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 | By Sister Pam Smith

Hope, Heartache, Joy and Sorrow Mark the Octave of Christmas

Heaviness and lightness of heart seem to mix in the Church’s feasts and customs on the days after Christmas. We observe the days as an “octave,” a stretch of eight days that extends the solemnity of Christmas for a week — until the new calendar year. A look at the days reveals something of the ups and downs of being a Christian.

Saint Stephen

On Dec. 26, we observe the feast of St. Stephen, protomartyr. It’s as if to say that all the hallelujahs and rejoicing of our celebration of Christmas need a reality check. The coming of the Messiah, which truly brings “Joy to the World,” also laid the groundwork for Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection — and then martyrdom for many who have believed in him. St. Stephen was among the seven men chosen to be deacons. Because of that, much of our religious art depicts him in the dalmatic of a deacon, even though the design of vestments was likely not in place when Stephen died. The saint’s vigorous preaching angered those opposed to this new way, the following of Christ. As a result, he was stoned to death outside Jerusalem, professing his faith while also asking pardon for those who were executing him. 

Our first reading, from Acts 6 and 7, gives us a hint of a positive thing to come. We see that St. Paul, then known as Saul, is there. And we know the rest of his story: that he will be dramatically converted and will become the firebrand for the Lord whose words are over so much of the life of the early Church and the New Testament.

Saint John

Dec. 27 sets another tone as we celebrate St. John the Evangelist, the only apostle who lived into old age. The tone for the liturgy is set as we read the tender opening of John’s first letter. We know him as the younger son of Zebedee, as the youngest of the apostles, and a favored one at that. John is identified as “the beloved disciple” who witnesses the Transfiguration and the agony in the garden alongside Peter and James. He arrives early at the empty tomb on Easter morning and survives to author the last Gospel to be written (plus three letters and the Book of Revelation).

An interesting and festive custom arose some centuries ago. The custom is the blessing of wine on St. John’s Day. The story goes that a group of opponents plotted to kill St. John by poisoning wine that he was to drink. The goblet was given to him, and as he blessed it the poison dissipated, and in some accounts slithered out of the cup in the form of a snake. He went ahead and drank and experienced no harm. St. John’s Wine, usually a red one, gets a special blessing, and then the wine may be used as a sacramental. It can be poured from the bottle and consumed at room temperature or mulled with cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg for special occasions. The custom reflects the ways in which Catholics intersperse edifying tradition with fun.

Holy Innocents

Then, as day dawns on Dec. 28, we find ourselves back to grimness and examination of conscience. Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocent turns the thrill of the Nativity into a reign of terror. All of the male children aged two and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem were ordered put to the sword. The maniacal ruler believed his grip on power was threatened when he heard the Magi announce the birth of a Messiah and king. For years now, we who are active in the prolife movement have used this day to pray for an end to abortion and to remember the souls of the millions of innocents who have died as victims of abortion. 

As we reflect on the day, we might also turn to the plight of refugees and migrants. The slaughter of the innocents set the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt, where they stayed until Herod died. Our current news is filled, day after day, with stories of desperate people at our borders — refugees, migrants, immigrants (undocumented) — being caged or shipped off to New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, only to end up sleeping in curtained areas at O’Hare and Midway airports, at Port Authority in New York, in abandoned buildings, in cheap hotels and on streets in places totally unknown to them. There must be some moral and legal way to deal with the crisis at our borders — to keep everyone safe, and to do so with a level of humility that acknowledges that most of us are children or descendants of people who left their countries for faith and, they hoped, a safe future for their families. 

Saint Thomas Becket

On Dec. 29, we turn to another martyr, Thomas à Becket. This 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury was killed in his cathedral. He asserted his ecclesiastical loyalty and responsibility when the king of England expected him to be a political pawn. Many know of him today through having enjoyed, or suffered through, the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in senior English in high school or by having seen the play or film “Becket,” which highlighted the courage of the martyr. 

After two days focused on what Dietrich Bonhoeffer has called “The Cost of Discipleship,” we turn to a day when no particular saint is celebrated, the sixth day of the Octave of Christmas. But in some quarters, Dec. 30 is marked as the feastday of St. Roger (Ruggierio) of Cannae, an 11th century Italian bishop noted for his peacemaking and hospitality. We might amuse ourselves by picturing Roger as a person who blessed plenty of St. John’s wine. 

Saint Sylvester, Holy Family

Aside from being New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31 is usually a day we honor St. Sylvester, a pope who lived in the 300s when Christianity was first legalized in the Roman Empire and then established as the state religion. During Sylvester’s pontificate, the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome, was established. This year, however, since Dec. 31 is a Sunday, we will be marking the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, honoring family life, its love and nurturance. 

Holy Mother of God

As we move into 2024, we celebrate Jan. 1 as both the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God and also the World Day of Peace, observed since the pontificate of St. Paul VI with special messages from the pope. The liturgical celebrations of the week from Christmas through Jan. 1 hark back to what the Second Vatican Council noted in the opening of its pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes (“Hope and Joy,” on the Church in the modern world). It declared to the people of the world: “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.” So have they been since the apostolic era.

As disciples of the Lord, we laugh and sing, we cry and mourn, we offer help and feel helpless and, with the hope of the Good News we wish one another a Blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year, trusting that it will be a year of grace.

Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, Ph.D., is the diocesan director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Email her at