The Customs of Christmastide


Christmas Eve Customs

Christmas Customs

Epiphany Customs


Christmas Eve Customs


  1. Christmas Tree | 2. Sacred Leisure | 3. Dinner and Celebration

4. Christmas Candle

5. Lights in the Window | 6. Midnight Mass 7. Holy Night


1. The Christmas Tree

As mentioned elsewhere, the Christmas tree was traditionally put up only on Christmas Eve and taken down on Twelfth Night, the Vigil of the Epiphany. The reason for this is that contrary to popular belief, the Christmas tree was not a Christian "baptism" of pagan yule traditions, but an entirely Christian symbol. In the Eastern churches December 24 was the Feast of Adam and Eve, our first parents. Though this feast has never been

observed in the Latin calendar, church officials nevertheless allowed Roman Catholics to appropriate this Oriental custom. In the Middle Ages special mystery plays were held on this day which featured a Paradise Tree, a tree representing both the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as well as the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden. Thus the tree was decorated with apples (for the forbidden fruit) and sweets (for the Tree of Life). When the mystery plays were suppressed during the fifteenth century, the faithful moved the Paradise trees from the stage into their homes. The apples were later substituted for other round objects (such as shiny red balls), and lights and the Star of Bethlehem were added, but the symbolism remained essentially the same. Thus, our modern Christmas tree is actually the medieval Paradise tree, a reminder of the reason why God deemed it important to become man in the first place and a foretaste of the sweet Tree from which our Lord's birth would once again enable us to taste. The lights of the Christmas tree also form a glowing Jesse tree, with each light representing one of Christ's ancestors and the Star representing our Lord Himself.


2. Making Room for Sacred Leisure

According to an ancient (and practical) tradition, by Christmas Eve the house is to be thoroughly cleaned, all tasks finished or removed from sight, all borrowed items returned, and no task allowed to be begun that cannot be finished by nightfall.


3. Christmas Eve Dinner and Celebration

Most people associate Christmas feasting with the dinner on Christmas Day, and rightfully so, for as a Vigil Christmas Eve was traditionally a day of abstinence and fasting. Yet there were also delicious Christmas Eve dinners that conformed to this

restraint (see Foods). Afterwards, the family would gather around the newly decorated Christmas tree, reciting Vespers or praying and singing hymns to the infant Jesus now in the crib (the figurine had been conspicuously absent during Advent). In some countries, it was at this time that gifts were exchanged.


4. The Christmas Candle

One of the most symbolically rich customs of Christmas Eve was the Christmas candle, a large white candle representing Christ. In Ireland, a Christmas candle was bedecked with holly and lit. It would burn through the night and

be relit on each of the twelve nights of Christmas. The entire family would pray before the candle for their living and departed loved ones. In England and Ireland the Christmas candle often consisted of three individual candles molded together in honor of the Trinity, while in Germany a highly decorated pyramid of smaller candles called a Weihnachtspyramide was used.


5. Lights in the Window

Another Irish custom during Christmastide was putting lights in the window. This practice originated during the times of persecution, when Mass had to be held in secret. Faithful Irish believers would place a candle in the window on Christmas Eve as a sign to any priest who happened by that this home was a safe haven in which Mass could be offered. When interrogated by the British about the meaning of this practice, the Irish replied that the lights were an invitation for Joseph and Mary to stay the night. Unthreatened by this supposed superstition, the British left them alone.  

6. Midnight Mass

See Christmas Customs.


7. Holy Night

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes

Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,

The bird of dawning singeth all night long:

And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;

The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,

No fairy takes, no witch has power to charm,

So hallow'd and gracious is the time. --Hamlet I.i

Since ancient times, popular folklore has attached a wondrous goodness to the night before Christmas. Like Shakespeare's Hamlet, many Catholics believed that there was not only a special charm about this night, but a holiness. Nature awoke with unbounded joy in the middle of the night to greet its Maker: bees hummed sweet symphonic hymns, cattle fell on their knees in adoration, and trees and plants bowed in the direction of Bethlehem. No wicked spirits roamed the earth on this night, no evil forces prevailed, for on this night God had blessed the earth with His Son. Consequently, one hour before midnight, some churches in the British Isles would toll their bells mournfully as if for a Requiem and then peal joyfully at the stroke of twelve. The funereal ringing was called the "Devil's funeral" to indicate Satan's demise at the birth of Christ.


Christmas Customs


1. The Three Masses | 2. Christmas Greeting | 3. Pageants

4. Gift-giving | 5. Plants | 6. The Carol, "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

7. The Twelve Days of Christmas

8. St. Stephen's Day | 9. St. John's Day | 10. Innocents' Day

11. St. Sylvester Celebrations | 12. Feast of the Circumcision

13. Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus


1. The Three Masses

In the traditional Roman rite three Masses are celebrated on Christmas Day in honor of the various aspects of the mystery of the Incarnation. The First Mass, commemorating the eternal generation of the Son from the Father, is usually celebrated at midnight, the hour it is believed that the Lord was born. Midnight Mass, or the "Angels' Mass," is a cherished tradition among many Catholics,

even though the Roman rite does not require the First Mass to begin at that time (in Spain the First Mass begins at 3 a.m.). Solemn Vespers or Hymns and Carols are sung immediately prior to Midnight Mass, during which time the church bells are rung. Some countries also hold special feasts after the Mass (see Foods).

The Second Mass, commemorating the temporal birth of the Savior, is celebrated at dawn: on account of its Gospel, it is often called "Shepherds' Mass." On the other hand, the Third Mass, commemorating Christ's spiritual birth in our hearts, is celebrated during the day. It is known as the "Mass of the Divine Word."

As these names suggest, the three Masses might focus primarily on one aspect of the Incarnation, but they do not do so exclusively. The Mass that celebrates the eternal generation of the Word (First), for example, is called the "Angels' Mass," while the Mass that celebrates the birth of Christ in our hearts (Third) is called the "Mass of the Divine Word." This interplay of themes allows the congregant to contemplate the entire mystery no matter what Mass he attends at the same time that the Church gives honor to each aspect individually.


2. Christmas Greeting

The popular American greeting "Merry Christmas" is generally taken as a wish for a joyful feast, but in reality it has a different meaning. "Merry" originally meant "peaceful or blessed," not jocular or happy; it was an adjective for heavenly serenity, not earthly mirth. The phrase, "Merry England," for example, referred to the spiritual character of the country. And in the carol, "God rest you merry gentleman," the word "merry" does not refer to "gentleman." Rather, it should be read, "God rest you merry, gentleman," -- "that is, God rest you peacefully, gentleman."


3. Pageants

Like other high points of the liturgical year, Christmas was the occasion of devout mystery plays, dramas held in church after Mass which explained the meaning of the mystery being commemorated. By the late Middle Ages these plays had become elaborate pageants, public entertainment (usually held outside the church on a movable stage) that consisted of various scenes from history or legend. The following is an account from Father Weiser of the first Christmas pageant in the U.S., at our very own Holy Trinity German Church in Boston:

[On Christmas 1851], the children of the parish, dressed as Oriental shepherds, carrying bundles of food, linen, and other gifts, marched in solemn procession to the crib in front of the altar, singing Christmas carols. They honored the Divine Child by offering their presents, reciting prayers, and chanting hymns. The parish priest accepted the offerings, which were afterward distributed to the poor. The children in their Oriental costumes, their hands folded devoutly, left the church in a street procession after the service. This performance attracted such attention and admiration that it had to be repeated twice during Christmas week upon the urgent request of both Catholics and Protestants from all over the city who were anxious to witness the "new" pageant. This procession at Holy Trinity Church, Boston, has been held every year since then, though of late in simplified form, without costumes (Handbook of Christian Customs, pp. 109,110).

Holy Trinity still carries on this tradition with its biannual Christmas tableau and its Shepherds procession (see below) on the Feast of the Holy Family.


4. Gift Giving


Many Americans may be surprised to learn that the Christmas custom of exchanging gifts does not always occur on Christmas morning. In

some countries, the Feast of St. Nicholas (December 6) is the traditionally preferred date, while in France -- for adults at least-- it is January 1st. Still other countries, such as Italy, imitate the Magi by presenting their gifts on the Feast of the Epiphany. (Epiphany is also the day when gifts are exchanged in the Eastern churches.) Finally, some areas of Europe exchange their gifts on Christmas Eve before or after attending Midnight Mass.

The giving of gifts may also be spread over the duration of Christmas (hence, the carol, "The Twelve Days of Christmas:" see below). December 26, for example, is called Boxer Day in England and Canada because on this day the poor boxes of the church were emptied by the priest and their contents distributed to the needy. The day after Christmas has thus become a traditional day for giving gifts to servants or to one's paperboy, mailman, barber, etc. In some places, some of the gifts are withheld on Christmas to be given on Epiphany. This has the advantage of prolonging children's delight in receiving presents, as opposed to over-saturating them on Christmas Day.


5. Plants

It is only fitting that the season celebrating the Flower that comes from the root of Jesse (Is. 11.2) should be so strongly associated with various plants, some of which are included below:


Why do we deck the halls with boughs of holly? Simple but profound in its symbolism, holly represents two sacred events: the revelation of God's Holy Name to Moses on Mt. Sinai and the Crucifixion of our Lord. On the one hand,


the prickly leaves and red berries of holly call to mind the burning bush from which Yahweh spoke; on the other they symbolize the Crown of Thorns and the drops of Blood shed by our Lord during His Passion. The point seems to be that in order to recognize the infant in the manger as the God-man, one must look backward to His self-revelation in sacred history and forward to His saving action on the Cross.


Mistletoe was considered to be a powerful and sacred healing agent by the Druids. It was considered so sacrosanct, in fact, that enemies who met under it were forced to lay down their arms, embrace each other, and vow not to fight

until the following day. When England became Christian, mistletoe was retained as a token of good will and friendship (along with the custom of kissing under the mistletoe), while its association with healing was transferred to Christ, whom the Advent hymn for Vespers calls the "Cure for a sick world" (languidi mundi Medela).


Ivy was originally banned from Christmas celebrations because of its pagan associations with bacchanalia. It took several centuries for the distaste of this symbolism to wear off, but when in the Middle Ages it finally did, its natural qualities could be appreciated anew. Seeing in its desperate clinging to rock an allegory for human dependence on divine strength, Christians made ivy became a popular Christmas symbol, as well as a favored indoor plant year-round.


Laurel (Bay)

Whereas ivy suffered from its pagan meaning, laurel benefited. As the ancient Roman symbol of victory, laurel became the first plant to be used as a decoration for the newborn King. The Christmas wreath hung on our doors also comes from this symbolism. The Romans considered wreaths symbols of victory and celebration, placing them on their doors when an occasion merited it.


As a Christmas symbol, rosemary is almost as old as laurel. An ancient legend, explaining the reason for its use at Christmas time, states that when the Holy Family was fleeing to Egypt Mary stopped along the way, washed Jesus' tiny clothes, and spread them out to dry on a rosemary bush. Since then God has rewarded the bush with a pleasing fragrance.


The most recent addition to the Christmas plant pageant is the glorious poinsettia from Central America or, as it is called in Mexico, the flower of Holy Night. It is of no consequence that the plant's flaming red "petals" are actually its leaves; the poinsettia is a perfect reminder of the fiery star that led the wise men to Bethlehem.


6. The Christmas Carol, "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

The singing of hymns and carols, even in an age which has lost the ability to sing, remains a fixed and cherished part of Christmas. Unfortunately, we cannot adequately examine the vast history or catalog of Christmas songs. Instead, we will focus on one famous but misunderstood Christmas carol.

Most holiday revelers do not realize that the

popular carol, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," is actually a hidden catechism for Catholics. From 1558 to 1829 the Catholic Church was persecuted in England, making the transmission of the faith from one generation to the next exceedingly difficult. One solution was to veil the basic tenets of the faith in the symbols of a song. If caught, a Catholic could claim that it was merely an innocuous ditty, or even, if pushed, a Protestant catechism (since most of the song's teachings were also shared by the Reformers).
Here are the verses of the song, followed by its meaning:

The Twelve Days of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree.

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, three french hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, four calling birds, three french hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, five golden rings, four calling birds, three french hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, six geese-a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three french hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, seven swans-a-swimming, six geese-a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three french hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, eight maids-a-milking, seven swans-a-swimming, six geese-a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three french hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, nine ladies dancing, eight maids-a-milking, seven swans-a-swimming, six geese-a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three french hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, ten lords-a-leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids-a-milking, seven swans-a-swimming, six geese-a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three french hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, eleven pipers piping, ten lords-a-leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids-a-milking, seven swans-a-swimming, six geese-a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three french hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords-a-leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids-a-milking, seven swans-a-swimming, six geese-a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three french hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.


The Carol's Meaning

  • My true love = God
  • Me = every baptized person, the Church
  • A Partridge in a pear tree = The Word made flesh, Jesus Christ (The portrayal of Christ as a mother partridge is inspired by his lament: "Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so...").

The pear tree signifies the wood of the manger (and also of the cross), while the fruit reminds us of the reason for the Incarnation: God's desire to save us from the sin introduced by Adam's and Eve's consumption of the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil. The fruit also reminds us of the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden.

  • Two Turtle Doves = The two parts of the Sacred Scriptures [Old and New Testaments]
  • Three French Hens = The three theological virtues, given from God and poured into our hearts [Faith, Hope, and Charity]
  • Four Calling Birds = the four Gospels/Evangelists [Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John]
  • Five Golden Rings = The first five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch" [Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy]
  • Six Geese a-Laying = The six days of creation

1st Day: Creation of light and its separation from darkness

2nd Day: Creation of the firmament and division of the waters

3rd Day: Collection of waters (sea) and formation of dry land (earth); creation of plants according to their own likeness

4th Day: Creation of heavenly bodies in the firmament (sun, moon, and stars)

5th Day: Creation of sea creatures and winged fowl from the waters

6th Day: Creation of cattle, creeping things, and beasts from the dry land; creation of mankind, male and female

  • Seven Swans a-Swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
    1. wisdom
    2. understanding
    3. counsel
    4. fortitude
    5. knowledge
    6. piety
    7. fear of the Lord

Also, the seven sacraments of the Catholic faith [Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders, and Matrimony]

  • Eight Maids a-Milking = the eight Beatitudes [Mt. 5.3-12]
    1. Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
    2. Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.
    3. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
    4. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.
    5. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
    6. Blessed are the clean of heart: they shall see God.
    7. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
    8. Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • Nine Ladies Dancing = the nine choirs of angels (in ascending order)

1. Angels

2. Archangels

3. Principalities

4. Powers

5. Virtues

6. Dominations

7. Thrones

8. Cherubim

9. Seraphim

  • Ten Lords a-Leaping = the Ten Commandments

1. I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt not have strange gods before me.

2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

3. Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day.

4. Honor thy father and mother.

5. Thou shalt not kill.

6. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

7. Thou shalt not steal.

8. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife.

10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods.

  • Eleven Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles [Simon Peter, James the Great, John, Simon (the Zealot), Jude (a.k.a. Thaddeus), Andrew, James the Less, Matthew, Phillip, Bartholomew, and Thomas]
  • Twelve Drummers Drumming = the twelve articles of the Apostle's Creed

1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth;

2. And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord:

3. Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,

4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

5. He descended into Hell; on the third day He rose from the dead.

6. He ascended into Heaven, sitteth at the right hand of God the Father almighty;

7. From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,

9. The Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints,

10. The forgiveness of sins,

11. The resurrection of the body,

12. And life everlasting. Amen.

The "Twelve Days of Christmas" is still an excellent expression of joy in the Incarnate Lord and a well-rounded summary of the life of Faith. And, by giving us something on which to meditate for each day, it is also an ideal way to spend the twelve days of Christmas. It even reminds us (by virtue of its history) of the cost many generations had to pay in order for us to receive the Good News we celebrate during this holy season.


7. The Twelve Days of Christmas

But what exactly are the Twelve Days of Christmas? They are the days between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany that constitute an unbroken period of joy and celebration (see Christmas Schema). Epiphany is considered the twelfth day of Christmas (in fact it is sometimes called "Twelfth Day") while the Eve of Epiphany is called "Twelfth Night." Shakespeare's play, "Twelfth Night," takes its name from the Vigil because during this period festivals (such as the Feast of Fools or the Feast of the Ass) used to be held in which everything was turned upside-down -- a little like the reversed identities of the characters in the play. These "preposterous" observances, incidentally, were a joyful mimicry of the inversion of almighty God becoming a lowly man, of the King appearing as a humble infant.

The twelve nights of Christmas were primarily a time of rest from unnecessary labor and joyful prayer. On each of these nights the Christmas tree lights and the Christmas candle would be lit, while the family would gather around the manger to recite prayers and sing carols and hymns. Similar services are held in some churches during these nights as well.

Several saints' days which fall within the Octave of Christmas are also a part of the Twelve Days. This might seem odd, but their placement is deliberate. By placing their feasts near the birth of the Lord, the Church is suggesting that there is a special spiritual proximity as well. St. Stephen (December 26) is the "Proto-Martyr," the first disciple of our Lord to be martyred. St. John (December 27) is the "beloved disciple" who rested on our Lord's bosom during the Last Supper. And the Holy Innocents (December 28) are obviously connected in a special way to our Lord's infancy. These saints are called the comites Christi, "the companions of Christ," and as that name implies, they are not only close to Him, but they have a certain nobility (the word comes, from which we get our word "count," also implies aristocracy). It is for these reasons, incidentally, that the Eastern churches honor the Princes of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, on December 28.

St. Thomas Beckett (December 29), the Archbishop of Canterbury who was killed by the king's men in 1170 on this day, would have normally seen his feast transferred to a date outside the Octave of Christmas. However, because his martyrdom was such a shock and outrage to Christendom, the Roman authorities deemed it appropriate to leave his "spiritual birthday" exactly where it was, thereby adding him to the list of Christ's nobility.

The final comes Christi is St. Sylvester I (December 31), the great pope who lived to see the Roman persecutions of the Church finally end during the reign of Emperor Constantine. It is therefore appropriate to honor this saint within the Octave that celebrates "peace on earth," especially on the day before the new civic year.

Listed below are some of the customs observed within the Twelve Days of Christmas.


8. St. Stephen's Day (December 26)

Though there is no historical connection, St. Stephen is considered the patron saint of horses. Scholars speculate that this has something to do with the relief from work that domestic animal enjoyed during Twelfth-night; in any case, horse parades or horse races were always held on this day. One custom in rural areas was for the horses to be decorated and taken to the church, where the priest would bless them. Afterwards, they would be ridden around the church three times. Horse's food (hay or oats) is also blessed on this day.

NOTA BENE: In the eleventh century, the Church instituted special feast days during the Christmas Octave for various ecclesiastical ranks. Today, on the day in which one of the first seven deacons was martyred, was the festival for deacons.


9. St. John's Day (December 27)

Saint John was the only Apostle who did not suffer martyrdom, though several attempts were made on his life. One of these involved giving him a glass of wine that had been poisoned. The saint, however, suffered no harm because he blessed it before he drank. It is in honor of this deliverance that the blessing and drinking of wine on St. John's Day was once a popular custom (see Foods). People had a bottle of wine blessed after the Saint's Mass and then drank it at the family dinner (notice how easily this can still be done). The special blessing for this occasion from the Roman ritual sums up the meaning of this custom:

O Lord God, deign to bless and consecrate with Thy right hand this cup of wine and of whatever drink: and grant that through the merits of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist, all who believe in Thee and who drink from this cup may be blessed and protected. And as blessed John drank from the cup of poison and remained completely unharmed, may, through his merits, all who drink from the cup on this day in honor of blessed John be rescued from every sickness of poison and from every kind of harm; and, offering themselves up body and soul, may they delivered from all fault. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Bless, O Lord, this creature of drink: that it may be a remedy of salvation for all who consume it: and grant through the invocation of Thy holy name that whoever will have tasted of it may, through Thy giving, experience health of the soul as well as of the body. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

And the blessing of almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, descend upon this creature of wine and of whatever drink, and remain forever. Amen.

Today, on the day honoring the disciple who lay closest to Christ the High Priest during the first Mass, was the festival for priests (see above).


10. Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28)

In many religious communities, Innocents' Day was the traditional feast for the youngest members. In keeping with the upside-down spirit of Twelfth-night, the youngest novice had the privilege of sitting at the first place or even of being abbot for a day. Baby food (see Foods) would be served to them.

In the family, the youngest member is also the "celebrity" of the day, especially if he is a baby. Customs like decorating the crib or blessing the baby are appropriate ways of observing the feast.

Today, on the day in which little ones shed their blood for Christ, was the festival for choirboys and students (see above).


11. St. Sylvester's Day (December 31)

The day that celebrates the first pope to enjoy civic peace is appropriately marked by family customs petitioning peace for the new year. On New Year's Eve it was traditional in France and other countries for the father to bless all members of the family, and for the children to thank their parents for all of their love and care. In Spain, it was considered good luck to eat twelve grapes at the twelve strokes of midnight. Services thanking God for the blessings of the year and seeking blessings for the new one were not uncommon, and neither were special Sylvester treats (see Foods).



12. Feast of the Circumcision and the Octave of the Nativity (January 1)

The Feast of the Circumcision combines celebrates many things. On the one hand, the feast celebrates the Octave of the Nativity and the Motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary (partially because the pope celebrated Mass in St. Mary Major on this day). On the other hand, it commemorates the Circumcision of our Lord which, though a cause of joy, is the cause of a more subdued kind of joy because it involves the shedding of our Lord's blood. There is also a tradition in the Roman church of penitence as a counterpoint to the pagan reveling of the day (a counterpoint which is necessary as much today as it was then). The Church delicately balances all of these elements in a single feast to God.

As mentioned above, it is traditional in France for adults to exchange gifts on this day. This custom is known as les étrennes.

Today, on the day in which St. Joseph circumcised our Lord (thereby consecrating him for God's holy service), was the festival for subdeacons (see above).


13. The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus

Devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus was originally reserved to the Feast of the Circumcision, since it was at His circumcision that our Lord received His name. But because of the growth of this devotion, a separate feast was instituted, first by the Franciscans in the seventeenth century, then by the universal Church (its date was permanently fixed by Pope St. Pius X). One of the most cherished customs of this feast is singing the hymn, Jesu, Dulcis Memoria by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the great medieval monk and tireless promoter of devotion to the Holy Name. The Litany of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, recited either after Mass or in procession, is also a popular devotion.

Epiphany Customs



1. The Holy Light of the Manifestations | 2. The Three Kings

3. Blessing of Water | 4. Magi Plays | 5. Feasting

6. Feast of the Holy Family


1. Epiphany: the Holy Light of the Manifestations (January 6)

Epiphany is one of the greatest feasts of the liturgical year. The twelfth day after Christmas, it concludes Christmastide proper by celebrating the "manifestation," or epiphaneia, of Christ to the Gentiles. Epiphany is in fact a holy day of obligation, though the United States has long had a dispensation from Rome that frees it from this duty. To this day the Eastern churches consider Epiphany more important than Christmas.

Epiphany first and foremost commemorates the Visitation of the Magi to the Christ Child in Bethlehem. The Holy Spirit's guidance of these wise men to the Holy Land through the aid of a star signifies the calling of all nations, not just the Jews, to the New Covenant. But this "manifestation" to non-Jews also calls to mind other manifestations of our Lord's divinity. The Nativity continues to be remembered as the first crucial manifestation, but so too does the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan, since it affirms both His divinity as well as His humanity. And the wedding of Cana comes to mind because it was Christ's first public manifestation of His power with the transubstantiation of water into wine. (It also comes to mind because the Gospel uses the word "manifest" (ephanerosen) to describe this event (Jn. 2.11).) Finally, the manifestations of Jesus Christ during His earthly existence ineluctably lead us to consider His final manifestation in glory, a manifestation for which we have longed throughout Advent and Christmastide. Hence St. John Chrysostom says in his sermon on Epiphany:

There are two manifestations of Christ, not one. The first is the one which has already happened, His epiphany in the present. The second is the one of the future which will come at the end of time with great splendor and glory. You have heard read today what St. Paul writes to Titus about both of these epiphanies. Concerning the first he says, "The grace of God our Savior has appeared to all men..." About the second he writes, "We look for the blessed hope and glorious coming of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ" (Titus 2.11-13) (On the Baptism of Christ).

It is for these reasons that St. Gregory Nazianzus refers to Epiphany as the "the Holy light of the manifestations."


2. The Three Kings

The Gospel of Matthew mentions only that several Magi -- respected priestly scholars from Persia and other neighboring countries -- came to worship the Christ Child from the East. Tradition, however, has added a few details: that there were three of them, that they were kings, and that their names were Gaspar, Melchior, and Baltasar. Devotion to the three kings is a marked feature of Epiphany and was traditionally encouraged in a number of ways. From Christmas onward, for example, the figurines of the Magi, which had been kept a distance from the crèche, were brought closer and closer until it reached the crèche on Twelfth-night. Another traditional observance was the solemn blessing of a home on the Feast of the Epiphany, after which the initials of the Magi would be written on the frame of the door, together with the year and several crosses that connected all of the letters and numbers. There is even a special blessing for the chalk in the Roman ritual.


3. Blessing of Water

The commemoration of our Lord's Baptism in the Jordan led to a number of impressive blessings concerning water. In Palestine, the river Jordan itself was blessed, with throngs of the faithful immersing in it three times to obtain the blessing, while in Egypt, the whole Christian population and its livestock would show up for the blessing of the Nile and do the same thing. In Byzantium, Epiphany water was blessed in church and then distributed. Rome followed this custom, instituting it on the Vigil of the feast. The formula for the blessing may be found in the Roman ritual.


4. Magi Plays

Like Christmas, Epiphany was a favorite time for caroling; and like all great solemnities from the Middle Ages, Epiphany encouraged mystery plays. These were called Magi plays and featured

the story of the Nativity, the slaughter of the Innocents, and the visit of the Magi. They were also quite boisterous: the character of Herod was portrayed as a raving lunatic, wreaking havoc with his wooden spear: hence Shakespeare's line about overacting-- "it out-herods Herod!" (Hamlet III.ii). Variations of these mystery plays have survived into the present day.


5. Feasting

And also like all great solemnities, Epiphany was a day for great feasting. Though the dishes varied, one consistently popular customs was Kings' or Twelfth-night cake, which included a small object that identified its finder as the "king" for the day (see Foods). Many countries also use this occasion for the exchange of gifts (see above).


6. The Feast of the Holy Family

Held on the Sunday after Epiphany, the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph holds up the domestic life of Jesus, his mother, and foster father as the perfect model for all Catholic households. As Pope Leo XIII explains, there is a lesson in this family for everyone: for fathers, for mothers, for children; for nobility (the Holy Family was from the royal house of David), for the poor (they gave up their possessions in fleeing to Egypt), and so on. There are no prescribed or uniform customs for the feast, but that does not mean no observances were made. The following is an account from Father Weiser of Holy Family Sundays at our own parish, Holy Trinity German Church, in the 1940s.

The annual Holy Childhood procession, on the feast of the Holy Family, is one of the most attractive ceremonies. In former years this procession was called the "Shepherds' Procession" as the children marched through the church dressed as shepherds and shepherdesses -- a lovely relic of popular medieval piety (Holy Trinity Parish, 1844-1944, p. 37).

This feast is also an ideal time to pray any of the devotions to the Holy Family that are given in the Raccolta, the Church's old official list of indulgences. The fact that many of these prayers are no longer indulgenced does not make them any less meaningful or worthy of use.

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