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 actually days of obligation for centuries.
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.
The connection of these feasts with Christmas and its Octave is worth a special study. Canon Aaron B. Huberfeld, Rector of St. Mary’s Oratory in Wausau, Wisconsin, shared the following reflection, which was originally published on the New Liturgical Movement website. He wrote in part:
“No sooner do we conclude the office of Christmas Day than we celebrate the feast of the first Martyr. Why is this so? Does the feast of St Stephen just happen to fall on December 26? Why would the Church turn so quickly from the creche to consider the deacon who was stoned to death after Our Lord’s Resurrection? And what about the feasts of the following days? What is their connection with Christmas?
“The first three feasts of the Christmas Octave have been observed since antiquity. They were always devoutly referred to as the Three Companions. We begin with St Stephen, murdered at the direction of Saul of Tarsus, whose conversion we shall celebrate one month later. Stephen was a martyr loquendo et moriendo, by his words and by his death. The next day we return to white vestments, for St John is the only Apostle not celebrated in red. He was the only Apostle who did not abandon his Savior at Calvary, and so God decreed that he should be a martyr loquendo sed non moriendo, by his words but not by his death, for he would be miraculously preserved from his execution and end his life in peace on the island of Patmos. Then on December 28 we celebrate Childermas, the feast of the Holy Innocents, those little ones of Bethlehem who, as we pray in the collect of their Mass, bore witness to Christ non loquendo, sed moriendo, not by their words, but by their deaths, for they were killed by raging Herod on the chance that one of them might be the newborn King.
“Herods are to be found in every age, for sinful rulers always view the kingdom of Christ as a threat to their earthly power. And so on December 29 we keep the feast of Thomas Becket, the holy bishop of Canterbury who upheld the freedom of the Church from the interference of the state and so was cut down by King Henry II’s men during Christmas Vespers.
“On December 30 we take up again the Mass and Office of Christmas, like a beautiful refrain, and then remain in white vestments for the conclusion of the Octave. December 31 is the feast of St Sylvester, celebrated in white because he is the first pope who was not a martyr, bringing the age of martyrs to a close with the peace of Constantine.”
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- or two-day break before the Feast of the Circumcision on January 1st, another day of precept.
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.
And when Pope Pius XII, on March 23, 1955, abolished fifteen octaves in addition to the Octave for the Dedication of a Church and particular octaves for patrons of various orders and places, he then abolished the octaves of St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents. That’s right, each of these three feast days also had octaves. While these octaves were, since the time of St. Pius X, only simple octaves – meaning, they were not commemorated at all during the Octave but only on their Octave days – they had in previous times been commemorated throughout the Octave of Our Lord’s Nativity.
The liturgical year is a wonderful tapestry of intertwined feasts and fasts. To study our Catholic history and to seek to rediscover an appreciation and love for the feasts that our ancestors observed is certainly worthwhile. And we can do our part by celebrating these Companions of Christ by attending Holy Mass on their feast days and by cultivating a special devotion to them during their traditional octaves.
1 The “Restore the ‘54” webpage summarizes the changes made by Pope St. Pius X in 1911 that affected these octaves: “Lastly, there is the creation of the ‘Simple Octave.’ This is the one calendrical change to come from the 1911 ordering of octaves. Five octaves (i.e. the three Comites feasts, St. Lawrence, and the Nativity of the BVM) would be reduced to this Simple designation. These octaves were stripped of their six ‘dies infra’ effectively reducing them to the feast itself and its octave day, with no days between. Their Octave Days were reduced from Doubles to Simples, effectively making most of them appear as commemorations in a given year or perpetually. Because they would now lack ‘dies infra,’ there would be no commemorations of these octaves anymore during the course of their weeks. Essentially, these five feasts after 1911 have octaves in name only.” https://www.facebook.com/restorethe54/photos/a.2776204202404906/4064321620259818/