From Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Rev. Francis X. Weiser
Since the Gospel reports the fact of Christ’s circumcision on the eighth day after His birth (Matthew 2, 21), a feast of the liturgy in commemoration of that event might have suggested itself as soon as Christmas was established on December 25.
It took four centuries, however, until this feast was actually introduced into the Roman liturgy, and then it came from the outside, from the churches in France that had already celebrated it for two hundred years.
In the East, too, the Feast of the Circumcision is not mentioned in any calendar before the eighth century. This reluctance to introduce a feast the object and date of which were so clearly given in the Bible might have been due in some degree to the fact that circumcision had been replaced by the Sacrament of Baptism in the New Testament.
The main reason, however, doubtlessly was the secular New Year’s celebration that took place in the whole Roman Empire on January 1, and which contained so many objectionable elements that the Church authorities did not want to make that day an official feast and thereby encourage the holiday mood of the faithful.
This is indicated by the fact that in the early centuries January 1 was kept as a day of fasting and penance. “During these days, when they [the pagans] revel, we observe a fast in order to cry and pray for them,” said Saint Augustine in a sermon on New Year’s Day.
Not only in Rome, but also in Gaul, Spain, and Greece the calends of January presented great problems of religious discipline to the authorities of the Church.
During the sixth and seventh centuries various councils in France strictly forbade participation in those revels. Such prohibitions had to be repeated many times by the bishops in their respective dioceses.
The faithful were told to hold private penitential processions (litaniae) in penance and atonement for the excesses and sins committed by so many.
In Spain, the fourth Council of Toledo ( 633 ) prescribed a strict fast and abstinence for January 1, and the Alleluia was omitted from the liturgical texts in token of penance.
As late as the eighth century, the people in Rome spent New Year’s night reveling and dancing in the streets, thereby scandalizing the pious pilgrims from northern countries.
If so much public rejoicing happened at a time when Rome was completely Christian, it is no wonder that in earlier centuries the popes would not hold a solemn feast, with its customary Station processions, on January 1 when crowds of pagans, and some irresponsible Christians, roamed the city with frivolous dancing, wild carousing, and indecorous masquerades.
OCTAVE OF THE NATIVITY
While the popes and bishops in the Christian empire of Rome abstained from introducing a solemn feast on the calends of January, there was a strong inclination to distinguish the day not only by fasting but also by a prayerful and official celebration in church.
Since the people by tradition were in a festive mood, it seemed appropriate to gather them for a special service in the house of God to direct their hearts and minds to the Lord in a devout and quiet, but impressive, way.
Saint Augustine had already felt this when he beheld a large congregation gathered in church on January 1: “I see that you have come here as if we had a feast today.”
When the last remnants of paganism had disappeared, January 1 was made a ranking liturgical feast, shortly after the beginning of the seventh century, probably under Pope Boniface IV.
In imitation of the Easter, and Epiphany Octave it became the “Octave Day” of Christmas. This distinction, however, was applied in a lesser degree, since the eighth day as such, and not the whole week, as at Easter, received the liturgical character of the main feast.
Of the ancient liturgical books, the Sacramentarium Gelasianum (seventh century) contains the first entry of this feast under the simple title Octava Domini (Octave Day of the Lord).
FEAST OF MARY
Soon after the Octave of Christmas had been introduced, the celebration of January 1 assumed a Marian character. This was due to the Station of the papal service, which was the church of St. Mary beyond the Tiber, the oldest Roman church dedicated to the Mother of God.
Thus New Year’s Day became a special memorial of Mary. In the old Roman calendars it is called Natale Sanctae Mariae. ( The word natale here means simply “feast”.) In a certain sense this was the earliest feast of our Lady in the Latin Church.
Interesting is the emphasis placed on Mary’s maternity, that she is truly the Mother of Him Who was made flesh for our salvation. The character of January 1 as a feast of Mary is still preserved in the Station title; the Mass prayers, too, and the texts of the Divine Office reflect the Marian note of the feast up to this day.
The celebration of our Lord’s circumcision started in the Church of Gaul, where we find the earliest records of this feast about the middle of the sixth century.
From Gaul it spread to Spain and into the Frankish empire, and from there to Rome in the ninth century.
In the Greek Church it had already been introduced during the eighth century. Today all Eastern Rites celebrating the Nativity on December 25 also keep a Feast of the Circumcision on January 1.
The new celebration soon overshadowed the Octave of Christmas in the Roman liturgy, but did not entirely supplant it. Up to this day the official title (in the Latin Church) is a combination of both liturgical festivals: “The Circumcision of Our Lord and Octave of the Nativity.”
Because the Divine Child received the name Jesus at the circumcision, this day was also connected in the Middle Ages with special devotions in honor of the Holy Name.
Saint Bernard (1444), by both word and example, promoted the veneration of the sacred name of Jesus with great zeal. The famous hymn Jesu Dulcis Memoria (How sweet the thought of Jesus ), which he composed, is still used in the Divine Office.
In 1721 Pope Innocent III established a separate feast in honor of the Holy Name of Jesus. Pope Saint Pius X (1914) fixed its present date: on Sunday between January 1 and 6, or on January 2 if no Sunday occurs.
The Catholics of the Greek-Slavonic and Armenian Rites have kept January 1 as the Feast of the Holy Name in addition to the Circumcision.
The liturgical texts take no notice at all of January 1 as the beginning of a new civic year. This is probably due to the pagan and objectionable character of the ancient Roman New Year’s celebration, which prevented the authorities of the Church from even mentioning that aspect in the sacred service of divine worship.
In the Diocese of Toledo, Spain, however, January 1 bore the official title Caput Anni (Beginning of the Year) in the liturgical books of the seventh century.
FOLKLORE RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCE
The end of the old and the beginning of a new year was, and still is, marked by popular devotional exercises. Special services are held in many churches on the eve of New Year’s to thank God for all His favors in the past year and to implore His blessings for the new one.
In rural sections of central Europe many families spend the minutes around midnight saying the rosary or other prayers, and all the church bells peal “to ring out the old and ring in the new year.”
In France and French Canada a custom coming down from medieval times is the blessing of the family. The father makes the sign of the cross on the foreheads of his kneeling family, wife and children, in token of God’s blessing for the new year.
In other Catholic sections of Europe parents bless their children with the sign of the cross at midnight. This custom of parental blessing, which is practiced also on many other occasions during the year, was a universal tradition in all countries before the Reformation.
In the towns of the Alpine sections of Austria and Germany it is a widespread custom for a little brass band to play Christmas carols and other religious hymns from the tower of the local church, or for groups of carol singers to go from street to street and “sing in the new year.”
In some places these carol singers are mounted on horses, riding from farm to farm during New Year’s night.
The popular festival on New Year’s Eve is called “Sylvester” in many countries. The word is derived, of course, from the liturgical observance of December 31, the Feast of Saint Sylvester.
Besides the traditional and familiar reveling celebration in our modern cities, many ancient customs are still practiced in European countries.
In Spanish-speaking sections it is an old tradition to eat twelve grapes at midnight, one at each stroke of the tower bell.
In central Europe the new year is greeted with the cracking of whips, shooting of rifles and mortars, and with banging and clanging noises in the home. This is a relic of the pre-Christian ritual of “driving demons away”; its original significance, however, has been forgotten, and it is now practiced as a salute to the new year.
Sylvester Night is one of the great nights for all kinds of traditional oracle games to find out what the year will bring. Tea leaves are read in many places. In central Europe spoonfuls of molten lead are poured into water, and the fantastic shapes of the congealing metal are supposed to reveal or symbolize events of the coming year.
Girls especially are looking for apparitions and oracles disclosing the young man who will come to love and marry them. Superstitions claim that his likeness will show through the mirror in the darkened room at midnight, or that he will appear to them in a dream.
These oracles are usually connected with Saint Sylvester, thus giving them the character of a devotional practice rather than a mere superstition.
The saint is asked in traditional rhyme prayers to exercise his patronage and provide a husband. And it is from his kindly favor that girls expect to see the picture in their dreams or in the mirror.
The old Roman practice of giving presents at the beginning of a new year (strenae) has survived in all Latin countries, and so has the name (etrennes in France, estrenas in Spain ).
The date, however, is now January 6 in Italy and in Spanish-speaking countries; only in France has January 1 been retained as the day of giving presents to children.
A general custom in many countries is the giving of money or presents on, or after, New Year’s Day to persons who make regular deliveries to the home ( such as the milkman, letter carrier, and paper boy ) .
A recent practice, which started spontaneously some years ago and may be found in many cities of Europe, is the custom among motorists of leaving presents at the stands of traffic policemen. These packages are then taken to the police station and distributed among the families of all traffic policemen within the precinct.
Happy Eighth Day of Christmas! “A true wife makes a man’s life nobler, stronger, grander, by the omnipotence of her love, turning all the forces of manhood upward and heavenward. While she clings to him in holy confidence and loving dependence, she brings out in him whatever is noblest and richest in his being. She inspires him with courage and earnestness. She beautifies his life. She softens whatever is crude and harsh in his habits or his spirit. She clothes him with the gentler graces of refined and cultured manhood. While she yields to him and never disregards his lightest wish, she is really his queen, ruling his whole life and leading him onward and upward in every proper path.” – J.R. Miller
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