When Christmas Falls on Friday, Can Catholics Eat Meat?

When the Rules of Fasting and Abstinence Collide With Solemnities

Christmas Dinner With Turkey
Woman takes plate with turkey at Christmas dinner. Betsie Van Der Meer/Taxi/Getty Images

Most holidays are associated with family, fun, and feasting, and Christmas is no exception. The iconic Christmas table always has a goose or turkey or ham or rib roast, whether beef or pork. And yet, like every other moveable feast celebrated in the Catholic Church, Christmas sometimes falls on a Friday, the traditional day of abstinence from meat. The idea of celebrating Christmas without something to carve, however, seems nearly unthinkable.

When Christmas falls on a Friday, can you eat meat?

Christmas Is a Solemnity

The Nativity of the Lord—Christmas—is a solemnity, which is the highest ranking of any feast in the Catholic liturgical calendar. Indeed, Christmas is the second-greatest Christian feast, outranked only by Easter. (Other solemnities include Pentecost Sunday, Trinity Sunday, the Feasts of Saint John the Baptist, Saints Peter and Paul, and Saint Joseph, as well as certain feasts of our Lord, such as Epiphany and Ascension, and other feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, including Immaculate Conception.)

No Fasting or Abstinence on Solemnities

If this list of solemnities reads like a roll call of Holy Days of Obligation, that's because many of them are. The Church tells us that we should attend Mass on these days because, in essence, a solemnity is as important as a Sunday. And just as Sundays are never days of fasting or abstinence, we refrain from penitential practices on solemnities such as Christmas as well.

(See "Should We Fast on Sundays?" for more details.) That is why the Code of Canon Law (Can. 1251) declares:

Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday [emphasis mine].

Your Goose Is Cooked—So Eat It!

Thus, whenever Christmas, or any other solemnity, falls on a Friday, the faithful are dispensed from the requirement to abstain from meat or to practice whatever other form of penance their national conference of bishops has prescribed.

But Wait—What About Christmas Eve?

Christmas Eve is a different story, in more ways than one. Older Catholics may remember when the law of fasting and abstinence (until it was revised by Pope Paul VI in 1966) required Catholics to abstain from meat before noon on Christmas Eve. Going back even further, for most of Christian history, Christmas Eve—the vigil of Christmas—was, like the vigils of every major feast, a day of fasting and abstinence, designed to heighten the joy of the feast to come.

That's why most European cultures developed Christmas Eve customs that included a rather elaborate meatless meal before the family went off to Midnight Mass. Here in the United States, those customs still survive among some families, especially of Eastern European and Italian descent, and there's something to be said for reviving at least the practice of abstaining from meat before noon on Christmas Eve. But such abstinence is voluntary under the current law of the Catholic Church regarding abstinence. (See Abstinence as Spiritual Discipline and What Are the Rules for Fasting and Abstinence in the Catholic Church?)

What If Christmas Eve Falls on a Friday?

If Christmas Eve itself falls on a Friday, however, that changes things.

Christmas Eve is not a solemnity, so the current rules regarding Friday abstinence apply. If your national bishops' conference has said that Catholics in your country should abstain from meat on Fridays, then Christmas Eve is no exception. Of course, if your bishops' conference allow for the substitution of some other form of penance for abstinence, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops does, then you can eat meat, as long as you perform a different act of penance.

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Richert, Scott P. "When Christmas Falls on Friday, Can Catholics Eat Meat?" ThoughtCo, Mar. 13, 2016, thoughtco.com/christmas-friday-can-catholics-eat-meat-542178. Richert, Scott P. (2016, March 13). When Christmas Falls on Friday, Can Catholics Eat Meat? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/christmas-friday-can-catholics-eat-meat-542178 Richert, Scott P. "When Christmas Falls on Friday, Can Catholics Eat Meat?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/christmas-friday-can-catholics-eat-meat-542178 (accessed December 17, 2017).