All About the Feast of the Holy Family
Holy Family Definition and Summary
The Feast of the Holy Family celebrates the human family unit, as well as the ultimate family unit: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The feast, not a solemnity, is usually celebrated on the Sunday between Christmas and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January 1). If Christmas is a Sunday, then the feast is celebrated on December 30.
Holy Family Prayers: Prayers for Families and for the Feast of the Holy Family.
Liturgical Color(s): White
Type of Holiday: Feast Day
Time of Year: The Sunday between Christmas and New Year's Day; if both are Sundays, the feast is celebrated on December 30
Duration: One day
Celebrates/Symbolizes: The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
Alternate Names: Holy Family Sunday
The Holy Family is the name given to the family unit of Jesus: The Divine Son of God, Jesus; His mother, the Virgin Mary; and his foster father, Joseph. We know very little about the life of the Holy Family through the canonical Gospels. The Gospels speak briefly of the early years of the Holy Family, including the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the flight into Egypt, and the finding of Jesus in the temple. Various non-canonical works, including the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, try to fill in the blanks. However, even though these apocryphal works may contain some truth derived from oral tradition, they have been deemed unworthy of canonical status because of the way they present Jesus. But while the exact details of the day-to-day life of the Holy Family may be unknown, we can still learn a lot from the stories we do have.
Devotion to the Holy Family is a recent development, but one that naturally grows out of a love for Jesus and His family. Devotion to the Holy Family grew in popularity in the 17th century, and several religious congregations have been founded under this title. The Holy Family also started being portrayed in popular art of the period. On October 26, 1921, the Congregation of Rites (under Pope Benedict XV) inserted the Feast of the Holy Family into the Latin Rite general calendar. Until then it had been celebrated regionally (see History below). Popes before and including Benedict XV (especially Leo XIII) promoted the feast as a way to counter the breakdown of the family unit. Today the Church celebrates the feast on the Sunday between Christmas and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January 1). If both Christmas and January 1 fall on Sundays, meaning no Sunday exists between the two dates, the Church celebrates the Holy Family feast on December 30. If the feast falls on December 30 (i.e. not on a Sunday), attendance is not obligatory. Up until 1969, the Holy Family feast was kept on the first Sunday after Epiphany. It was transferred to its current date in 1969.
The Feast of the Holy Family is not just about the Holy Family, but about our own families too. The main purpose of the feast is to present the Holy Family as the model for all Christian families, and for domestic life in general. Our family life becomes sanctified when we live the life of the Church within our homes. This is called the "domestic church" or the "church in miniature." Saint John Chrysostom urged all Christians to make each home a "family church," which sanctifies the family unit. Just how does one live out the Church in the family? The best way is by making Christ the center of family and individual life. Ways to do this include: reading Scripture regularly, praying daily, attending Mass at least on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, imitating the actions of the Holy Family, going to confession frequently, and so forth, all done together as a family unit.
Saint Paul provides advice on family life in Colossians 3:12-21:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart (NRSVCE).
The Holy Family feast is a good time to remember the family unit and pray for our human and spiritual families. We can also use this feast as an oportunity to reflect on the value and sanctity of the family unit and to evaluate our own family life. What ways may it be improved? What would Jesus, Mary, and Joseph do? Finally, we can use this feast to ask ourselves what are we doing to promote the family within our own cultures, neighborhoods, and communities.
In 1643 Louis and Barbe d'Ailleboust came to Canada in order to devote their lives to the welfare of the natives there. After her husband had passed away, Barbe, with the assistance of the Jesuit Father Chaumonot, founded the Confraternity of the Holy Family. The confraternity and devotion to the Holy Family spread all over Canada and had the effect of promoting good morals. Monsignor Franois de Laval invited her to Quebec, and gave her the general management of the confraternity, which still exists today. In 1675, the now Bishop de Laval had a little book printed in Paris instructing the members of the confraternity as to virtuous practices. Bishop de Laval also established the feast of the Holy Family, and had a Mass and office drawn up that are proper to the Diocese of Quebec. The feast was later added in 1921 to the general calendar of the Western Rite as a way to counteract the breakdown of the family.
Worship and Prayer Resources
Traditions, Symbols, and Typology
Traditions and Customs: Gathering together with your family, praying as a family, cooking a meal together, beginning/ending correspondence with "JMJ" (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph)
Symbols Nativity scene; Jesus, Mary, and Joseph; any general family symbol
This page written by David Bennett.