There is a reason the time around Christmas is called “the Holiday Season.” The word holiday is a shortening of the phrase holy day, which Catholics should be familiar with from the phrase “holy day of obligation,” referring to those days when Catholics are obliged to worship at Mass. But while some holy days are so important — like Christmas — that they oblige us to come together for public worship, there are many other holy days celebrated by the Church. And quite a few of them fall around this time of the year.
Let’s start with Christmas itself. Like Easter, Catholics use the term not just to refer to a single day of the year, but to a whole liturgical season. Christmas Day is Dec. 25, but we also celebrate the Octave of Christmas. Octave is a term meaning “eight days.” Important feasts, such as Christmas and Easter, are celebrated with octaves, meaning for a full week after the day itself, the Church liturgically celebrates as if it were the same feast day. If you attend Mass any day between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, you will hear prayers proclaiming “this day” Christ is born. In short, Christmas is a celebration so big that it simply cannot fit into a day. We need an entire week to properly celebrate the Nativity of our Lord.
But wait! There’s more! While the Octave of Christmas runs through Jan. 1, the Season of Christmas lasts until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord on Jan. 8. You won’t see your priest in green vestments again until Jan. 9. So keep that tree up and continue to wish one another “Merry Christmas” until then.
The Holy Days
Christmas may be one of the highest celebrations of the Church Year (second only to Easter) but it is just one of the many holy days that fall during the Christmas Season.
- Dec. 26: The Feast of St. Stephen
- The second day in the Octave of Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr and one of the seven deacons ordained to assist the Apostles in Acts 6. You can read the story of his martyrdom in Acts chapter 6 and 7. Like Jesus, Stephen prayed for the forgiveness of his persecutors as he was dying. One of them was a Pharisee named Saul, who would later become St. Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles and author of most of the New Testament.
- Dec. 27: The Feast of St. John
- The third day in the Octave of Christmas is the Feast of St. John, apostle and evangelist. He wrote the fourth gospel, three epistles, and the book of Revelation. He was part of the inner circle of Apostles closest to Jesus, and the only Apostle not to die a martyr.
- Dec. 28: The Feast of the Holy Innocents
- When King Herod learned from the magi that a king was born in Bethlehem, in order to protect his throne he commanded that all male infants in and near Bethlehem under 2 years of age be massacred (Mt 2:16). This is why the Holy Family were warned by an angel to flee to Egypt until Herod died and it was safe to return. The Church commemorates all of the innocent victims of King Herod as martyrs on Dec. 28, the fourth day in the Octave of Christmas.
- Dec. 29: Optional Memorial of St. Thomas Becket
- The fifth day of the Octave of Christmas is not a feast day per se, but it is an optional memorial of St. Thomas Becket, twelfth century English bishop and martyr. He stood up for the rights of the Church against King Henry II and for this was exiled and eventually killed by agents of the king.
- Dec. 31: Feast of the Holy Family
- The Sunday within the Octave of Christmas is the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. It is important to remember that when God became Incarnate, He did so within the context of a family. Jesus spent most of His time on earth growing up and living with a family, sanctifying this most basic foundation of human society. (On years when Christmas falls on a Sunday, this feast is celebrated on Dec. 30).
- Jan. 1: Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
- The octave day of Christmas is celebrated as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and is a holy day of obligation. On this day we honor in a special way Mary’s role in giving birth to the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ. Prior to 1962, the octave day of Christmas was celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord. Like all Jewish male infants, Jesus was circumcised on the eight day after His birth. The Church commemorates this as the first time the Incarnate God shed His own blood for our sins.
- Jan. 2: Memorials of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen
- These two Eastern bishops are both considered “doctors of the Church,” meaning their theological writings have contributed significantly to spirituality of the Church. Holy men, and influential in the Church, they were also great friends.
- Jan. 3: Optional Memorial of the Most Holy Name of Jesus
- Devotion to the name of Jesus goes back to the beginning of the Church, but this feast in its honor was extended to the entire Church in the 18th century by Pope Innocent III.
- Jan. 4: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
- Born in New York, Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born American citizen to be canonized a saint. A convert, she founded the American Sisters of Charity which helped to establish the parochial school system in the United States. A devoted wife and mother, she entered into religious life after becoming a widow.
- Jan. 5: Memorial of St. John Neumann
- Born in Bohemia, he immigrated to the United States in the first half of the 19th century to help build up the Church in America. He became bishop of Philadelphia in 1852, and established many parishes and parish schools.
- Jan. 6: Traditional Date of Epiphany
- Traditionally, Epiphany was celebrated on Jan. 6, twelve days after Dec. 25. This is where the phrase “Twelve Days of Christmas” originates.
- Jan. 7: Epiphany of the Lord
- The Epiphany of the Lord is celebrated in many parts of the Church today on the Sunday that falls between Jan. 2 and Jan. 8, which this year is Jan. 7. It commemorates the adoration of the Christ-child by the magi from the East, symbolizing the manifestation of Christ’s kingship to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Epiphany means “a manifestation.”
- Jan. 8: Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
- The feasts of Christ’s Nativity (Christmas), the Epiphany, and the Baptism of the Lord have traditionally been seen as connected, as they each represent a manifestation (epiphany) of the Divine Son of God to the world. When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, the Father’s voice was heard to say, “This is my beloved Son.”
And thus ends the Christmas season — truly a season of holy days! Happy Holy-days from WCU Catholic Campus Ministry!