I’d like to share with you some things you may not know about the Christmas Season.
For the Church, Christmas Day begins not at midnight, but with the celebration of Mass following sunset on Christmas Eve. This follows the ancient Jewish way of keeping liturgical time. This way of marking “sacred time” is also the reason you can attend Sunday Mass on Saturday evening. Christmas Day is only one component of the Christmas Season. Christmas in fact lasts for 8 days. So don’t throw out your Christmas tree the day after December 25th. We’ve only just begun.
Octave of Christmas
Like Easter, because the Mystery of the Incarnation is so vast, we cannot hope to fathom it’s depths in one day. That is why the Church gives us the Octave of Christmas. The ancient church saw that, like the Resurrection, the Incarnation propels us into a mystical and mysterious reality – a new way of living – yes there are only 7 days in a week, but the 8th day has always been seen as a symbol of how we Christians are initiated into a new reality, a new way of living in Christ.
During the Octave, the readings of Mass are related to the birth of Christ. In Medieval times, no one was allowed to work for the eight days. The emphasis was on celebrating the Good News of Christ’s birth.
The Twelve Days of Christmas (Christmastide)
If that weren’t enough, the Church actually celebrated 12 days of Christmas! Christmas Day is an Octave, but the whole of the season lasts for 12 days. We’ve all sung the Christmas carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” well, that’s because we really did celebrate it at one time. Sadly the influence of secularism killed this ancient tradition. Again, the point being, we cannot reflect enough on the mystery of the incarnation. In fact, in many Christian traditions, Epiphany is the day when you give out gifts, not Christmas Day.
The Christmas Season (for Catholics)
Roman Catholics and some other Christians mark the end of the liturgical Christmas season with the celebration of the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which falls on the Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany. Ordinary Time begins the day after the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
Fun fact: Centuries ago, the baptism of Christ was the primary event celebrated as part of the feast of the Epiphany, along with the visit of the Magi and other events from the childhood of Jesus. Epiphany means “manifestation” or “appearance.” So while the baptism of Christ marks the beginning of his public ministry, it is also part of his “manifestation” or “appearance,” one of the events signaling that God has broken into human history in a unique way. That’s in fact what our Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Christians do. Epiphany is called the Great Theophany or Great Revelation.
Bonus! The Presentation of the Lord
This is like one of the fast pace TV commercials - But wait, there’s more!
The Church circles back around to the Christmas season forty days after Christmas, on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. The Law of Moses required first-born sons to be dedicated to the Lord, so Mary and Joseph dutifully brought the baby Jesus to the Temple for his dedication and circumcision (Luke 2:22-38). In some countries (and some households), it is traditional to keep Christmas decorations up until this feast. This feast is also traditionally known as Candlemas; and is accompanied by the blessing of candles and candlelight processions.
Every day is Christmas
For Catholics, every day is, in the most basic sense, Christmas. That’s because every day, the Word becomes flesh in the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist; and through the sacraments, the people of God become of the Body of Christ in the world. Just as Mary’s “yes” made her an instrument of God’s incarnation in the world, by our “yes,” we too birth the Son of God into the world.
Some Christmas Traditions have Pagan Origins
There’s always somebody, a negative Nancy, who wants to throw a proverbial wrench into the Christmas season. Even the early pilgrims banned Christmas celebrations because they thought they were too Catholic. The Church has denied the fact that some Christmas traditions pre-date the Christian celebration of our Savior’s birth. If you know history, you know that Christians would often take old pagan customs or holidays and transform them. They felt no shame in doing so. Things like holly, mistletoe, evergreen wreaths, wassailing, the Yule log were all pagan things. Most of them recalled that winter had begun to wane and the evergreens reminded people of the new life that even winter could not snuff out. For all the scrooges out there, relax. We make no apologies for borrowing these old customs. They’re harmless and fit right into the Christian narrative. So ho, ho, ho, have a kiss under the mistletoe and a cup of wassail. It’s Christmas and we encourage everyone to celebrate the Birth of Our Savior Jesus.
Merry Christmas, Fr. Dennis