As Catholics, we recognize that Christmas is not only on December 25. The Church’s liturgy actually emphasizes the eight days or octave of Christmas. The Church recognizes that the days of the Christmas Octave are repeating the solemnness of Christmas for eight days, concluding on a high note with another solemnity that echoes the solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord.
An octave is an eight-day period during which Christmas is celebrated, and includes the actual feast. The eighth day is also called the octave or “octave day,” and days in between are said to be “within the octave”
Despite having four days within the octave that are feasts: St. Stephen (today, December 26th), St. John the Evangelist, the Holy Innocents and the Holy Family, each of these days is another “day of the octave of Christmas.”
A profound explanation is given by Pope Paul VI from his Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultis from 1974:
The Christmas Season is a prolonged commemoration of the divine, virginal and salvific Motherhood of her whose “inviolate virginity brought the Saviour into the world”. In fact, on the Solemnity of the Birth of Christ the Church both adores the Saviour and venerates his glorious Mother. On the Epiphany, when she celebrates the universal call to salvation, the Church contemplates the Blessed Virgin, the true Seat of Wisdom and true Mother of the King, who presents to the Wise Men for their adoration the Redeemer of all peoples (cf. Mt. 2:11). On the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (the Sunday within the octave of Christmas) the Church meditates with profound reverence upon the holy life led in the house at Nazareth by Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man, Mary his Mother, and Joseph the just man (cf. Mt. 1:19).
In the revised ordering of the Christmas period it seems to us that the attention of all should be directed towards the restored Solemnity of Mary the holy Mother of God. This celebration, placed on January 1 in conformity with the ancient indication of the liturgy of the City of Rome, is meant to commemorate the part played by Mary in this mystery of salvation. It is meant also to exalt the singular dignity which this mystery brings to the “holy Mother...through whom we were found worthy to receive the Author of Life”. It is likewise a fitting occasion for renewing adoration to the newborn Prince of Peace, for listening once more to the glad tidings of the Angels (cf. Lk 2:14): and for imploring from God, through the Queen of Peace, the supreme gift of peace.... (Marialis Cultis, St. Pope Paul VI).
The Feast of St. Stephen, the First Marytr
The deacon Stephen, stoned in Jerusalem two years after the death of Christ, has always been the object of very special veneration by the faithful. He is the first martyr. The account in the Acts of the Apostles relating his arrest and the accusations brought against him emphasize the parallel with our Saviour's trial; he was stoned outside the city wall and died, like his Master, praying for his executioners.
Stephen belongs to the group of seven deacons whom the Apostles associated with their work in order to lighten their load. He was "filled with faith and with the Holy Spirit," "full of grace and strength" he showed himself as a man of God, radiating divine grace and apostolic zeal. As the first witness to Christ, he confronted his opponents with quiet courage and the promise made by Jesus (Mark 13.11) was fulfilled: ". . .Disputing with Stephen they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit that spoke."
In St. Stephen, the first martyr, the liturgy emphasizes the imitator of Christ even to the extent of the complete gift of self, to the extent of that great charity which made him pray in his suffering for his executioners. By establishing the feast on the day after Christmas the Church draws an even closer comparison between the disciple and the Master and thus extends his witness to the whole mission of the redeeming Messiah.
Grant, Lord, we pray, that we may imitate what we worship, and so learn to love even our enemies, for we celebrate the heavenly birthday of a man who know how to pray even for his persecutors.