Octaves of Easter and Christmas

Date: April 1, 2023
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.


Question: The Church's calendar has two remaining octaves: Christmas and Easter. My understanding of an octave is that the feast being commemorated is so significant that one day is not enough to celebrate the depth of the feast. In the Easter octave, each day is celebrated as if it were Easter Day; no other feasts are celebrated during the octave. The Christmas octave, however, is different; there are indeed feasts that are celebrated or at least possible in conjunction with celebrating Christmas Day. Why is the Christmas octave different from the Easter octave? – V.S., Mobile, Alabama


Answer: I would say that the differences between the two remaining octaves in the liturgical calendar stem partly from historical considerations regarding their development and the current theological interpretation of Eastertide.


An octave is an eight-day celebration that prolongs the celebration of a feast for that number of days. The feast is considered the first day, followed by six days called “days within the octave.” The eighth or octave day is kept with greater solemnity than the “days within the octave.” In the case of Christmas, it is the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. The octave of Easter is always a Sunday traditionally termed “in albis” and recently, Divine Mercy Sunday.


Historically the celebration of octaves began around the time of Constantine. Originally, they were one-off celebrations of the inauguration of churches in Jerusalem and Tyre, but soon an eight-day celebration was added for the major Christian feasts of Easter, Pentecost, and, in some places, Epiphany.


The eight-day celebration was probably inspired by both the Jewish tradition of certain eight-day feasts such as the dedication of the temple by Solomon (2 Chronicles 7-9), circumcising on the eighth day after birth and the Christian interpretation of Sunday as the eighth day insofar as it represented the Resurrection, which ushered in a new creation symbolized by baptism as a new birth. From this developed the longstanding custom of the octagonal forms of numerous baptistries.


Between the fourth and seventh centuries, some other feasts acquired octaves, especially Christmas and the feast of the dedication of a church.


After this, there was a slow inflation in the number of octaves, with saints especially venerated in Rome, such as saints Peter and Paul, Lawrence, and Agnes acquiring octaves. In these cases, however, a distinction developed with different types of octaves. 


In the case of saints, it was no longer a festal season of eight days but rather a celebration on the eighth day following the saint’s feast day. Until around the 15th century several other universal and local saints were granted this kind of octave.


Eventually, Pope St. Pius V in 1568 began to purge some of the excess octaves. They were also organized and placed in a hierarchical order depending on whether the liturgy of the feast day was repeated each day or not.


Easter and Pentecost were granted "specially privileged" octaves, during which no other feast whatsoever could be celebrated. Christmas, Epiphany and Corpus Christi had "privileged" octaves, which allowed for the celebration of certain feasts. The octaves of the other feasts were even more flexible.


There were still more than 20 feasts with octaves, so later popes such as Leo XIII and St. Pius X further refined the categories so as avoid repeating the same liturgy for several days in a row. The octaves were classified into three primary types: privileged octaves, common octaves and simple octaves. Privileged octaves were further arranged in a hierarchy of first, second and third orders.


Finally, Pope Pius XII in 1955 suppressed all the octaves except Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Pope St. Paul VI removed the octave of Pentecost in 1969.


Concerning Christmas, its collocation first as a second-and then as a third-order privileged octave allowed for the further development of associating the celebration of Christ’s birth with the celebration of the “comites Christi.” This means those saints closest to him on earth and the first to witness him through martyrdom.


Thus, according to the General Norms for the Liturgical Year:


“35. Christmas has its own octave, arranged as follows:


“a. Sunday within the octave is the feast of the Holy Family;


“b. 26 December is the feast of Saint Stephen, First Martyr;


“c. 27 December is the feast of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist;


“d. 28 December is the feast of the Holy Innocents;


“e. 29, 30, and 31 December are days within the octave;


“f. 1 January, the octave day of Christmas, is the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. It also recalls the conferral of the holy Name of Jesus.”


Note that in 2001 Pope St. John Paul II restored the celebration of the conferral of the Holy Name of Jesus to January 3.


Concerning the Easter octave and the Easter season in general, the General Norms indicate:


“II. Easter Season


“22. The fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost are celebrated in joyful exultation as one feast day, or better as one ‘great Sunday.’ These above all others are the days for the singing of the Alleluia.


“23. The Sundays of this season rank as the paschal Sundays and, after Easter Sunday itself, are called the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Sundays of Easter. The period of fifty sacred days ends on Pentecost Sunday.


“24. The first eight days of the Easter season make up the octave of Easter and are celebrated as solemnities of the Lord.”


Each day of an octave is like a special celebration of the feast, and liturgical details underline this.


Apart from its level of liturgical precedence, the octaves of both Easter and Christmas recite the Gloria each day, the Mass has a special Communicantes (“In communion ...”) to insert every day of the Octave when Eucharistic Prayer I is used. In some countries, the Holy See has approved special additions to the other Eucharistic Prayers during the octaves. Also, within the octave of Easter, the sequence may be used daily. The Liturgy of the Hours repeats Sunday Week I every day of the octave.


Through these liturgical details, the octave impresses upon the souls of the faithful the mysteries, joys and graces of the Church’s two principal celebrations.


The above text from the general norms also provides us in part with some of the reasoning behind the suppression of the octave of Pentecost, despite its being one of the most ancient and older than the Christmas octave.


The fact that the Sundays following Easter are called Sundays of Easter and not Sundays after Easter indicates that the Church sees the whole Easter season as a single celebration culminating in the solemnity of Pentecost. Retaining the octave of Pentecost would, in some way, have separated it from the Easter season as a distinct, stand-alone feast.


It is quite probably also fruit of several lines of 20th-century theological reflection which attempt to see the Easter season as a great celebration of Christ’s paschal mystery in its entirety which embraces its continuity in the Church through the action of the Holy Trinity in the liturgy.


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