Christmas, Octaves and History

The American holiday and Christmas seasons overlap, with fuzzy terminuses. Termini. Beginnings and endings.

For some, Christmas starts with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

That fine old American tradition has been joined by Cyber Monday.

Oddly enough, I haven’t noticed anguished laments over that newfangled technology and Macy’s inflated cartoon characters.

Or a deluge of dismay at rampant commercialism and unseemly frivolity.

Maybe I haven’t been looking hard enough. Or in the right places. “Right” for that particular Puritan perspective. (December 24, 2019; June 1, 2018)

For many of us, the American Christmas season ends a day or so after the 25th.

It makes sense, from at least one viewpoint.

With New Year’s Eve less than a week away, Christmassy decorations must give way to streamers and confetti. And, of course, the traditional party horns.

But our household’s Christmas tree is still up and decorated.

That’s partly because of this family’s lifestyle. We’re not party people. Except maybe for me. I’ve often watched live video of New York City’s Times Square celebration. And called it a day shortly after the Waterford Crystal ball dropped.

Where was I? Holiday seasons. Christmas. Comics. Times Square. Right.

Christmas celebrations have been a big deal for traditionally Christian countries. No surprises there.

They’re also a big deal in some countries where most folks aren’t Christians. Like Japan, where folks put up Christmas trees, exchange gifts and get together on Christmas Eve. And, apparently thanks to a 1970s ad campaign, eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken.1

Minnesota’s Snow


(Our Lady of Angels, Sauk Centre, Minnesota, Saturday afternoon. (January 2, 2015))

Here in central Minnesota, folks with Christmas yard displays usually set them up shortly after Thanksgiving.

I figure that’s because this is Minnesota.

Winter’s snow can come early. The earliest snowfall recorded by the National Weather Service was August 31, 1949, in Duluth. Or September 14, 1964 in International Falls.

Which you pick depends on how you define “snowfall.” Duluth’s was a trace. International Falls got a third of an inch: one centimeter.

Both cities are in northern Minnesota, a bit over 200 miles north of Sauk Centre.

The earliest recorded snow here was the snowstorm of September 24-26, 1942. Then there was the October 1880 blizzard, and that’s another topic.2

Christmas Lights and a Calendar


(From L’Osservatore Romano, via Catholic News Agency, used w/o permission.)
(St. Peter’s Square, December 7, 2019: lighting the tree and Nativity scene.)

I haven’t kept track of when most folks turn on their displays. It’s probably around the start of Advent.

When the lights go off varies. For some, it’s soon after Christmas. Others keep their displays lit for another week or so. Or longer.

I think that makes sense. Partly because it’s my family’s custom.

And partly because our my family’s custom comes from the liturgical calendar.

Advent and Octaves

Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s day. Except when Christmas day is a Monday — it’s complicated.

Whenever Advent starts, Christmas is December 25. I mentioned that on Christmas Eve. (December 24, 2019)

Christmastide starts toward the end of Christmas Eve and runs 12 days. It’s pretty much the same as Twelvetide.

New Year’s Day is the Octave of Christmas.

“Octave” in this context is what happened to “octava dies” after passing through French and landing in England.

I don’t know what would have happened if duodecimus dies had taken the same route. Maybe we’d be saying Duodechetide instead of Twelvetide. I don’t know nearly enough philology to work that out.

Emperor Constantine I gets credit for making eight-day celebrations part of Christian worship. Or celebrations on the eighth day after another celebration. That was early in the fourth century.

Fast-forward to the seventh century. European Christians started adding octave celebrations to Saints’ feast days: one extra celebration, eight days after the Saint’s day.

Fast-forward again, this time to the 16th century. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation were in progress, the Council of Trent had wrapped up a few years previously, and Europe’s religion-themed wars had begun.

Pope Pius V cut back the number of liturgical octaves.

I think it’s likely that some 16th century folks were upset by having fewer official octaves. And blamed Pius V and/or the Council of Trent for destroying the Catholic Church.

Skipping ahead to Popes Leo XIII and St. Pius X.

They changed octaves again. That was in the late 19th and early 20th century.3

And the Catholic Church is still here. (July 30, 2017)

The Octave of Christmas

Which brings me to the octave of Christmas, January 1.

It’s also the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.

And a Holy Day of Obligation, which makes getting to Mass a priority.

I don’t have a problem with that. I follow Jesus of Nazareth, son of God, who is human on his mother’s side.

Showing respect toward my Lord’s mother makes sense. (May 14, 2017)

Happy New Year!

I’ve got more to say about Christmas traditions, Tradition, Twelvetide and “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

But I’m running out of 2019, so that’ll wait for another day.

More posts, related and otherwise:


1 Celebrations:

2 Minnesota records:

3 History and celebrations:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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2 Responses to Christmas, Octaves and History

  1. Manny says:

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Brian!

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