but Advent on the whole has a focus not only on the historic preparation but also on the other comings of Christ, especially at the consummation of all things in the general way (and, in a lesser included way, our own individual consummation). And repentance, preached by the Baptist and the Christ, is included in that as part of the coming of the long-promised Kingdom.

    2. Christmas is already a part of the temporal cycle, although it’s true that it and the subsequent feasts are fixed to a date rather than to a Sunday which shifts annually.

      Roman Advent has been four Sundays for about 1,500 years. Copying both the East and Milan would be unprecedented, because in this case, when Advent settled on four weeks, the Sundays were integrated into the end of the year; this is why the collect of the XXIV and Last Sunday per annum of the MR1962 begins “Excita,” which is of course replaced by Christ the King, though I don’t think that anyone wants to move it back to October or to its Ambrosian date after All Saints.

      Octaves don’t mean much in contemporary culture, but neither does Christmas, so one-and-done box-checking on Sundays is a surefire way to produce the bare minimum.

      Lent is not pagan per se. Its ancestor means “springtime,” and while the root of “Easter” is a pagan goddess of spring as attested by the Venerable Bede, it hasn’t meant that in a thousand years. You give the trolls who ascribe everything to borrowing from pagans too much credit; I do use “paschal” where possible, but everyone knows what I mean when I say “Easter Vigil” or “Easter candle,” and that brevity is worth something. Could we do more to emphasize that it is the fast of forty days? Sure, but it would help to have a meaningful fast, and I think we’re kind of stuck, because “Forty Days” as two words is not as pleasant as derivatives of “Quadragesima.”

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