by Francis Weiser (1952)

Christmas Week #1


Octave • 

Easter was observed from the first with an eight days' celebration (in keeping with the Jewish custom of an eight days* Pasch), and the eighth day was called "octave" (dies octava). By the end of the seventh century the Feast of Epiphany had such an octave, too. Thus it seemed fitting to provide Christmas with the same distinction. The eighth day after the Lord's nativity "bare the name "Octave of the Lord" (Octava Domini) in the liturgical books of the eighth century.1

Saints' Days • 

On the intervening days, however, the feasts of great saints had been celebrated from earlier centuries, and these feasts have remained to our day: Saint Stephen on December 26, Saint John the Evangelist (originally also his brother James) on December 27, and the Holy Innocents on December 28. In most of the Eastern Churches, December 28 was reserved for the solemn commemoration of Peter and Paul, and the Innocents' feast was held either on December 27 or 29.2

The reason these particular saints had their feasts assigned immediately following Christmas was the desire of honoring them because of their special connection with the Lord: Stephen, the first martyr of the New Testament; John, the Apostle "whom Jesus loved" (John 21:20); the Holy Innocents, so closely connected with the events of Christ's nativity and infancy; Peter and Paul, the princes of the Apostles. Duranti calls these saints the "companions of Christ" (comites Ghristi; the word "comes," from which we got our word "count," also connotates aristocracy or nobility).3

December 29, the Feast of Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was martyred in his cathedral by the soldiers of Henry II in 1170, is the true anniversary date of his death. Because of the great shock and sensation that this martyrdom caused at a time when all of Europe was Catholic, the Roman authorities, in the thirteenth century, deemed it appropriate to assign the celebration of his feast within the privileged days of Christmas week, thus adding him to the group of "Christ's nobility."4

On December 31 the liturgy honors the great pope Sylvester I (335), under whose pontificate the Church began to enjoy the precious freedom given her by Constantine, which gradually spread over the whole Roman Empire.5

With the liturgical celebration of these feasts is connected the daily commemoration of the Nativity, not only in the usual orations of the Mass and Divine Office, but also in the second Vespers, which take their psalms and antiphons from Christmas Day.

Sunday • 

In the ancient lectionaries (reading lists) of the Roman Church, the Sunday of Christmas week was called the "First Sunday after the Nativity of the Lord." In the eighth century, when the octave had been introduced, the title was changed to "Sunday within the Octave of the Nativity." A Station is not indicated, probably because; on Sundays of lesser liturgical rank (of which this is one) the popes celebrated the Mass in their palace chapel and therefore no station procession took place in the city.6

The liturgical texts of the Mass reflect the joy of Christmas and the thought of the newborn Saviour's divinity and glory. The Gospel (Mark 2, 33-40) relates the prophecy of the old man Simeon and the meeting of the prophetess Anna with the Divine Child. The prayers of the breviary are entirely the same as on Christmas Day, except for the lessons of the Matin and the oration.

The three days after Christmas precede this Sunday in liturgical rank. Thus, if December 25, 26, 27, or 28 falls on a Sunday, the respective feast is celebrated and the Sunday Mass is transferred to December 30.


Religious Observance • 

In the Middle Ages, Christmas week also assumed the note of a hallowed time within the homes of the faithful. Many observances of a religious character were intraduced locally and spread over large sections of the Christian population of Europe. For the farmers and their animals it was a time of rest and relaxation from laborious work; only the necessary chores were done in stable and barn. Thus the whole week became a series of holidays. More time than usual was spent on prayer and religious exercises. It is still the custom in many sections of Europe to light the candles of the Christmas tree every night while the whole family says the rosary or performs some other devotion, followed by the singing of carols.

Carol singing from house to house is an ancient tradition in central Europe on the twelve nights between Christmas and Epiphany. The Poles call these nights the "Holy Evenings" (Swiete Wieczory). Another widespread practice is the performance of religious plays portraying events of the Christmas story (such as the Nativity, the visit of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, and the massacre of Bethlehem). In southern Germany and Austria many such plays are still performed in rural communities.7 Among the northern Slavs (Poles, Ukrainians, Czechs, Slovaks) a puppet theater (szopka) is in vogue; its religious scenes alternate with secular dramatic exhibits. In the cities of Poland children put on Christmas dramas (jaselka).8 A similar performance (Bethlehemes jdtek) is done by children in Hungary; a representation of the manger is carried from house to house, little dramatic plays are enacted and carols sung.

In many Catholic sections of Europe a daily church service is held on these evenings, gathering the children around the crib to honor the Divine Child with prayers and hymns (Manger Service). In the church of Ara Coeli on the Capitoline Hill in Rome little children preach and recite poems in honor of the Child Jesus before a large crowd of adults in front of the shrine of the Bambino (a statue of the Holy Child, carved from wood, wrapped in linen, and adorned with a crown).9

Pre-Christian Traditions • 

The days after the winter solstice bore the character of an exciting and decisive struggle in the folklore of the Indo-European races. The demons of winter and death were believed to fight against the increasing length and light of the day. It was a time when all the evil spirits freely roamed the world, when the souls of the dead returned to haunt the humans, when the giants of snow, ice, and storm endeavored to extinguish the growing flame of light and life in nature.10

In order to protect themselves and to frighten the demons away, people roamed the open spaces disguised by horrible masks of weird aspect and fantastic shape, emitting loud cries and imprecations, and making all lands of frightening noises. At the same time, to encourage the good spirits of growth and harvest, they practiced all their traditional fertility rites (such as the touch with the Rod of Life, sprinkling with water, and magic incantations).11

Each, one of these pre-Christian traditions has survived as an external feature of the celebration of Christmas week in the folklore of rural populations in central and eastern Europe. Parades of horrible masks (Perchten) still traditionally roam the streets and the countryside with loud cries and weird songs, to the noise of drums and the discordant blasts of trumpets. Farmers crack their whips and mortars and rifles are fired every night, but especially on New Year's Eve. Girls and women are "spanked" with branches and twigs, and water or grain is thrown upon boys and girls. The trees in the orchards, the barren fields, and the snow-covered gardens receive imploring or threatening incantations to insure their fertility for the coming spring.12

To these nature rites of northern Europe was added a second element of celebration in the countries of Roman tradition: a festival of reveling and unrestrained rejoicing, which had come down from the ancient custom of the Calendae Januariae (New Year's feast).13 This feast, being mostly a civic celebration, was allowed to continue in the Christian empire of Rome. It contained, however, some of the popular features (drinking, gambling, masquerading in costumes of the opposite sex) that had been practiced during the Saturnalia (December 17).14 The Church had forbidden and suppressed the Saturnalia because of their pagan background and objectionable aspects. As it happened, some of these customs slipped into the Calendae celebration after the prohibition of the Saturnalia, and this caused the Church authorities much trouble and worry for centuries.15

Another detail of the Roman Calendae celebration came from the Orient: the custom of putting up a "King of Fools," who served as the center of wild nonsense and childish folly.16 Bishop Asterius of Amaseia (410) described in one of his sermons such a "fools' king" festival among Roman soldiers.17 Saint John CBrysostom (407) preached in sharp and powerful words against the excesses of the New Year's night at Constantinople.18 Ever since, the ecclesiastical authorities had to warn, admonish, and threaten punishment against similar excesses of reveling, drinking, and immodest behavior which were practiced in medieval times during Christmas week and culminated in the celebration □f New Year's night. Our .modern New Year's celebration, although quite refined compared to the ancient practice, still exhibits the basic features (and excesses) of the Roman Calendae festival

The Feast of Fools • 

In order to keep at least the clergy from the accustomed practice of reveling and masquerading during Christmas week, the authorities of the Church introduced, in the eleventh century, special feast days for the various ranks of clerical communities: Saint Stephen's for the deacons, Saint John's for the priests, the Feast of the Innocents for choirboys and students, and New Year's Day or Epiphany for the subdeacons.19 This well-meant effort, however, had an unexpected adverse effect. Instead of keeping the clergy from joining the silly revels of the laity, it gradually occasioned the identification of these clergy feasts with the very abuses they were to prevent. In France especially, the clergy feasts turned into a Festival of Fools (Festum Fatuorum, FSte des jous) which invaded the very house of God. One from the ranks was chosen as "Bishop of Fools" or "Tope of Fools."20 Dressed in the respective pontifical regalia he presided for one or more days during Christmas week over the recitation of the Divine Office in the choir.21 All kinds of jokes and tricks were played on him, and by him on others. These abuses, connected with reveling, dancing, mumming, and banqueting, became so traditional that some priests would leave money in their testaments for the upkeep of these revels.22

As early as 1199 Archbishop Odo (Eudes) de Sully of Paris issued regulations to restrict the abuses of these clergy feasts. The Council of Basle, in 1435, reiterated the prohibition. Such edicts, however, had no lasting effect. In 1444 the theological faculty of the University of Paris came out with a stern condemnation of the Feast of Fools. In the following year King Charles VII forbade the practice in his whole realm. Backed by the power of secular punishment, he finally succeeded in stamping out the abuse. The last occasional remnants of the Feast of Fools disappeared everywhere when in 1748 Pope Benedict XIV in his encyclical Super Bacchanalibus ("Concerning Hevels") reiterated the condemnation of New Year's and Carnival excesses.23

Feast of the Ass • 

One may call this "festival" a by-product of the Feast of Fools in medieval France (and some places outside of France). Compared to the excesses of the Feast of Fools, the Feast of the Ass (Festum Asinarium, F%te de Tone) was harmless and not as objectionable as the other features of the Christmas week celebration.24 It consisted originally of a performance representing, after the style of mystery plays, the famous donkeys connected with events of the Bible. The place of honor, of course, was given to the donkey of the Holy Family, for it had stood at the manger of the Lord and carried Him and His Mother into Egypt25 Of the songs that were used in this play, a Latin poem later became the opening "hymn" during the procession of the clergy or students when they approached the church on the Feast of Fools in some cities of France.26 Here is the first stanza in Latin and in English:

Orientis partibus Adventavit asinus, Pulcher et fortissimus, Sarcrnis aptissimus. Hez, Sir asne, hez!

From Oriental country came A lordly ass of highest fame, So beautiful, so strong and trim, No burden was too great for him. Hail, Sir Donkey, hail.

The Feast of the Ass disappeared gradually, together with the Feast of Fools of which it had been a part, during the second half of the fifteenth century. It is hard for modem man to understand the appeal and attraction such a "feast" exerted on clergy and lay people in the Middle Ages. Perhaps they had, beneath die apparent lack of reverence and good taste, a spark of the genuine spirit of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Mumming • 

In countries outside of France the Feast of Fools was mostly confined to revels of the laity. Kings and princes took part in them, and the celebration sometimes reached startling dimensions. Under the direction of the "Master of Revels," a grand muinming was performed by the citizens of London as early as 1377, for the amusement of Richard, son of the Black Prince. On that occasion over one hundred and thirty gentlemen, disguised as emperors, popes, and cardinals, with their retinue of knights, squires, and servants, rode to the palace of the young prince at Kensington. They were all well mounted, wearing visors and armor, and attended by numerous torchbearers and musicians. At the palace they played games with dice, reveled with much feasting, drinking, and dancing, and finally departed "in order as they came" with all the splendor of their mummery.27 While the higher classes thus enjoyed a well-ordered pageant of mumming, the common people were content with a more humble performance.28 They went from house to house during Christmas week, their faces blackened with soot or covered with paint and the men frequently dressed in female costumes, making merry among their friends and neighbors.29


Saint Stephen (December 26) • 

The story of this saint can be found in the Acts of the Apostles (6-7). He is usually pictured in deacons vestments, with a palm branch,-the symbol of martyrdom, in his hand, and sometimes with a stone in his left hand, to indicate his death by stoning. Many images show him wearing a wreath, which is an allusion to his name, for the Greek word Stephanos means "wreath."30

From early times this saint was venerated as patron of horses. A poem of the tenth century pictures him as the owner of a horse and dramatically relates how Christ Himself miraculously cured the animal for His beloved Disciple. Though there is no historical basis for this association with horses in the life of Saint Stephen, various explanations have been attempted. Some are founded on ancient Germanic ritual celebrations of horse sacrifices at Yuletide. Others use the fact that in medieval times "Twelfth Night" (Christmas to Epiphany) was a time of rest for domestic animals; and horses, as the most useful servants of man, were accorded at the beginning of this fortnight something like a feast day of their own.31

It was a general practice among the farmers in Europe to


To be continued