Icon (Close Menu)

The Moving Feasts of Christmas and Epiphany

By Matthew S. C. Olver

The ways of numbering and counting and commemorating the days of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons are enough to leave one’s head spinning. The evidence seems to be that Epiphany on January 6 arose in the East before the celebration of Our Lord’s Nativity on December 25 (for a summary of the more recent scholarship on all of these questions, see The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity by Paul Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson). The first English prayer book continued the quite old tradition of following Christmas Day with a sequence of three feasts: St. Stephen, on December 26 (December 27 in the East); St. John the Evangelist on December 27; and the Holy Innocents on December 28. These feasts date quite early (the first two dating at least to the fourth century) and all have clear and explicit biblical warrant.

Stephen’s life, appointment as first deacon, and his triumph as the first martyr, are depicted in detail in Acts 6-7. St Stephen’s tomb was discovered by St. Lucian in 415 and August was commemorated as the invention of his relics, while December 26 was the date upon which his relics were taken to the Church of Holy Zion (Hagia Sion in Jerusalem). His name echoes in the rather strange carol about the 10th century Bohemian martyr St. Wenceslas. As the Protodeacon he was long depicted as their patron, and then, somewhat latter, as the patron of stonemasons (and, in a rather macabre turn, was invoked against headaches[i]). He also came to be venerated as the patron saint of horses, which may come from the fact that Twelve Days of Christmas was a time of rest for animals that did domestic work, which made this time something of a “feast” for them.[ii] Horses were sometimes blessed on this day, and in Poland, after blessing the horse’s food, oats were thrown at the priest, possibly in a strange imitations of Stephen’s stoning.

St. John is noteworthy, of course, for many reasons, not least of which he is considered the only one of the evangelists and apostles not to have died as martyr. Tradition has it that he settled in Ephesus and then was exiled to Patmos where he received his Revelation, but under the emperor Nerva returned to Ephesus where he composed the biblical books associated with him. Tertullian recounts that he was ordered by Domitian to be thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil, out of which he came unharmed (which was a medieval feast on May 6, restored to the 1662 calendar, but removed from the Roman calendar in 1960). John was originally commemorated on December 27 along with his brother, James the Greater, though the latter’s feast was transferred to July 25. Wine was traditionally blessed and drunk on this day, referred to as the “Love of St. John” (Johannesminne; Szent János Aldása), probably because of the legend that he drank a cup of poisoned wine and was yet unharmed. It would be kept throughout the year: couples would drink a sip upon returning from church, travelers before setting out on a journey, and the dying were given a drop after having received the Last Rites.[iii]

St. Matthew’s Gospel depicts the slaughter of the innocent boys under the age of two in Bethlehem by Herod the King in 2:16. In the older Latin rite, Innocents’ Day was a day of penitence and fasting, the Mass marked with purple vestments and the suppression of the Gloria and Alleluia, while currently it is celebrated with all the pomp that marks the feast of martyrs. A custom begun by Pope Gregory IV (844), the patron of schools and choirs, was the appointment of a “boy bishop” on his feast day (March 12), which “originally consisted of a devotional service at which the boy bishop presided and preached a sermon,” a custom which was later transferred to Innocents’ Day. There was (and maybe still is) a custom of children gathering in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to sing a hymn in memory of the “flowers of martyrdom.”[iv]

Different interpretations have been given to these feasts considering their close relationship to Christmas. One is that they represent “three possible forms of martyrdom: voluntary and executed (Stephen), voluntary but not executed (John), and executed but not voluntary (Holy Innocents)” (Adolf Adam, The Church Year, 141-2). Recently, Hugo Mendez has suggested that the earliest collection of feasts included James, Peter, and Paul, and that they were placed there to indicate that these figures are the starting place of the sectoral cycle and that these confessors and martyrs took priority over other martyrs.  

There are two other feasts that are a mainstay in these days. In Sarum, as in the calendar produced after the Council of Trent, St. Thomas Becket had been commemorated on December 29 since the year 1220, the 50th anniversary of his martyrdom (he was added to the Episcopal Church’s calendar in 1994). St. Silvester, the fourth-century pope who died in 335, was long commemorated on December 31, including in the prayer book starting in 1559.

These five feast feasts, however, are the simplest aspects of the history of the varied and moving feasts that have been part of Christmastide and Epiphany in the West (to add in the Eastern calendar would make this even more complicated!).

For those who dare to tread, what follows is a summary of the history of the other feasts and commemorations of this season. Be forewarned, what follows is a deep dive!

The octave day of Christmas is January 1, the first day of the secular calendar. This date was originally a feast of the Blessed Virgin (the natale, or anniversary), possibly the earliest of her feasts. But as other feasts of the Virgin developed (particularly the Annunciation on March 25 and the Assumption on August 15), the themes of January 1 gradually gave way to reflect that it was the octave day of Christmas and a growing emphasis on the commemoration of the circumcision of Christ. The theme is quite logical, as St. Luke records that this occurred on the eighth day in accordance with the law (Luke 2:21), which later interpreters (seen in such famous sources as the Golden Legend) interpret mystically, noting that this is the first time that Christ’s blood was shed on our behalf. If that strikes the modern ear, we should remember that such an interpretation is reflected obliquely in that portion of the Litany known as the obsecrations: “By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and submission to the Law; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, Good Lord, deliver us” (1979 BCP, p. 149). The phrase, “submission to the Law,” however, is new to the 1979’s version of the litany, replacing “and Circumcision.” Thus, we have a theological claim that Christ’s obedience to the Law is, along with the other actions of his earthly life, “for our salvation.”

Historically in the West, the two Sundays after Christmas did not necessarily have any titles associated with them. The First Sunday after Christmas appointed readings from Galatians 4 (“God sent forth his son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law…”) and Matthew 1, the account of the angel coming to Joseph, themes retained in the English and American Prayer Books until 1979, when John’s prologue replaced the gospel text. Sarum, the Tridentine Missal, and the English prayer books never had propers for the Second Sunday after Christmas; when there was a second Sunday after Christmas (four of seven years!), the propers for the Circumcision were most often repeated. Propers only appeared for this Sunday in the 1928 American BCP, which were drawn from the proposed 1928 English BCP: the gospel from Matthew 2 concerns the angel coming again to Joseph, this time calling him up out of Egypt to return to the land of Israel (see Massey Shepherd, The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary, 107). Epiphany was celebrated on January 6, with its interwoven themes of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, and the Wedding at Cana, and would take precedence over the Second Sunday after Christmas, if they occurred on the same day (the same precedence took place when the Circumcision overlapped with the first Sunday after Christmas). In a change that still strikes me as strange, in the Catholic Church in the United States, the Epiphany is normally celebrated, not on January 6, but on the Sunday following January 1.

A number of changes to this string of days came in the Latin West in the 20th century. After Vatican II, January 1 returned to being a Marian feast, titled, The Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. While the General Norms indicate that this day “also recalls the conferral of the name of Jesus,” there is no mention of this in the propers.[v] A second change in the Roman calendar came in 1921 when the Feast of the Holy Family was introduced on the Sunday after Epiphany (from 1893 until 1911, one could celebrate the feast on the third Sunday after the Epiphany).[vi] This was a quite new devotion that only became widely popular in the 19th century, with Canada being one of the main sources of influence. After the Second Vatican Council, the Feast of the Holy Family is now celebrated on the Sunday between Christmas and January 1 (i.e., the first Sunday after Christmas); if January 1 happens to be a Sunday (i.e., when there is not a Sunday between Christmas and January 1), the Holy Family is moved back and commemorated on December 30, on which there has not historically been any fixed feast in the West. Devotion to the Holy Family was not picked up in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church in 1979 in any way, though some of the other new commemorations from the current Roman calendar were included (see below).

Another change was the commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus. This event had no distinct feast in the West until it was introduced by Pope Pius XII in 1955, when it was placed on the octave day of the Epiphany, January 13. Then, just 14 years later when the entire Roman calendar was revised after Vatican II, Pope Paul VI moved it to the Sunday following the Epiphany. In that same revision, there was a corresponding transfer of the Feast of the Holy Family from the Sunday after the Epiphany to the first Sunday in Christmastide, that is, the Sunday that falls within the octave of Christmas. In still another strange move, an effect of the Catholic Church in the U.S.’s decision to move the Epiphany from the fixed date of January 6 to the Sunday after January 1 is that the Baptism of Jesus on that day is displaced. However, the baptism commemoration remains on the octave day of the Epiphany, which, in this new and uniquely American arrangement for Roman Catholics, is always a Sunday.

The current calendar in the Episcopal Church retains the three major feasts after Christmas, though with a new directive: the First Sunday after Christmas ranks ahead of these three feasts, which means when the Sunday after Christmas falls on December 26, 27 or 28, that “Sunday takes precedence over the three Holy Days,” and thus, “as necessary, the observance of one, two, or all three of them is postponed one day” (1979 BCP, p. 161, 213). This is the opposite of the direction in older books, such as the 1928 BCP, which give precedent to the three feasts over the first Sunday after Christmas (just as would the Circumcision of Christ over the first Sunday after Christmas and the Epiphany on January 6 for the Second Sunday after Christmas, when they overlap). All three of the post-Nativity feasts are moved this year in the Episcopal Church since December 25 falls on a Saturday.

This is but one reminder that fixed feasts and movable feasts each carry with them different strengths and introduce different complications. The feast that governs the one major cycle with the Church Year (the Nativity Cycle, which runs from “the Last Sunday after Pentecost through the First Sunday after the Epiphany” [1979 BCP, p. 16]) is celebrated on a fixed day of the calendar, December 25. But this means that since the Sundays of Advent are the four that precede December 25, Advent can vary considerably in length: for example, St. Andrew’s Day is only sometimes celebrated within Advent, and the Fourth Sunday of Advent can fall on Christmas Eve. Conversely, the Easter Cycle, which runs “from the Last Sunday after the Epiphany [Christ the King] through Trinity Sunday” (1979 BCP, p. 16) is centered on the so-called “movable” feast of Easter, which moves based on the lunar cycle, but which is always celebrated on a Sunday. Thus, every day affected in this huge sweep of seasons and feasts on either side of Easter will always be celebrated on the same day of the week each year but on changing days in the calendar within a span of almost-six weeks.

The current calendar in the Episcopal Church, then, has a clear hierarchy among major feasts. While “all Sundays of the year are feasts of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1979 BCP, p. 16), there is even a hierarchy within the category of “Feasts of Our Lord.” The calendar is clear that any of the seven Principal Feasts “take precedence of any other day or observance” (1979 BCP, p. 15). The only ones that could supplant a Sunday are All Saints’ Day (which can even be celebrated additionally and supplant the Sunday following All Saints’) and the Epiphany. To this is added three additional feasts that always supplant a Sunday: The Holy Name (which would supplant Christmas I), the Presentation on February 2 (40 days after Christmas), and the Transfiguration (August 6). The rest of the Sundays within the entire sweep of the Nativity and Easter cycles always take precedence over the other feasts of Lord. The only two of these that could are the Annunciation (which always falls during Lent) and the Visitation (which can fall after Trinity Sunday if Easter falls between March 22 and April 7). If either falls on a Sunday in Lent or Easter respectively, it is either “transferred to the first convenient open day within the week” (1979 BCP, p. 16), or, (if the Annunciation falls during Holy Week or the Easter octave), it is “transferred to the week following the Second Sunday of Easter” (1979 BCP, p. 17). Thus, the ranking of feasts is a follows:

  1. Holy Name and the Epiphany
  2. The two Sundays after Christmas (which only give way to #1)
  3. Stephen, St. John, and the Innocents (which give way to #1 and #2)

Further in the 1979 BCP, neither of the Sundays after Christmas have any particular theme associated with them (such as the Holy Family), unlike the Last Sunday after Pentecost, which is the Feast of Christ the King in every respect except the title itself. A major revision is the change of the name of January 1 from the Circumcision of Christ (which was so named since the first English BCP in 1549 and dates to before 567) to the Holy Name of Jesus. The devotion or cult of the Holy Name (often signified with the abbreviation IHS) did not emerge until the 15th century and the feast finally settled on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. The revised calendar after Vatican II removed the feast altogether, but it was restored in 2002 on January 3. The English date of August 7 was restored to the prayer book calendar in the Elizabethan calendar of 1561, where it remains in the 1662 calendar. Common Worship, however, removes the commemoration on August 7 and titles January 1 as “The Naming and Circumcision of Jesus.” The 1979 BCP replaced the Circumcision with the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus on January 1.

The feast of the Epiphany is categorized as one of seven Principal feasts in the 1979 and is celebrated on January 6 without any provision to transfer it to the Sunday following. This is because the Sunday after the Epiphany is designated as the Baptism of Jesus and is one of four dates (along with the Easter Vigil, Pentecost and All Saints’ Day — relatively evenly spread throughout the year) upon which the 1979 BCP says that the administration of Holy Baptism is “especially appropriate” and also, when “there are no candidates for Baptism, the Renewal of Baptismal Vows… may take the place of the Nicene Creed at the Eucharist” (1979 BCP, p. 312). The commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus (whose history I described earlier), the suggestions of particularly appropriate days for baptism, and the provision for the renewal of baptismal vows are all new to English and American BCPs in the 1979 book.

To summarize:

  Old Sarum Trent Vat II Old BCPs 1979 BCP
Christmas Dec 25 Dec 25 Dec 25 Dec 25 Dec 25 Dec 25
St. Stephen Dec 26 Dec 26 Dec 26 Dec 26 Dec 26 Dec 26 (or 27)
St. John Dec 27 Dec 27 Dec 27 Dec 27 Dec 27 Dec 27  (or 28)
Innocents Dec 28 Dec 28 Dec 28 Dec 28 Dec 28 Dec 28 (or 29)
Thomas Becket Dec 29 Dec 29 Dec 29 Dec 29 Dec 29 Dec 29
Dec 30 Holy Family
St. Sylvester Dec 31 Dec 31 Dec 31 Dec 31 1662 English BCP
1st Sun after Christmas Gabriel to Joseph Gabriel to Joseph Gabriel to Joseph Holy Family Gabriel to Joseph John 1:1-18
Jan 1 Mary; then Circumcision Circumcision Circumcision Mary Circumcision Holy Name
2nd Sun after Christmas no propers no propers no propers John 1:1-12 no propers until 1928 (“out of Egypt”) Luke 2:41-52 (finding of Jesus in the Temple; formerly on Epiphany 1) or Matthew 2:1-12 (wise men; Epiphany Gospel, i.e. to allow a commemoration on Sunday)
Sun of Jan 2-5 Holy Name (1914-1969) In the US, Sunday from Jan 2-8 is Epiphany
Jan 3 Holy Name (2002-present)
Jan 6 Epiphany Epiphany Epiphany Epiphany (Sunday from Jan 2-8 in the US) Epiphany Epiphany
1st Sun after Epiphany Finding of Jesus in the Temple Finding of Jesus in the Temple Finding of Jesus in the Temple; then in 1921, Holy Family Baptism of Our Lord Finding of Jesus in the Temple Baptism of Our Lord
2nd Sun after Epiphany Wedding at Cana Wedding at Cana Holy Name (until 1914) Wedding at Cana until 1928, when Baptism of Jesus (Cana moved back a week) Yr 1, John  1:29-41 (Lamb of God); Yr 2, 1:43-51 (calling Phillip and Nath); Yr 3, 2:1-11 (Cana)


[i] Butler’s Lives, 601.

[ii] Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, 128.

[iii] Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, 130.

[iv] Attwater, Penguin Dictionary of Saints, 179.

[v] Adam, 144.

[vi] Adam, 144.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Get Covenant every weekday:


Most Recent

The Sabbath and the Dignity of the Weak

If you cannot keep the Sabbath, you cannot save a life. This is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s bold implication...

Singleness: Eschatological and Evangelical

The Meaning of Singleness: Retrieving an Eschatological Vision for the Contemporary Church By Danielle Treweek IVP Academic, 336 pages, $35 This important...

Anglican Mysteries

If you’re on the hunt for some summer reading, my reading in the past ten years commends the...

Global Perspectives on Universal Brotherhood

Fratelli Tutti A Global Commentary Edited by William T. Cavanaugh, Carlos Mendoza Álvarez, Ikenna Ugochuwku Okafor, and Daniel Franklin Cascade Books,...