Just when you thought Christmas was over

By Fr. Kyle Sladek | For The Compass | January 25, 2022

Question

“Someone told me that Christmas isn’t over, in the church, until Feb. 2. What’s that all about? The Gospels have been about the adult Jesus for weeks.” — Neenah

Answer

Ah, yes. The Great Debate over when Christmas really ends. Does it end at 11:59:59 p.m. on Dec. 25? Does it end at the conclusion of the Octave of Christmas, the eight-day period that begins on Christmas and concludes on the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, on Jan. 1? Does it end on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the Epiphany of the Lord, on Jan. 6? (But wait! Since 1970, Epiphany is rarely celebrated on Jan. 6 in the United States, by the decision of the national conference of Catholic bishops (the USCCB). This year, Epiphany was celebrated on Jan. 2.) Does it end when your Christmas tree has been dragged to the curb for municipal services to machine-chop to bits?

For the answer, let us turn, as we must always do, to authoritative legislative texts and to church tradition.

The USCCB website notes: “The liturgical season of Christmas begins with the vigil Masses on Christmas Eve and concludes on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.” The latest day on which the Baptism of the Lord could occur, and thus the latest day on which the Christmas season could end, is Jan. 13. This arrangement is what most Roman Catholics have experienced ever since St. Valentine’s Day 1969, when Pope Paul VI promulgated the most recent General Roman Calendar, which took effect in 1970.

As with many things in life, it is salutary to ask, “What was done before 1970?” Perhaps the “someone” in your question is a patron of St. Patrick’s Oratory in Green Bay, which celebrates the Latin Mass. In this case, the Christmas season (or “Christmastide”) always ends on Jan. 13, the octave day of Epiphany, which is itself a season unto its own. Thus, on the traditional calendar, used before the liturgical changes following Vatican II, the Christmas season is always 20 days long.

One does sometimes hear the argument that Christmas lasts until Feb. 2, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Traditionally, in addition to the Christmas “season,” there exists a Christmas “cycle” (as well as an Easter “cycle”).

This Christmas cycle concludes on the Feast of the Presentation, Feb. 2, unless pre-Lent days (on a calendar that also dates to pre-council times) begins before that. (That will not happen in 2022.) The concept of this cycle helps keep the focus of prayer on the mystery of the Incarnation and the Baby Jesus through the final “Feast of the Baby,” the Presentation.

The Vatican has sometimes displayed its Christmas tree and Nativity scene through Feb. 2, although this has reportedly fluctuated during recent pontificates. (This year, the Vatican tree was removed after Jan. 9, the Baptism of the Lord.)

You could probably justify keeping your tree up for as long as you want. By Lent, it would be a drab, brown, needleless thing, and highly flammable — tasteful penitential décor.

Fr. Sladek is administrator of St. Mark Parish, Redgranite, and Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, Poy Sippi.

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