Print Article | Email Article | Write To Us

The TWENTY-PLUS Days of Christmas???

12/29/2011 Comments (29)

As many are aware, it’s still Christmas. The Christmas season only begins on Christmas.

But when does it end?

If you go by the famous phrase “the twelve days of Christmas”—immortalized in the well-known song (which really *is not* a crypto-catechism after all; sorry.)—then you might guess they end on January 5, the eve of Epiphany, counting Christmas Day as the first day. Or if, according to some versions, you count the day *after* Christmas Day as the first day then the twelfth turns out to be January 6, the traditional day of Epiphany.

Ahhh. . . . Things were so uncomplicated in former centuries. Twelve days. Two options. Easy!

But as the Church’s liturgical cycle get modified over the years, things become a little more complicated.

You know, like how Lent *originally* started out as a 40 days celebration, but if you look up its technical definition in the Church’s official documents today, it turns out that the number “40” is only approximate, and it’s really more than 40 days? (Extra penance, folks!)

Well, it turns out the same thing is true of the Christmas season. Here is the current, official definition of its length, taken from the brand, spanking new translation of the Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar:

33. Christmas TIme runs from First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of the Nativity of the Lord up to and including the Sunday after Epiphany or after January 6.

Let’s start with the obvious: The Nativity of the Lord is December 25—Christmas Day. First Vespers are said in the evening, so the First Vespers of the Nativity of the Lord are said in the evening of December 25 (*not* Dec. 24). Right?

Wrong. They’re actually said in the evening of the previous day, December 24, so no easy, day-begins-at-midnight scenario for the length of Christmas Time. It starts the evening of the 24th.

Now, what about the end, which includes “the Sunday after Epiphany or after January 6”?

This is a little confusing, but the norms offer some help by noting:

37. The Epiphany of the Lord is celebrated on January 6 unless, where it is not celebrated as a Holyday of Obligation, it has been assigned to the Sunday occurring between January 2 and 8. . . .

38. The Sunday falling after January 6 is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

So, just to keep things simple, let’s assume that in a particular location Epiphany is celebrated as a Holyday of Obligation. The traditional reckoning of the twelve days of Christmas would have brought us up to either January 5 or January 6, but the Universal Norms extend Christmas Time beyond that “up to and including” the next Sunday, which is the Baptism of the Lord.

That Sunday can fall from January 7 to January 13, which would mean the total length of Christmas Time on this scheme would be more than 12 days. If the Baptism of the Lord falls on January 7 then Christmas would be 14 days plus an evening long (remember: it starts on the evening of December 24), and if the Baptism of the Lord falls on January 13 then it would be a whopping 20 days plus an evening!

As Keanu Reeves would say: “Whoa! Dude!”

So how long is Christmas here in the U.S. this year?

We’re in one of those countries where Epiphany is not commemorated as a Holyday of Obligation apart from the Sunday it has been transferred to. It’s been transferred to the first Sunday after January 1, which means it can fall between January 2 and January 8. That creates a new issue for when the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated.

According to the U.S. edition of the new Roman Missal:

When the Solemnity of the Epiphany is transferred to the Sunday that occurs on January 7 or 8, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated on the following Monday.

That’s what’s happening this year. The Sunday after January 1 is January 8, which is when we’ll be celebrating Epiphany. That means the Baptism of the Lord will be celebrated the next day, Monday, January 9.

You can confirm by looking at the USCCB liturgical calendar here. Notice that the green of ordinary time resumes on January 10.

This means that this year Christmas Time in the United States lasts 16 days plus an evening.

So . . . this year we get an extra four-plus days of celebrating compared to what they had in some times and places—where Christmas is 20 days and an evening long—we get an extra eight-plus days.

Ain’t progress wonderful?

What do you think?

Filed under christmas, liturgy, twelve days of christmas

About Jimmy Akin

Jimmy Akin
  • Get the RSS feed
Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, "A Triumph and a Tragedy," is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is a Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to This Rock magazine, and a weekly guest on "Catholic Answers Live."