It can get really confusing this time of year to figure out: When does Christmas end? Surprisingly, the answer can be quite simple: It ends after the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (this weekend). Technically, after Second Vespers of this Sunday (which we pray together as a parish during our weekly Holy Hour on Sunday nights).
It can be confusing because for most of church history – until within the last century – Christmas lasted 12 days, from Christmas Day through the Epiphany on January 6. In fact, in most of the rest of the world and in Canon Law and liturgical norms that’s still the case. So if you’re paying attention to Catholics in other parts of the world, you might see that Christmas ends on January 6 with Epiphany – NOT with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
The popular song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” referred to these 12 days and was used in Catechesis to help children remember key things about our faith.
As Father Chris House, our diocesan Judicial Vicar recently noted, “The Epiphany is universally [note: meaning through the rest of the Church around the world] celebrated on Jan. 6 as a holy day of obligation. National conferences of bishops were allowed to lift obligations or move feast days with the permission of the Holy See in the late 1960s. The celebration of Epiphany was moved by the US bishops in 1970 to the first Sunday after January 1st. This is a sad fate that has fallen on many holy days in Protestant dominated countries; in majority Catholic countries, many holy days are also civil holidays. There are ten obligatory holy days in the Code of Canon Law; only five have remained on their actual dates, with obligation, in the US (six in a few diocese where Ascension is still obligatory on Thursday).”
So the United States bishops, in 1970, moved Epiphany (for us in the US) from the traditional and universal date of January 6 to the first Sunday after January 1. Additionally, we now celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord the following Sunday, “replacing” what would otherwise be the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, and concluding the Christmas Season here.
In some places, Epiphany still holds a special place as a marker of the (now-unofficially-in-the-US) end of the Christmas season. In Alton, St. Mary’s Church takes part in a “Twelfth Night” celebration in a city park, where people bring their (real) Christmas trees and burn them in a huge bonfire under the watchful eye of three community leaders dressed as the three Magi, and the priests & deacons of the parish.
To complicate things further, we celebrate Christmas Day, the Christmas Octave, AND the Christmas Season (as outlined above.) It’s that important to us as we celebrate the Incarnation!
Christmas DAY, December 25 (and its Vigil the evening before) begins the OCTAVE which lasts the 8 days until January 1, “the Octave Day of Christmas,” on which we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. (It’s a Holy Day of Obligation, but the US bishops have removed that obligation when it falls on a Saturday or a Monday, which is why it wasn’t a day of obligation this year.) During that whole Octave it’s like we’re stuck on Christmas – the Psalms that priests & deacons pray at Morning Prayer (Lauds) & Evening Prayer (Vespers) each day are the same throughout the whole Octave.
Then the Christmas SEASON continues through the Baptism. But yet again, longer ago, the season actually continued all the way to the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2! (40 days – there’s something about that number.) There are beautiful traditions around the liturgy (Candlemas) on that day, some of which we’ll celebrate this year, explaining in a future bulletin. Mark your calendar to join us for an evening Mass by candlelight on February 2, though.
Here’s a good compromise that many Catholics who have sensibilities for the old and current calendars have settled upon: Keep the Christmas trees up for the whole Christmas SEASON (from at least Christmas, if not before, until the Baptism this weekend). Then the Christmas trees and most of the decorations can come down… but the Nativity stays up until February 2 for the Feast of the Presentation.