Once upon a time, 23 and 24 Dec were days of abstinence

It is a Christian custom that we fast before our feasts.

Back in the day 23 and 24 December were days of fasting and abstinence.

Did you know that?

May I suggest to you good readers that you do something along these lines?

Perhaps cutting back on what you eat or that you abstain from meat be taken seriously for a couple days before Christmas.  You might also be ready to give alms.  In the ancient Church Roman Christians fasted and they gave the difference of what they would have eaten to the poor.

I am in NYC right now.  You might be surprised at how many people hit me up for money as an “easy mark”.  The collar is like a magnet. On days like these, I try to be a little easier.  I budget for it. Depending on the circumstances, sometimes – often, actually – I buy a sandwich instead giving of cash (which can result in some really interesting conversations).

I’ll bet that, where you are, you can find – let’s think about this… some organization that assembles boxes and bags to be shipped overseas, to go to – who knows? – local families?

Couple your mortifications with some corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Just a thought, friends.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in SESSIUNCULA. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. mamajen says:

    Christmas seems to have come up so quickly this year, and I feel less prepared/in the spirit than usual. Thank you for this reminder–I’ll see what I can do over these next two days. Hopefully confession is one of them.

  2. iPadre says:

    For us Italians there is the tradition of the 7 fish. Never cared much for fish, so it’s aglio e olio or butter.

  3. Genna says:

    We still keep up the tradition of a meatless Christmas Eve – and definitely no booze.

  4. ReginaMarie says:

    We Eastern Catholics are still in Philip’s Fast / the Nativity Fast. Today, we will go to church to pray the Royal Hours & for Confession. Blessed Advent & Feast of the Nativity to all!

  5. jfk03 says:

    In most Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches, the Nativity (Phillips) fast begins the day after the feast of St. Phillip the Apostle and continues to Christmas. Christmas Eve is a strict fast day, with only one meal permitted after the Divine Liturgy in the evening. I understand from my pastor that the West followed more-or-less the same tradition until the late middle ages, after which it slowly disappeared.

    In our secular society, the pre-Christmas (Holiday) lead up has become a feast of gluttony rather a fast leading up to the feast that celebrates the mystery of the Incarnation of the God man.

  6. Rachel K says:

    Thank you Fr for this good advice. It will help to fight off that rising consumer panic !

  7. Fr AJ says:

    How did we lose the tradition of fasting in the West before feast days I wonder? You’d think at least Christmas Eve would still be a fast day.

  8. Nan says:

    You could always pack a shoebox of gifts with the Duck guy uncle. You can do that online; choose items and pay for it, then the charity he’s working with packs it and sends it.

  9. APX says:

    Our priest spoke of this during Mass today. He said the 24th was traditionally a day of fasting and abstinence, except in German speaking countries, which celebrate Christmas the evening of the 24th, in which case the 23rd is a day of fasting and abstinence. We are 50% German, thus we celebrate Christmas the evening of the 24th.

  10. Andrew says:

    I am old enough to remember (postwar Europe) the live carp swimming around in the tub waiting to be filleted and sautéed on Christmas Eve. The pop culture replaced Advent with a season of intense feasting and shopping which ends on Christmas day: to be promptly forgotten as we get ready for the mockery called Valentine’s followed later by a sudden appearance of the Easter Bunny – another joyful feast of extreme kitsch. Christianity was weakened from within. There is a repeated effort in our churches to remind the faithful of the penitential nature of Advent but it is not being exemplified in the sanctuary. In my parish, the tabernacle is not visible but next to the altar there is a large (LLadro-ish) nativity scene. The priorities are all over the place and there is no sense of holy sobriety. And don’t even get me started on the music.

  11. David Zampino says:

    There is a meatless Italian pasta dish we traditionally make in our family.

  12. Elizabeth M says:

    My calendar from Leaflet has a fish on it for Christmas Eve, so I assumed that it still was a day of fast.

  13. gracie says:

    Hitting up a priest for money? Unbelievable. They should be giving money to you.

  14. Priam1184 says:

    @Andrew The slow weirding out of the whole season of Advent and turning it from a penitential season of expectation into a grand exultation of what exactly I don’t know over these last decades and centuries is to me excellent proof of how the demonic intelligence works over several generations, a little at a time, to achieve its result. Thank you for the good advice Father.

  15. NoraLee9 says:

    I usually drive my best friend of 35 years to her parents’ house at this time of year. She is Sicilian on one side and Napoledan on the other. Her father (88 years old) remembered the fast and abstinence, and wondered if there was significance to the 7 fishes. The best we could come up with is 7 being the number for perfection in scripture. If anyone here has a better understanding, we’d be glad to hear it.
    I love The fasting and abstinence before holidays. It works me up to celebrate the Feast.

  16. OrthodoxChick says:


    There are a few variations of the fishes that I am aware of. I know some families that have 12 different fish dishes on Christmas Eve – one fish for each apostle. In our family, we only did 11 fishes, as my Italian ancestors refused to host a fish for the traitor Judas. I have also heard of some families using 7 fishes. The number 7 being significant in many ways in the Church. It probably varies based on parish and family traditions and the region one’s family hails from.

  17. AMTFisher says:

    As I see it, part of our problem is being Catholics in a Historically Protestant country. Look at the Eve of All Saints Day and Advent: traditionally times of fasting, then a time of feasting, Catholics would dress up as the saints and have harmless fun, or would get together with “food, laughter, and good red wine” (Belloc) and celebrate the Incarnation. Then put us into Protestant America, the fasting leaves, and All Saints Eve becomes a commercialized party about scaring people/a celebration of evil. How did it happen? The majority in the US were Protestants. Many Protestants preached against the Catholic practice of having feast and fast days (like All Saints, Christmas, Easter, Ash Wednesday), claiming that they were hold overs from Paganism (think the Puritans of New England). But, then more liberal Protestants started celebrating the feasts (Unitarian Universalists), and making them their own (ex: all the Christmas hymns about Peace with little to no reference to the Incarnation [It came upon a midnight clear]). Business men then took up the holy days, and separated them further from their original contexts (the morphing of St. Nicholas from a bishop who literally fought heresy with his fists and helped save women from his Church from prostitution into a fat jolly benevolent man who is interested in giving children everything they want.) The Culture around the Church took what the Church celebrated and turned it into something it never was. (And of course in the years after the Council, people twisting the words of the documents, people acting in the [unclean] “spirit” of VII, people worshipping the new Trinity of Tolerance, Relativism, and Being a Nice Person, didn’t help us keep the old way of celebrating feasts either)

    Part of revitalizing it will be changing the Culture without, and part will be changing the Church (through Liturgical Renewal, going back to the traditional forms [whether in the EF or the OF], priests/deacons actually preaching about how Advent is penitential, et cetera) from within.

  18. KosmoKarlos says:

    My mom still holds Christmas Eve and Day as days of abstinence.
    Nothing wrong with a wonderful Christmas fish stew!

  19. Fr AJ says:

    KosmoKarlos, I get Christmas Eve for your mother but fasting on Christmas Day makes no sense to me. Why fast on Christmas Day? That seems contrary to the purpose of fasting as preparation to celebrate the actual feast day.

  20. Uxixu says:

    Great above Father. I going to abstain from meat today and will aim for a water fast tomorrow.

  21. Uxixu says:

    Autocorrect. Should be advice.

    I’ll likely eat after midnight Mass and certainly enjoy abundance on Christmas Day.

  22. Carolina Geo says:

    My parents are both from Hungary, and while I was growing up we always abstained from meat on the 24th. I still do to this day. In fact, I just bought a couple of salmon fillets for Christmas Eve dinner, and a beef rib roast for Christmas dinner.

    A blessed Christmas to everybody!

  23. Kathleen10 says:

    Orthodox Chick, what a fantastic family custom, and one to pass down to each generation. I love the notion that Judas did not deserve a fish! Excellent.

  24. OrthodoxChick says:


    Thanks! Although in recent decades, I think the older generations of my family have lost the penitential aspect. Yes, we still have the 11 fishes, but, where baccala and more austere fish once held a spot on the table, their place has since given way to more decadent options such as baked stuffed shrimp and baked scallops au gratin!

  25. Vecchio di Londra says:

    I like the monastic custom of treating the vigil of every major feast as a fast day. It makes the following feast day more festive and enjoyable.
    In France there used to be special foods one ate on Christmas Eve – salt cod, for example. And a plain cake whose name and ingredients I’ve forgotten…

  26. CatholicByChoice says:

    I am fasting through all the days of Advent. Last year I fasted through all of Advent and then through all of Lent. My fast consists of two “just enough” meals and then a smaller-than usual evening meal (I am a vegetarian). I have found that fasting through Advent greatly increases the joy of Christmas Day. I became Catholic in 2011, and fasting is something I have learned about since becoming Catholic. I read about fasting in “Cassian’s Conferences” in 2011 and the information rolled around in my mind for a long time. Then in 2012 I decided to jump in with both feet: I had two 40-day fasts (Lent and also before the Presidential election) and one Advent fast. This year I plan to fast again for Lent as well but I haven’t decided what form my Fast will take.

  27. Lin says:

    I did not know that back in the day, the 23rd and 24th were days of fasting. Where can I get more information on this subject?

  28. Suburbanbanshee says:

    In Germany particularly, there were legends of holiday and fasting fairies or angels or spirits which appeared in various cautionary tales. The fasting fairies (who looked like old hags) punished people who didn’t fast during Lent, Advent, and various pre-holiday fast days; generally they would make the non-abstinent food make the person sick, magically morph them, etc.

    But there were also holiday fairies (who looked like beautiful ladies) who punished people who performed unnecessary work on holy day holidays, such as cleaning the house or doing laundry. They were especially hard on wives or servants who stayed behind in the house, sneaking in work instead of going to Mass, going to the fair, etc.

    I find it very German, this idea that fairy punishment was needed to STOP people from working!

  29. Uxixu says:

    Why not a fish for St Paul or St Matthias OrthodoxChick? Still, a nice family custom.

  30. Legisperitus says:

    I had heard that Christmas Eve was a day of fast and abstinence but the penance could be transferred to the 23rd for reasonable cause, such as having the family Christmas dinner on the 24th. Hadn’t ever heard of a 2-day abstinence, unless the 23rd fell on a Friday.

    (Footnote: My great-grandmother hated fish and was convinced that the Friday abstinence was nothing but a big money-making scheme concocted by the Apostles because they were fishermen! True story.)

  31. Ben Kenobi says:

    I will give this a try, Father. We tend to have a smaller meal (just Tortiere) for dinner in my family, on Christmas Eve. Followed by Christmas where we have an early meal in the afternoon.

  32. Lin says:

    Someone also told me that meat-less Friday’s was a scheme concocted by Italian fisherman!

  33. bookworm says:

    Funny you should mention this… I had forgotten about it, and already made plans for a ham dinner tomorrow with dear daughter and husband. I also got hit up by a panhandler just as I was arriving home from work, and had to say no, because I personally am kinda short on cash right now (from having bought a bunch of presents, food, etc.) and hubby doesn’t want me encouraging the panhandlers. So, two strikes right there.
    However, earlier today I got a call from the local blood center asking when I could come in (I had an appointment last Friday but was deferred due to a hemoglobin count just barely below the limit). They will still be open at noon tomorrow when I get off work so I said I would come in then. Donating blood is one of my favorite acts of charity/penance and one I generally do on Fridays when possible, so I guess it’s fitting to be able to do it on Christmas Eve.

  34. whitewings says:

    My father was Polish, so we’ve always kept up the Polish tradition of a meat free Christmas Eve. Mind you, whether the traditional Polish twelve course fish dinner (which we don’t manage these days) with a different vodka between each course really constitutes fasting in any meaningful sense of the word…

  35. OrthodoxChick says:


    I Dunno. Maybe they never thought of it. I guess we’d have to ask the ancestors. If they were already preparing 11 different fish dishes, I can’t see why bumping it up to 13 would be any big deal, especially since they had bigger families in those days. My family today isn’t large enough (and doesn’t enjoy enough variety of fish) to justify the expense of either 11 or 13 fishes, so I think 3 fish dishes is a more reasonable number for my own immediate family – 1 for each member of the Holy Family.

  36. Vecchio di Londra says:

    I don’t think the fish-Friday was invented by fishermen. Except in the coastal areas, the provision of saltwater fish in medieval Europe was extremely sparse, except where it was salted or kippered (salt cod and kippered herring, for example).
    Most medieval fish meals were of locally-farmed freshwater fish – chub, pike, carp, trout etc).
    A lot of these were locally farmed by the monks in pools and tracts of river/stream.

  37. Vecchio di Londra says:

    whitewings- I’ve always assumed that Poles in Lent just go onto an inferior brand of vodka.

  38. Pingback: Francis: Christmas Is for Jesus, Not Parties, Shopping - Big Pulpit

  39. mamajen says:

    I made it to confession! I have never seen a line so long for a single priest. I arrived a bit early and there were already a dozen waiting, with many more to come. The majority were young people (teens, young adults). The priest was wonderful (I could hear him!), and made me feel like a million bucks for dragging myself in and saying all the stuff I’m not proud of. What a blessing.

    I hope everyone has a happy, holy Christmas Eve and Christmas.

  40. ByzCath08 says:

    Since switching our church suri juris to the Byzantine Church, my wife & I have observed the Philips Fast by abstaining from meat & dairy. Once you understand the concept of fasting in order to properly feast, you come to embrace those periods. I really wish the western church would return to some of those disciplines.

  41. bookworm says:

    Well, unfortunately, I could not make it to the blood center today because my car didn’t start (it got below zero last night). I was still able to walk to work, however. I had stashed some gifts for my husband and daughter at the office and was about a block away from home after work when the same panhandler who hit me up yesterday, AND another guy, tried to hit me up for money again. They weren’t aggressive or threatening, just persistent, and they could see I had my hands full. This time I just tried to hurry past them as quickly as possible. I feel really bad about saying no to these people, especially at Christmas, but I honestly cannot spare any extra cash right now — my next payday is Jan. 2. I have been meaning to purchase gift cards/certificates from some of the local fast food places so that I have something to offer when one of these people comes begging for money for food, but have been putting it off.

Comments are closed.