SUNDAY, JANUARY 1: The world’s seculary New Year’s Day parties tend to completely blow away the day’s deep Christian associations. However, these days following Christmas are jam-packed with traditions that fill church and community calendars around the world. The 2 billion men, women and children who call themselves Christian are in the midst of what is best known as the 12 Days of Christmas, and also is known as Christmastide. Many of these days between Christmas and Epiphany are associated with milestones in the faith—and in many countries, vibrant national and ethnic customs have been added to the celebrations.
This season is especially fascinating in the United States, because it blossoms with such a rich array of the world’s Christian heritage. While 2 billion people around the world identify as Christian, the faith is divided into many sects and denominations. The United States has welcomed virtually every branch of this diverse family tree of faith, so Americans see the full flowering of these customs. Slightly more than half of all Americans are Protestant. One in four Americans identifies as Catholic. A much smaller, but highly significant, portion of the U.S. population is Orthdox or Eastern Christian. Pollsters typically identify Orthodox Christians as making up 1 to 2 percent of the American population. Here are some of the traditions that still are marked on this “eighth day of Christmas” or “Octave of the Nativity.”
‘Octave of the Nativity’ and ‘Circumcision of Our Lord’
One of the oldest traditions in Christianity—still observed in the Eastern church—is an acknowledgement that Jesus was circumcised following Jewish tradition. The official Roman calendar also marked this date until a Vatican revision of the global Catholic calendar half a century ago. Orthodox churches still refer to today’s observance as the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord. Here’s the Orthodox Wikipedia entry. This theology can be is problematic in interfaith dialogue. Centuries-old Christian teaching on the circumcision was not intended to emphasize Jesus’ life as a traditionally observant Jewish teacher—a theme now stressed throughout much of Christianity. Rather, the older emphasis behind this feast day is that the circumcision was Jesus’ first instance of shedding blood—and, therefore, this day begins his lifelong process of redeeming humanity as the Christ. Most of the world’s population is not even aware of this holiday, but the issues remain complex when they arise in interreligious dialogue.
Eastern Christians also associate this day with the Feast of St. Basil, which we also are covering in ReadTheSpirit. For Greek Orthodox adherents, the popularity of St. Basil dominates the celebration. A hymn often sung in this day’s Eastern liturgy links the two with words including:
The Lord of all accepts to be circumcised;
Thus, as He is good, excises the sins of mortal men.
Today He grants the world salvation,
While light-bearing Basil, high priest of our Creator,
Rejoices in heaven as a divine initiate of Christ.
WESTERN CHURCH STRESSES MOTHERHOOD OF MARY
Celebrating the motherhood of Mary also is one of Christianity’s oldest customs at this time of year. Throughout the past century, Mary’s role in Catholic teaching has risen in prominence—from reported appearances of Mary to a long series of teachings from the Vatican. The late Pope John Paul II had a deep personal devotion to Mary as a mystical figure in the process of salvation. The Eastern church refers to Mary as Theotokos, which means “God-bearer” and has been phrased “Mother of God” in common English expressions throughout the Catholic church.
Down through the centuries, the two celebrations—Jesus’ circumcision and Mary’s role as the mother of Christ—have woven their way through Christian churches and annual calendars. In the 1960s, the Vatican decreed that the main emphasis on Christmastide’s eighth day should be on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
WORLD DAY OF PEACE, TOO
The focus of this 8th Day celebration continues to evolve throughout the Catholic world. As of January 1, 1968, the Vatican has decreed that the day should also be known as World Day of Peace. To learn more, read Pope Benedict XVI’s message one year ago, when he observed the 44th annual World Peace Day. At that time, the pontiff said, in part: “Peace is a gift of God, as we heard in the First Reading: May ‘the Lord… give you peace’ (Nm 6:26). It is a messianic gift par excellence, the first fruit of the love that Jesus gave us; it is our reconciliation and pacification with God. Peace is also a human value to be achieved at the social and political levels, but it is rooted in the mystery of Christ. … The world needs God. It needs universal, shared ethical and spiritual values, and religion can offer a precious contribution to their pursuit, for the building of a just and peaceful social order at the national and international levels.”
The pope said it 365 days ago—but the message’s truth certainly is a timeless reminder of the mystical connection that is possible between faith and peace.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.