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Is it still Christmas? The octave, the 12 days, and what you need to know

Christmas at St. Peter’s Basilica. Credit: Giuseppe Milo/flickr. CC BY SA 2.0

Christmas is December 25, right? Or maybe it’s an eight-day celebration — something called an “octave?” But aren’t there 12 days of Christmas?

Yes.

The answer to each of those questions is “yes.” When Catholics talk about “Christmas,” they mean more than one thing — actually they mean several overlapping things. And, well, if you’re not versed in the lingo, that can get a bit confusing.

So how do you keep ’em all straight? And how do you know if it’s still Christmas?

The Pillar explains.

Merry Christmas

While it seems ubiquitous today, celebrating birthdays is not a universal custom across all cultures and times — some reasons are obvious, like the fact that not all people in all times have had an easy way even to know the date of auspicious occasions. Other reasons are important but less obvious — the fact that some cultures mark important initiation or ritual days instead of birthdays, for example.

Because of their own cultural contexts, the earliest Christians were more likely to celebrate as big annual feasts of the Incarnation either the Epiphany — which in the East commemorates the baptism of the Lord in the Jordan River — or to celebrate the Lord’s presentation and circumcision in the Temple.

But early Christianity was a cross-cultural phenomena, and Roman Christians, like North African Copts and a few others, were accustomed to annual birthday celebrations for important leaders — and in some cases, to small celebrations for the birthdays of friends and relatives.

Because of that, in some corners of the Church liturgical feasts for the Lord’s birth began quite early in Christian history.

By the fourth century, Roman Christians were celebrating annually the birth of Jesus Christ as its own liturgical feast. The date was fixed on December 25 by at least the 330s.

It is often thought that December 25 was chosen to celebrate the Lord’s nativity because it was the date of the winter solstice in the Roman calendar, and possibly already the Roman feast of a sun god. But, actually, there is little evidence that a feast for Sol Invictus was celebrated on Dec. 25 until decades after the Christian feast of Christmas was fixed on that date.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” points out that before they celebrated Christmas, many Christian communities were already celebrating the Annunciation, which marks Christ’s conception.

Since the Annunciation was celebrated March 25 (also believed by many Church Fathers to be the date on which Christ was crucified), it would make sense that Christ’s birth would be celebrated nine months later, on Dec. 25.

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Ok. So what’s the ‘Christmas octave’ then?

The octave of Christmas is celebrated as an eight-day feast which begins on the Nativity, Dec. 25, and continues to January 1, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God.

Since at least the fourth century, Christians have celebrated the most important liturgical feasts with “octaves” — eight days of celebration. Christmas has been celebrated as an octave since at least the seventh century, and is today one of two octaves celebrated by the Church — the other is Easter.

During the Christmas octave, the “Gloria” is sung each day during Mass, and each day is generally regarded as a day of great feasting.

So, can you eat meat on Friday, Dec. 31 — when Fridays are generally regarded as a day of abstinence?

Canonists are a little bit split over whether abstinence from meat is required on a Friday during the Christmas octave. So if you’re not sure, and you live in the U.S., you could offer up some other penance, as permitted by the USCCB.

What about the ‘12 days of Christmas?’

So we’ve got Christmas Day, and then the Christmas octave.

But there is also the traditional Christmas season of 12 days, which traditionally began on Dec. 25 and ended on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.

This is a little tricky in the United States, since the Epiphany feast is not always on the same day. It has been moved from January 6 to “the Sunday between January 2 and January 8” — this year, January 2 itself.

But Western Christians have traditionally continued the Christmas season celebrations through January 6, during “twelvetide.”

In many cultures, gifts were exchanged throughout the season.

But why Lords A-leapin’ and all that?

Well, the song is a traditional English Christmas carol, with origins mostly unknown. But it is a great pub song, so you can probably surmise how it got so popular.

Ok, so Christmas is over on Epiphany, then?

Well, here’s the deal so far: We’ve got Christmas Day. Then we’ve got the Octave. We’ve got the traditional 12 days of Christmas.

But then, we’ve also got the liturgical season of Christmas, which ends on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, celebrated in 2022 on January 9.

After the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, “ordinary time” begins on the liturgical calendar, and you can definitely say that Christmas is over.

Unless, of course, you want to keep the party going.

There are a lot of Christian cultures which continue to celebrate Christmas until the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord — Candlemas — which takes place on February 2. That feast commemorates the presentation of the Lord in the Temple, which, you might recall, many Eastern Christians actually remember on Epiphany.

The Presentation Feast is called “Candlemas” because it is the day on which the Church has traditionally blessed candles for liturgical use. Why? Because when the infant Jesus was presented in the Temple, St. Simeon called him a “light to the Gentiles” — and the light of Christ has been central to celebrating the presentation ever since.

Despite some popular confusion, Candlemas is not the day on which your throat might be blessed at Mass with a pair of crossed candles. That comes the next day — February 3, the Feast of St. Blase.

And Christmas is definitely over by then.

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