The Saint of Christmas Day

St. Anastasia is one of the few women martyrs greatly revered in both the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches, as well as in Rome itself.

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Of all the many saints who have had their feast days moved, reassigned, or dropped altogether from the Universal Calendar after the Second Vatican Council, perhaps no saint fell farther than St. Anastasia. True, everyone still associates Feb. 14 with Saint Valentine (nowhere to be found now on the new calendar, replaced by Saints Cyril and Methodius) — and Saint Michael, whose feast day was once of such import that it was popularly known as “Michaelmas” now has to share his day with the only other two angels named in the Bible, Gabriel and Raphael.

But St. Anastasia had the unique distinction of being commemorated on the second-holiest day of the year (after Easter) — Christmas Day itself. Perhaps she can take some solace in being restored to that august and singular position by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificium, so that the Divine Office and Holy Mass at Dawn (according to the Tridentine Norms) on Christmas recall her by name in prayer.

At this point one may reasonably ask the following questions: who was St. Anastasia? Why is she remembered on Christmas?

There are a couple of diametrically-opposed answers. The first comes from the Roman Martyrology, which, for the purposes of the hagiology at hand, seems like a reasonable place to start, seeing that it would be read aloud in choir on Christmas at the Hour of Prime, and provides the official Church hagiographical portrait. To wit:

On the same day [Dec. 25], the birthday of St. Anastasia, who in the reign of Diocletian first of all suffered hard and cruel imprisonment at the hands of her husband Publius, during which, however she was much consoled by St. Chrysogonus, a Confessor of Christ. Then she was enfeebled by lengthy detention by Florus, prefect of Illyria, and at last was bound to stakes with her hands and feet stretched out and fire kindled about her. Thus she achieved her martyrdom in the Isle of Palmira, to which she had been deported with 200 men and 70 women, who celebrated their martyrdom by being slain in different ways.

But get ready for the pushback. Here’s the irrepressible Alban Butler in his Lives of the Saints on Anastasia:

These stories are entirely apocryphal. St. Anastasia has been venerated at Rome since the late fifth century, when her name was put in the canon of the Mass [Eucharistic Prayer I], but so far as is known she had nothing to do with the City. Her cult originated at Sirmium in Pannonia, where she perhaps was martyred under Diocletian, but no authentic particulars of her life and passion have come down to us.

St. Anastasia fares even worse in Delaney’s Dictionary of the Saints—though he provides more background than Michael Walsh’s 1991 redaction of Butler’s, and, oddly, even the Roman Martyrology itself:

Anastasia (died, circa 304): Possibly a native of Sirmium, Pannonia, she was martyred during Diocletian’s persecution of Christians there. According to legendary sources she was the daughter of Praetextatus, a Roman noble, and married Publius, a pagan. On the death of Publius, while he was on a mission to Persia, Anastasia went to Auileia to minister to the Christians suffering persecution during Diocletian’s persecution, was herself arrested as a Christian and was burned to death on the island of Palmira after a ship she was on with a group of pagan prisoners was miraculously rescued by St. Thedota. She has been venerated in Rome since the fifth century, but aside from all else about her is probably pious fiction.

“Probably pious fiction.” Strong words for—make that, against—asSaint whose memory has now been restored to the Mass at Dawn on Christmas with the following commemoration:

Graciously accept our offerings, we beseech Thee, O Lord, and grant that, by the merits and intercession of blessed Anastasia, Thy Martyr, they may prove a help to our salvation. Through Our Lord, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with The Father in the Unity of the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and Ever. Amen.

Ironically, St. Anastasia’s “cause” was given new sinew and wings by the 12-volume Anglo-American edition of Butler’s Lives. I say this is ironic, since almost all of the books in this lengthy series, which owes very little to the original flavor and task of Alban Butler, reads as if its raison d’être is to debunk any myth about every saint, from St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland to the number of converts St. Francis Xavier baptized.

All that shoved to the side, Butler’s editors note that:

The explanation of how Anastasia’s commemoration became associated with Christmas is of liturgical interest. The commemoration of the birth of Christ as a separate feast began at Rome and eventually spread from Rome to the East; but when the pilgrim lady Etheria visited Jerusalem near the end of the fourth century the Nativity was still observed there as part of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, though the birth of Christ took precedence over his ‘shewing forth’ and the homage of the Magi…The dawn Mass was originally in honour of St. Anastasia of Sirmium. Later in the morning of the Epiphany there was a solemn celebration of the Holy Eucharist, which was begun in the great basilica of Constantine (the Martyrion) and consummated in the chapel of the Resurrection (the Anastastis).

Thus, “The church of St. Anastasia clearly had a great significance for Christian Rome. The adoption of St. Anastasia as titular saint may be purely fortuitous, based on the similarity of ‘Anastasia’ and ‘Anastasis.’”

The name “Anastasia” itself roughly translates to “dawn” or “shining forth” so it is just and fitting that, regardless or whatever else we know (or don’t) about the saint herself, she is remembered especially at dawn, on her birthday into Heaven, which happens to be the same day Our Savior Himself was born on earth.

And despite all the questions surrounding her life and death, she is one of the few women martyrs greatly revered in both the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches, as well as in Rome itself.

Merry Christmas!