The Joyful Fast of Christmas Eve

Editor’s Note: You can read more about the “Norms and History of Fasting” in various articles written by Mr. Matthew Plese.

It has been a long-standing requirement to observe Christmas Eve as a day of fasting and abstinence from meat. Christmas Eve remains part of the penitential season of Advent, which does not end until Midnight Mass on December 25th.

Christmas Eve as a Day of Fasting and Abstinence

Christmas Eve has been a vigil of fasting and abstinence for centuries. In fact, even when various groups or nations were exempted from various fast days, the Vigil of Our Lord’s Nativity virtually always remained. For instance, the papal bull Altitudo Divini Concilii of Pope Paul III in 1537 reduced the days of penance and those of hearing Mass for the Native Americans, out of pastoral concern due to the physically demanding lifestyle that they lived and also largely due to the fact that they fasted so much already. As a result, the only fasting days required under pain of sin for the Native Americans were the Fridays in Lent, Holy Saturday, and Christmas Eve. And when certain colonies in the New World kept differing fast days, all without exception kept Christmas Eve as a fasting day.

By 1893, the only fasting days kept in Rome were the forty days of Lent, the Ember Days, and the vigils of the Purification, Pentecost, Feast of St. John the Baptist, Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the Assumption, Feast of All Saints, and of Christmas.

The Catholic Encyclopedia from 1909, in describing the days of fast immediately before the changes that occurred under St. Pius X, enumerates them as follows: 

“In the United States of America all the days of Lent; the Fridays of Advent (generally); the Ember Days; the vigils of Christmas and Pentecost, as well as those (14 Aug.) of the Assumption; (31 Oct.) of All Saints, are now fasting days. In Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, and Canada, the days just indicated, together with the Wednesdays of Advent and (28 June) the vigil of Saints Peter and Paul, are fasting days.”

The fast, along with complete abstinence, for Christmas Eve was retained in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, in Canon 1252 § 2: “The law of abstinence and fast together is to be observed on Ash Wednesday, the Fridays and Saturdays of Lent, the Ember days [all day], and on the Vigils of Pentecost, the Assumption, All Saints, and the Nativity.”

In the late 1950s, changes to fasting accelerated and included even the immemorial fast on Christmas Eve. In 1959, John XXIII permitted the Christmas Eve fast and abstinence to be transferred to the 23rd. While the United States, Great Britain, and Ireland kept the penance on December 24, other nations including Canada and the Philippines transferred it to December 23.

By 1962, the laws of fasting and abstinence were as follows, as described in Moral Theology by Rev. Heribert Jone and adapted by Rev. Urban Adelman for the “laws and customs of the United States of America,” copyright 1961:

“Complete abstinence is to be observed on all Fridays of the year, Ash Wednesday, the Vigils of Immaculate Conception and Christmas. Partial abstinence is to be observed on Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays and on the Vigil of Pentecost. Days of fast are all the weekdays of Lent, Ember Days, and the Vigil of Pentecost.” 

Sadly, the Vigil of Christmas ceased being a day of fasting in the modern Catholic Church following the changes in 1966. Yet, Traditional Catholics continue to keep this day as a day of fasting and abstinence, as our forefathers in the Faith did for centuries. (The Fatima Center has noted this important day of fast in its 2021 Calendar.) Byzantine Catholics likewise keep Christmas Eve as a day of fast and abstinence.

The Double Collation on Christmas Eve

Father Jone adds additional guidance for the Vigil of the Nativity fast as it was practiced in 1962: “General custom allows one who is fasting to take a double portion of food at the collation on Christmas Eve (jejunium gaudiosum).” 

The size of the collation (i.e., the snack eaten on a fasting day that may not amount to more than the size of the meal) is normally to be approximately 8 ounces. This guidance had previously been provided in the Baltimore Manual published by the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884: 

“Only one full meal is allowed, to be taken about noon or later. Besides this full meal, a collation of eight ounces is allowed. If the full meal is taken about the middle of the day, the collation will naturally be taken in the evening; if the full meal is taken late in the day, the collation may be taken at noon. Besides the full meal and collation, the general custom has made it lawful to take up to two ounces of bread (without butter) and a cup of some warm liquid – as coffee or tea – in the morning.[1] This is important to observe, for by means of this many persons are enabled – and therefore obliged – to keep the fast who could not otherwise do so.”

However, Christmas Eve uniquely has permitted a double collation, as noted by Father Jone. As such, 16 to 18 ounces may be taken at the collation rather than eight. This is in keeping with the spirituality of Christmas Eve.[2]

The American Ecclesiastical Review affirms this custom as long preceding the 20th century: 

“St. Alphonsus allowed double the usual quantity at the collation on Christmas Eve. This means that about eighteen ounces in weight are permissible at the ‘jejunium gaudiosum’ as the Christmas Eve collation is called. Thus eighteen ounces for the collation and two ounces for the frustulum on Christmas Eve are permitted even by St. Alphonsus.”[3]

Feast of Seven Fishes

One particularly notable custom for observing Christmas Eve abstinence is the Italian custom of the Feast of Seven Fishes. Many Italian families will customarily have a dinner of seven different types of fish and other seafood in honor of the seven Sacraments and seven days of Creation.

For families who are accustomed to spending the evening together with a family meal before attending midnight Mass, look up appropriate recipes in keeping with this tradition. For larger families, twelve kinds of fish and other seafood may be eaten, in honor of the twelve apostles. And for smaller families, either three kinds of fish and other seafood (in honor of the Trinity) or five kinds (in honor of the Five Wounds of Christ) may be used instead. In all of these variations, the meal remains meatless and ends the day’s fast.

May our final penances on Christmas Eve be for the glory of God and the good of souls! And may our penances help make us more worthy to receive Our Lord on Christmas day!

[1] This is known as a frustulum.

[2] While few people attend the morning Mass of Christmas Eve – which uses the proper for the Vigil and is not to be confused with the Masses for Christmas – the prayers of the Mass and those of the Breviary already begin to express the joy for the Lord’s birth. For instance, the 2nd and 3rd antiphons in Lauds sing out: “This day you shall know that the Lord is coming, and tomorrow you shall see His glory” and “Tomorrow the sinfulness of the earth will be wiped out, and the Savior of the world will reign over us.” While still a day of penance, Christmas Eve does have a mixture of joy along with penance.

[3] The American Ecclesiastical Review: A Monthly Publication for the Clergy, Vol. 98, 1938, pp. 108-109.

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