You musical folks know the meaning of “octave.” It’s the eighth note above or below a particular note on the scale. Octave means “eighth.” If you count Christmas Day the first, then today is the “eighth day.”
Eight has a great significance in our Jusaeo-Christian tradition. Seven is the number of completion – the work finished, the day of rest after the work of Creation, the Sabbath (Hebrew Shabbat). In Jewish understanding, the Eighth Day is the Day of the Covenant, and therefore carries the connotation of the day that never ends. The Faithful God will never break or annul the Covenant. That’s why circumcision, the sign of the Covenant, takes place on the eighth day.
In later Christian tradition, dating from about the 13th century, the Octave Day of Christmas began to be celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision, when Jesus was also given his name, Yeshua or Yehoshua, meaning “God is salvation.”
In the early Church, following the declaration by the Council of Ephesus (431 CE) of Mary as Theotokos of “Mother of God,” the Maternity of Mary began to be celebrated as a feast. However, it was officially established in the universal Roman calendar following Vatican II in 1970.
In his Apostolic Letter on Devotion to Mary, Marialis Cultus (1974), Pope Paul VI explained: “This celebration, placed on January 1 …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 of 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.”
For over fifty years, the Catholic Church has also celebrated this day as the World Day of Peace, and each year the Pope issues a message around a particular theme relating to peace. Taken together, these constitute an impressive body of Catholic teaching. Here’s this year’s by Pope Francis on the subject, Good politics is at the service of peace. In it he quotes the Eight Beatitudes of the Politician, composed by the late Vietnamese Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyễn Vãn Thuận:
Blessed be the politician with a lofty sense and deep understanding of his role.
Blessed be the politician who personally exemplifies credibility.
Blessed be the politician who works for the common good and not his or her own interest.
Blessed be the politician who remains consistent.
Blessed be the politician who works for unity.
Blessed be the politician who works to accomplish radical change.
Blessed be the politician who is capable of listening.
Blessed be the politician who is without fear.
By our non-liturgical counting, however, beginning with Christmas as “day zero” and the day after as “day one,” – recall that this was in order to make the Epiphany to come out as the twelfth – today the Seventh Day of Christmas is the last of the birds: Seven Swans A-Swimming.
Swan meat was a delicacy in England in Elizabethan times. Here’s an old recipe: “To bake a Swan Scald it and take out the bones, and parboil it, then season it very well with Pepper, Salt and Ginger, then lard it, and put it in a deep Coffin of Rye Paste with store of Butter, close it and bake it very well, and when it is baked, fill up the Vent-hole with melted Butter, and so keep it; serve it in as you do the Beef-Pie.”
You may want to think twice before baking your swan for New Year’s dinner. The most recent PNC Christmas Price Index shows the price of Seven Swans A-Swimming” to be $13,125. That’s $1,875 apiece! It’s by far the most expensive of any of the gifts. Why so much. Apparently, swans raised in captivity are difficult and costly to breed. Although not included in the purchase price for the Giver, the Recipient also has to consider the cost of pond maintenance.
Culturally, this elegant member of the goose and duck family is more associated with beauty and transformation (e.g., The Ugly Duckling) than food.
Not all swan tales end happily. The mute swan was said to sing loudly as death approached, hence the expression “swan song.” And in the Finnish epic, Kalevala, a swan guarded the Tuoni River, the boundary of the Land of the Dead. Sibelius described the scene in his dark and foreboding, “Swan of Tuonela.”
Pope Francis closed out the Old Year and welcomed the New with Solemn Evening Prayer at St. Peter’s, and his message focused on Jesus Christ who “unleashed the unheard-of power of love.”
Happy New Year!