Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad before the face of the Lord: because He cometh (Psalm 95:13,11 Taken from the Offertory Verse of the First Mass of Christmas)
At the first stroke of midnight on December 25th, the Church in her Sacred liturgy bursts forth in joyous celebration for the birth of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, who is born of the Virgin Mary. The virgin birth occurs nine months after His conception in Her womb when God united His divinity with our humanity. At Christmas we celebrate the birth in the flesh of the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity who will ultimately redeem us on Calvary and who will one day come again in glory at the End of Time to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire.
Aware of this monumentally important celebration, various traditions, customs, and observances have been observed throughout the forty days of the Christmas season which begins on December 25th and concludes on February 2nd with Candlemas. During these forty days, the Church celebrates the Octave of our Lord’s Nativity, Epiphany and its Octave, and continues with Time After Epiphany.
This article focuses on the traditions and customs specific to Christmastide leading up to the Vigil of the Epiphany. A follow up article will discuss specific customs for Epiphanytide. Some of the many practices to be aware of during this time, which are often forgotten in our era, are mentioned below.
The Divine Office on Christmas Day
All Catholics are aware of our obligation to attend Holy Mass and rest from servile works on Christmas Day. Christmas gift exchanges, caroling, joy-filled family time, and a meat-rich dinner are staples of Catholic life on December 25th.
One forgotten tradition of Christmas Day is the praying of the Divine Office. Lest we forget the spiritual treasures of the Church and the importance Holy Mother Church places on this Sacred day of our Lord’s Nativity, here is a reminder of what is contained in the Raccolta which, regardless of the current status of this indulgence, underscores the importance the Church places on praying the Divine Office on Christmas Day:
In order to increase the devotion of all faithful Christians towards the feast of the birthday of our Divine Savior Jesus Christ, and that they may celebrate it with spiritual profit to their souls, Pope Sixtus V, by his brief, Ut fidelium devotio, dated Oct. 22, 1586, granted the following Indulgences:
1. The indulgence of 100 years to all those who, being truly penitent, having Confessed and Communicated, shall recite the Divine Office on that day, or assist in person in any church where Matins and Lauds are said;
2. One hundred years indulgence for the Mass, and the same for first and second Vespers;
3. The indulgence of forty years for each of the hours of Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, and Compline.
The Octave of Christmas: 5+ Holy Days of Obligation
The Octave of Christmas, beginning on Christmas Day and continuing until its Octave Day on January 1, is unique since the Feasts of St. Stephen, St. John the Apostle, and the Holy Innocents – which are celebrated on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th days, respectively, of the Christmas Octave – used to be Holy Days of Obligation. Few people are aware that these former holy days were days of obligation for centuries. In fact, up until 1955, they had Octaves of their own too!
The three are sometimes known as the “Comites Christi” (Companions of Christ). Their connection is not an accident, and Catholics should be taught to honor these feast days in a truly special manner, even if they are no longer Holy Days of Obligation. A vestige of the prominence of the Comites was retained up until the liturgical changes immediately preceding Vatican II. In fact, even though St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents had ceased being holy days, their feasts would take precedence over the Sunday within the Octave of the Nativity until the 1960 reform of the Missal.
December 31st was also in centuries past another holy day of obligation in honor of St. Sylvester:
Numerous legends dramatize his life and work, e.g., how he freed Constantine from leprosy by baptism; how he killed a ferocious dragon that was contaminating the air with his poisonous breath. Such legends were meant to portray the effects of baptism and Christianity’s triumph over idolatry. For a long time the feast of St. Sylvester was a holy day of obligation. The Divine Office notes: ‘He called the weekdays feria, because for the Christian every day is a “free day.” The term is still in use; thus Monday is feria secunda.’
(Compiled from Heavenly Friends, Rosalie Marie Levy and The Church’s Year of Grace, Pius Parsch).
One interesting point to note is that using the same list of Holy Days as set forth by Pope Urban VIII, which kept the Comites as days of precept, England would have also observed as a Holy Day of Obligation the Feast of St. Thomas Beckett. As a result, Catholics in England would have observed five consecutive Holy Days of Obligation before only a one-day break (unless that day was a Sunday) before the Feast of the Circumcision on January 1st which is another day of precept.
Blessing of Wine on the Feast of St. John (December 27)
Many countries around the world have the tradition of blessing wine in the name of Saint John on his December feastday. Often a sweetened, spiced red wine is prepared and served hot (alcohol is evaporated after boiling for five minutes). At dinner on Saint John’s Day, the father blesses a large cup of wine. Each member of the family takes a drink and passes the cup, saying “I drink to you in the love of Saint John.”
Ask your priest to publicly bless wine for anyone who wishes to bring their bottles of wine to Mass on January 27th. A copy of the English translation of the prayers can be found here (the original in Latin is the Rituale Romanum).
The Blessing of Children on Childermas Day (December 28)
The following is taken from Christmas to Candlemas in a Catholic Home by Helen McLoughlin, regarding December 28:
Holy Innocents or ‘Childermas Day’ is celebrated on December 28. The Gospel tells the story simply. ;Herod sent and slew all the boys in Bethlehem who were two years old or under.’ He had intended to include the Son of God among the murdered babies. To recall the grief of their mothers the Church wears purple today. In Mass she hushes her joyous Gloria in Excelsis and the Alleluias. And yet there is joy in her services. Children sing with the choirs in the great cathedrals; and in ancient times other functions were given to them — hence the name ‘Childermas’ or Children’s Mass.
The feast of the Holy Innocents is an excellent time for parents to inaugurate the custom of blessing their children. From the Ritual comes the form which we use on solemn occasions, such as First Communion. But all parents need to do is to sign a cross on the child’s forehead with the right thumb dipped in holy water and say: May God bless you, and may He be the Guardian of your heart and mind — the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Indulgence for New Years
On December 31st (i.e., the Feast of St. Sylvester), a plenary indulgence is granted when the Te Deum is recited publicly on the last day of the year. Otherwise, a partial indulgence is granted to those who recite the Te Deum in thanksgiving. On January 1st (i.e. the Feast of the Circumcision), a plenary indulgence is granted when the Veni, Creator Spiritus is recited.
What does “public recitation” mean? The common interpretation of this is labiation (i.e., the moving of one’s lips) in a public place. The prayer does not need to be loud enough to be heard by others but it must still be said as in the lips move to form the words (i.e., it is not a mental prayer). Thus, it does not necessarily have to be said in a group to be “public recitation.” Do not let these opportunities for grace pass by!
Father Wieser in “Christian Feasts and Customs” devotes pages to Christmas carols, pageants, the Christmas tree, flowers associated with Christmas time, Christmas foods, and various customs from country to country during the Octave of Christmas. As the number of customs associated with Christmas is sufficient in itself to be a book in its own right, I encourage anyone interested in learning more to read through a copy of Father Wieser’s classic text.
What our ancestors observed is not lost. We can recover these customs little by little with the help of God. And in so doing, they can help us better live out a liturgical life. The second part of the Christmas Season – properly known as Epiphanytide – will be the subject of a follow-up article.
Photo: nativity scene in San Antonio de Los Altos, Miranda, Venezuela by Felipe Linares via Cathopic.
 The 1917 Code also introduced the notion that a Holy Day of Obligation would eo ipso overrule the requirement of Friday abstinence for any Holy Days of Obligation outside of Lent. Previously the only day that would automatically abrogate the requirement of Friday abstinence was Christmas Day. Thus Christmas Day, which always falls on December 25th, and which may thus fall on a Friday, is the one traditional exception to year-round Friday abstinence.
On this singular exception, Dom Gueranger writes in the Liturgical Year published in 1886:
“To encourage her children in their Christmas joy, the Church has dispensed with the law of abstinence, if this Feast fall on a Friday. This dispensation was granted by Pope Honorius III, who ascended the Papal Throne in 1216. It is true that we find it mentioned by Pope St Nicholas I, in the ninth century; but the dispensation was not universal; for the Pontiff is replying to the consultations of the Bulgarians, to whom he concedes this indulgence, in order to encourage them to celebrate these Feasts with solemnity and joy: Christmas Day, St Stephen, St John the Evangelist, the Epiphany, the Assumption of our Lady, St John the Baptist, and SS Peter and Paul. When the dispensation for Christmas Day was extended to the whole Church, these other Feasts were not mentioned.”
 In times past, Holy Days would often be referred to as days of single or double precept, with those of double precept requiring both hearing Mass and abstaining from servile works, whereas days of single precept would permit servile work. Taking Ireland as an example, St. Stephen was a day of double precept (like Christmas Day) whereas St. John and the Holy Innocents were only single precept as of 1755. See Feasts of Single vs. Double Precept.
 The main differences between the pre-1955 liturgy for the Holy Innocents and the one used in the 1962 Missal is that before 1955 the vestments are purple and the gradual and alleluia are omitted today. This excerpt refers to the older tradition pre-1955.