Each year during the Christmas and Easter seasons we hear references to “Octave Days.” We know, of course, that the term octave means “eight,” but just what exactly are Octave Days, and why are they part of the Church’s liturgical calendar?
The Church long ago realized that we need more than just a day to contemplate the sublime mysteries celebrated in the chief feasts of our faith, mysteries such as the Virgin Birth and the empty tomb. We must have time to reflect on and experience in our hearts what God is revealing on these holy days.
As a result, centuries ago the Church began the custom of prolonging the celebration of certain major feasts, including Easter and Christmas, across eight days. The feast day itself is the first day of the octave, and the eighth day is called the Octave Day. The term octave can thus refer both to the eighth day alone and to the entire period of eight days taken as a whole.
Roots and Early History
The length of these extended celebrations is thought to have come from the Old Testament. There we find that the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths) celebrated by the ancient Jews (see Lv 23:36) lasted seven days but was followed by a solemn celebration on the eighth day. Circumcision was performed on the eighth day after a son’s birth (Lv 12:3), and certain sacrifices were prescribed for the eighth day (Lv 14:10,23; 15:14,29; Nm 6:10).
The feast of the dedication of the Temple under King Solomon (see 2 Chr 7:9), as well as the Temple’s purification under Hezekiah (2 Chr 29:17), lasted for eight days. In imitation of that ancient temple’s dedication, the first recorded instance of an octave in a Christian liturgical setting was the eight days of dedication celebrations of the fourth-century basilicas at Jerusalem and Tyre, under the Emperor Constantine (d. 337).
From the fourth century on, the mention of octave celebrations in historical records increases. Certain octaves were considered holidays, when work was forbidden and courts and theaters were closed. After Easter, Pentecost and Christmas had received octaves, nearly all the solemn feasts came to receive them as well, such as All Saints, Epiphany, Ascension, Corpus Christi and the feasts of our most honored and glorious saints, including St. John the Baptist and Sts. Peter and Paul.
A Crowded Calendar
At one time there were at least 15 Church celebrations that included octave days. The liturgical calendar became quite crowded, with many celebrations overlapping. By the 16th century, Pope Pius V found it necessary to reduce the number of octaves and to develop a complex system of classification and liturgical rubrics for the many octave celebrations that still remained. Additional reforms were enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries under Popes Leo XIII and Pius X.
In 1955, Pope Pius XII eliminated all octaves from the Church calendar except those for Easter, Pentecost and Christmas. In 1969, the Octave of Pentecost, a celebration that for centuries had ranked second only to Easter, was also suppressed.
The Octaves Today
Today, the Octave of Christmas contains several other holy days: the feasts of the Holy Family, St. Stephen, St. John the Evangelist, the Holy Innocents, St. Thomas Becket and Pope St. Sylvester. Each of these celebrations points us in its own distinctive way to the Nativity of Our Lord, helping us to ponder the implications of the Word made flesh who came to dwell among us.
The eighth day of the octave is the beautiful Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Though this feast had been celebrated on various dates in the Church calendar over the centuries, it was finally restored to its ancient place on Jan. 1 in the Roman calendar — a fitting time to venerate the mother of the Incarnate Word and to imitate her faith as we face a new year in the civil calendar.
Unlike the Christmas Octave, the first seven days of the Easter Octave include no other commemorations or feast days; all our attention is focused on the resurrected Lord. In fact, each of the days within the Octave of Easter is itself a solemnity, a “mini-Easter.”
During the Octave Days of Easter the Mass readings tell us the beautiful Resurrection story so that we can take time to ponder the reality that Calvary was not the end. Each of us can relate to the sadness, confusion and then elation of the disciples on the Emmaus road. Like Mary Magdalene we can encounter the risen Lord in the garden. In our hearts we can race with Peter and John to see the empty tomb.
The eighth and last day of the Octave of Easter was for centuries called “Low Sunday” to contrast it with the awesomeness of Easter Sunday. In April 2000, however, Pope John Paul II designated Low Sunday as Divine Mercy Sunday, in response to the private revelations received by St. Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938).
Though we no longer celebrate the many octaves once observed throughout the Church, the remaining octaves of Christmas and Easter provide us an unparalleled opportunity for celebration and reflection. By extending over eight days the observance of these two sacred solemnities, the Church calls us to enter more deeply into the two great mysteries that stand at the beginning and end of Our Lord’s earthly life.
D.D. Emmons writes from O’Fallon, Ill.
The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God: Christmas’ Octave Day
“The attention of all should be directed toward the … Solemnity of Mary the holy Mother of God. This celebration, placed on Jan. 1 in conformity with the ancient indication of the liturgy of the City of Rome, is meant to commemorate the part played by Mary in this mystery of salvation. It is meant also to exalt the singular dignity which this mystery brings to the “holy Mother … through whom we were found worthy to receive the Author of life.”
“It is likewise a fitting occasion for renewing adoration of the newborn Prince of Peace, for listening once more to the glad tidings of the angels (see Lk 2:14), and for imploring from God, through the Queen of Peace, the supreme gift of peace. It is for this reason that, in the happy concurrence of the Octave of Christmas and the first day of the year, we have instituted the World Day of Peace, an occasion that is gaining increasing support and already bringing forth fruits of peace in the hearts of many.”
— Pope Paul VI, apostolic exhortation Marialis Cultus (No. 6)