Having served Mass for some years during the Christmas Season, I quickly noticed that the week between Christmas Day and the Feast of the Circumcision on January 1 was chock full of major saints’ feasts. This was long before any college study in liturgy, when I would learn that the December 25 Feast of Christmas was a relatively later insertion into the Church’s days of observance. Christmas itself was not introduced into the Roman Catholic calendar until the fourth century. While there are a number of hypotheses as to why this particular date of December 25 was so chosen—ranging from attempts to reign in a pre-existing pagan Roman observance, to a coordination with another feast celebrating Jesus’ conception (i.e. the Annunciation as we know it today), the fact is that we are not really certain how December 25 became the established feast it is today.
Interestingly, the birth of Christ is not the only feast celebrated on December 25. If you own an old, pre-1970 missal, you will find that in the Christmas “Mass at Dawn” there is a second collect or prayer of the assembly commemorating St. Anastasia. At times in the Church’s early history the first Mass at Dawn was dedicated entirely to Anastasia’s memory. It is hard for us today to appreciate the devotion to this martyr in the city of Rome, and the church in her honor is accorded great esteem. Anastasia was so highly regarded that her name is placed in Eucharistic Prayer I:
To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners, hope in your abundant mercies, graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs: with John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, (Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia) and all your Saints; admit us, we beseech you, into their company,85 not weighing our merits, but granting us your pardon, through Christ our Lord. Through whom you continue to make all these good things, O Lord; you sanctify them, fill them with life, bless them, and bestow them upon us.
It is interesting, too, that December 26 marks the feast of another saint whose name is included in the Mass with Anastasia, notably the deacon martyr Stephen. There is only one source for Stephen’s life and martyrdom, but it is the powerful and authoritative rendering of St. Luke himself in his canonical Acts of the Apostles. In chapters 6 and 7 we get a very descriptive narrative of the bearing of the saint and the content of his preaching when brought before Jewish authorities, who ultimately had him stoned. Stephen is honored today as the first Christian martyr, and his execution set into motion the energies of one of the participants, one Saul of Tarsus, who committed himself to a purging of Christian Jews, only to be dramatically converted into the one and only St. Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle to the Gentiles and author of the first books (or letters) in the New Testament.
December 27 (today, as it happens) is the Feast of the St. John the Evangelist, the author of the Fourth Gospel. Since 200 AD there has been considerable debate about the identity of the Gospel writer; the Roman Catholic tradition has maintained and continues to maintain that the Apostle John and the Evangelist John are one and the same. The critical point to bear in mind is that the Church, from the third century, has identified John’s Gospel as part of the inspired and divinely revealed Canon of belief—even if, for example, John died and the final draft of the Gospel was composed by his disciples.
In the Roman Catholic calendar December 28 marks the feast of the Holy Innocents, the boys two-years of age and younger who were put to death around Bethlehem when King Herod sought to eliminate the young Jesus to protect his own throne. Our only source for this massacre is St. Matthew’s infancy narrative, and while its historical roots are a bit misty, Matthew’s theological intent was to parallel the persecution of Jesus with the troubles of infant Moses, when Pharaoh put all young male Hebrew babies to the sword. The feast of the Innocents developed in the fifth century, and the date of observance falls fittingly in the Christmas octave.
December 29, by contrast, marks the observance of a more recent and rather well documented martyrdom of the English bishop, St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on December 29, 1170. Becket had been something of a compliant accomplice in King Henry II’s interference in matters of the English Church, but after his appointment to Canterbury he underwent a profound spiritual conversion and reasserted the rights and dignity of the Church. Henry, not surprisingly, took this as a personal betrayal, and supposedly uttered the famous phrase, “Who will rid me of this pest?” (This text, however, is disputed.) Several knights undertook to kill the archbishop in his cathedral, a double sacrilege, in a violent attack with axes. This act shocked all of Christian Europe, and devotion to the slain archbishop became a major staple of devotion. In our own time, T.S. Eliot (Murder in the Cathedral) and Jean Anouilh (Becket) have kept the story of Becket’s heroism alive in the arts.
And finally, on December 31, the Church observes the Feast of St. Sylvester, who died on December 31, 335 AD, after a reign as Bishop of Rome for twenty-one years. His reign was nothing if not momentous. He took the throne of Peter when the Church was still an illegal entity, and then coped with the Emperor Constantine’s micromanaging for most of his papacy. It was Constantine, and not Sylvester, who called the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Sylvester (possibly miffed?) did not attend the Council that defined the divinity of Christ, (he sent two legates in his place) though Wikipedia observes without comment that Sylvester “concurred with the results.” There is surprisingly little known of his life, but his sainthood is indication that he must have administered the keys of the kingdom with considerable grace in very trying times.