"Octave" has two senses in Christian liturgical usage. In the first sense, it is the eighth day after a feast, reckoning inclusively, and so always falls on the same day of the week as the feast itself. The word is derived from Latin octava (eighth), with dies (day) understood. In the second sense, the term is applied to the whole period of these eight days, during which certain major feasts came to be observed.
The "eighth day" or octava dies simply refers to a full seven-day week in the inclusive counting system used in Latin (just as the ninth day completed a nundinal cycle, the eight-day week of the pre-Christian Roman calendar).
The number "eight" may however also have been taken as a reference to the Resurrection, or a "new creation" following the second coming of Christ. For this reason, early Christian baptistries and tombs typically were shaped as octagons.
The practice of octaves was first introduced under Constantine I, when the dedication festivities of the basilicas at Jerusalem and Tyre, Lebanon were observed for eight days. After these one-off occasions, annual liturgical feasts began to be dignified with an octave. The first such feasts were Easter, Pentecost, and, in the East, Epiphany. This occurred in the fourth century and served as a period of time for the newly baptized to take a joyful retreat.
The development of octaves occurred slowly. From the 4th century to the 7th century, Christians observed octaves with a celebration on the eighth day, with little development of the liturgies of the intervening days. Christmas was the next feast to receive an octave. By the 8th century, Rome had developed liturgical octaves not only for Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas, but also for the Epiphany and the feast of the dedication of a church. From the seventh century, saints' feasts also began to have octaves (an eighth-day feast, not eight days of feasts), among the oldest being the feasts of Saints Peter and Paul, Saint Lawrence and Saint Agnes. From the twelfth century, the custom developed of liturgical observance of the days between the first and the eighth day, as well as the eighth day. During the Middle Ages, octaves for various other feasts and saints were celebrated depending upon the diocese or religious order.
From Pius V to Pius XII
After 1568, when Pope Pius V reduced the number of octaves, they were still numerous. Not only on the eighth day from the feast but on all the intervening days, the liturgy was the same as on the feast itself, with exactly the same prayers and Scripture readings. Octaves were classified into several types. Easter and Pentecost had "specially privileged" octaves, during which no other feast whatsoever could be celebrated. Christmas, Epiphany, and Corpus Christi had "privileged" octaves, during which certain highly ranked feasts might be celebrated. The octaves of other feasts allowed even more feasts to be celebrated.
To reduce the repetition of the same liturgy for several days, Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius X made further distinctions, classifying octaves into three primary types: privileged octaves, common octaves, and simple octaves. Privileged octaves were arranged in a hierarchy of first, second, and third orders. For the first half of the 20th century, octaves were ranked in the following manner, which affected holding other celebrations within their timeframes:
- Privileged Octaves
- Common Octaves
- Simple Octaves
In addition to these, the patron saint of a particular nation, diocese, or church was celebrated with an octave, on each day of which the Mass and Office of the feast was repeated, unless impeded by another celebration.
Although the feasts of St. Lawrence and the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary officially still had simple octaves, by the 20th century they had all but vanished as higher-ranking feasts were added to the calendar. The octave day alone of St. Lawrence was still commemorated during the mass of St. Hyacinth. The entire octave of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary was impeded, but The Most Holy Name of Mary was celebrated during the octave and The Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary was celebrated on the former octave day.
Reduction by Pius XII and Paul VI
Pope Pius XII simplified the calendar with a decree dated 23 March 1955: only the octaves of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost were kept, octaves that differed from the others in not repeating the same liturgy daily. All other octaves in the Roman Rite were suppressed, including those in local calendars. (See General Roman Calendar of Pope Pius XII#Octaves.) In 1969 the Roman Catholic Church further revised the Roman Calendar by removing the octave of Pentecost.
The first eight days of the Easter Season make up the octave of Easter and are celebrated as solemnities of the Lord, with proper readings and prayers. Since 30 April 2000, the "Second Sunday of Easter", which concludes the Easter Octave, has also been called Divine Mercy Sunday.
The Christmas Octave is arranged as follows:
- Sunday within the octave: feast of the Holy Family; celebrated on Friday, December 30 when Christmas is a Sunday
- 26 December: feast of Saint Stephen
- 27 December: feast of John the Apostle
- 28 December: feast of the Holy Innocents
- 29-31 December: days within the octave, with assigned readings and prayers, on which the celebration of optional memorials is permitted according to special rubrics (but as noted above, when Christmas is a Sunday, the feast of the Holy Family is celebrated on December 30)
- 1 January, octave day of the Nativity; solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Eastern Christian usage
Among the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Rite Eastern Catholic Churches, what in the West would be called an Octave is referred to as an Afterfeast. The celebration of the Great Feasts of the church year are extended for a number days, depending upon the particular Feast. Each day of an Afterfeast will have particular hymns assigned to it, continuing the theme of the Feast being celebrated.
Most of these Great Feasts also have a day or more of preparation called a Forefeast (those Feasts that are on the moveable Paschal Cycle do not have Forefeasts). Forefeasts and Afterfeasts will affect the structure of the services during the Canonical Hours.
The last day of an Afterfeast is called the Apodosis (lit. "giving-back") of the Feast. On the Apodosis, most of the hymns that were chanted on the first day of the Feast are repeated. On the Apodosis of Feasts of the Theotokos, the Epistle and Gospel of the Feast are repeated again at the Divine Liturgy.
The term "octave" is applied to some church observances that are not strictly liturgical. For example, many churches observe an annual "Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity", which runs from 18 January to 25 January. This title has tended to be replaced by "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity", but it is still often referred to as an octave, especially within the Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic traditions.