How Long Should We Celebrate the Christmas Season?
A history lesson in Catholic tradition and practice for the 12 days of Christmas
Days after the secular world has ceased spreading Christmas cheer, the Church celebrates the 12 Days of Christmas until Epiphany. In fact, for Epiphany, once popularly called “Little Christmas,” there were Twelfth Night feasts and celebrations. Beyond that, the Church celebrates the Christmas season up to the Baptism of the Lord. Some traditions stretch the season to the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord on Feb. 2.
So how long should we celebrate Christmas?
Jennifer Miller, her husband, David, and their two sons celebrate to the Baptism of Our Lord in their Manassas, Virginia, home. “It doesn’t mean we put all of the decorations away. That’s a process that takes a while,” she said. “Verbally, we talk about this as the last day of the Christmas season.”
Epiphany is traditionally celebrated on Jan. 6, but after it was transferred in the United States to the Sunday between Jan. 2 and Jan. 8, the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated on the following Sunday (with one exception, or Jan. 13 in the extraordinary-form calendar).
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops states, “The liturgical season of Christmas begins with the vigil Masses on Christmas Eve and concludes on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.” If we’re following the liturgical year, this is the official teaching. The other two possibilities are cultural or family traditions.
Unlike some folks who toss out their Christmas tree and store decorations away before New Year’s, not so for the Millers. “I want to celebrate all the aspects of the Infancy Narratives with the Church,” said Jennifer. “I want to celebrate Epiphany and go through the childhood of Jesus.”
To compete their Nativity scene, many families traditionally bring the figures of the Three Kings from some distant location in the house to their crèche, placing them in adoration of the Infant Jesus, for Epiphany, as Pope Francis explained in his recent letter.
On the Baptism of the Lord, the faithful recall their own baptism and their being given the commission to “now go forward and spread the Gospel,” Miller said. At the same time, Miller — who is a catechist at Renaissance Montessori school and liturgical contributor to the Catholic Culture website — clarifies that, on Feb. 2, “the Presentation is one of the outliers. I call it a Christmas feast after Epiphany.” There are actually three titles for this feast day, the other two being the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Candlemas.
Especially in earlier times, many people held that the season didn’t end until this feast. In his 1953 Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, Jesuit Father Francis X. Weiser wrote, “Candlemas Day used to be, and still is in many countries, the end of the popular Christmas season. Cribs and decorations are taken down with care.” And in his 1955 book True Spirit of Christmas, Father Edward Sutfin noted, “Candlemas is the last feast day of the Christmas cycle and constitutes a transition between the seasons of Christmas and Easter.”
In “Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve,” one of several poems on Candlemas by 17th-century English poet Robert Herrick, he exclaims:
Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe
Down with the holly, ivy, all
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall.
And a 15th-century English carol proclaims,
Make we mirth
For Christ’s birth
And sing we yule till Candlemas.
In addition, an 18th-century poem from Colonial Williamsburg goes:
When New Year’s Day is past and gone
Christmas is with some people done
But further some will it extend
And at Twelfth Day their Christmas end
Some people stretch it further yet
At Candlemas they finish it.
Yet celebrating Christmas to Candlemas is not official in the eyes of the Church. Searching historically, including though old missals, Miller found clues to clear up confusion regarding the Christmas season. She explains, “Following the liturgical colors is a good indicator: How does the Church look at this time of the year?”
After the Baptism of the Lord, she said, “the vestments change to green. If it was still Christmas, it would be white.” The main time after Epiphany is a different season, yet “still looks back at Christmas as the pivotal feast for the focus until we reach Lent.” When the colors shift to purple, the focus looks forward to Easter.
It is helpful to think of these 40 days as the “Christmas cycle” whereas the “Christmas season” concludes after the Baptism of the Lord.
Something else to keep in mind: Around 2010 the Vatican began taking down the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square in mid-January. Then, in 2016, the Vatican began opening the Christmas Crib at the beginning of December and closing it with the Baptism of the Lord. But until 2009, according to Polish tradition, the crèche remained until Feb. 2 after St. John Paul II reintroduced the Vatican’s Nativity scene. It would remain from Christmas Eve to when he made his last visit to pray before the Nativity — on Feb. 2, the Presentation of the Lord.
“That would be a tradition to have at home,” Miller shared. “To me, it means it’s a Christmas feast but not the Christmas season.” Even more, her young sons liked to keep the stable up all year. “They loved the reminder of the Nativity.”
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.