Wednesday, January 7, 2015

When does Christmas end, anyway?

It's always been something of a mystery to me exactly when Christmas comes to an end. I've witnessed sad, denuded trees discarded on the curb the afternoon of Christmas-day. And it's no surprise, as many people are probably sick of Christmas by the end of December since stores start playing the Christmas songs even in the lead-up to Thanksgiving. On top of that, if one puts up the tree in early December, there likely aren't many needles clinging to the branches by the time Christmas-day finally arrives.

Since we didn't put up our tree until the octave before Christmas, even now it has some life to it. I remember a few years when I was growing up when we left our tree up past Valentine's Day. I don't think we'll make it quite that long--but how long, exactly, should it stay up? When, precisely, does Christmas-time transition into something else?

Our tree is still up!
Liturgically speaking, Christmas-day extends far beyond the twenty-four hours from Christmas Midnight Mass through midnight of the next day. Traditionally, the chief feast-days of the calendar extend a full eight days--an octave. I love how the Liturgy of the Hours emphasizes this fact by repeating the same psalms and canticles, day after day, for Lauds and Vespers for the entire eight days. In our household, since I was on break, we made a commitment to attend Mass every day of the octave--no light commitment, since we're a half-hour from St. Catherine's. We weren't late every day--really! We also took to chanting Sunday Compline throughout the octave according to a psalm tone I learned in seminary. I love how the boys enthusiastically join in once they've heard it several nights in a row.

So, there was no dispute in the Klein household that it was Christmas-time as we extended Christmas-day through the end of the year. The Sunday in the octave was the Feast-day of the Holy Family, an entirely appropriate Christmas feast. The octave culminates in New Year's Day, a feast-day in the Church calendar, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

After traveling across the fireplace mantel, the Magi adore our Lord in the manger.
To this point, we were clearly still in the Christmas season. Especially in the old calendar, where Jan. 1 is called the Feast of the Circumcision, we're dealing with Jesus' infancy. In the United States' version of the new calendar, this past Sunday was the Solemnity of the Epiphany, which, as I understand it, is in the Eastern Churches perhaps an even more solemn holy-day than Christmas itself. More traditionally, the Epiphany is Jan. 6; hence the "Twelve Days of Christmas." This year we lived all twelve days by attending the monthly Traditional Latin Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Raleigh, since, in the old calendar, the traditional dates still apply. Last Sunday was the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus for us, not the Epiphany, with the Gospel reading regarding the naming of Jesus, not the arrival of the Magi.

The one sad thing, however, was that this choice left us without a Mass to attend proper to the Epiphany, as the nearest Church with a Latin Mass yesterday was a significant drive away. We did our best to commemorate the Epiphany on our own, including marking the doorway with the year and the names of the Magi--Casper, Melchior, and Balthasar. Happily, we still have a healthy supply of blessed chalk from Mater Dei, our Latin Mass parish back in Dallas.

The traditional Epiphany marking above the doorways of a house.
Now, of course, it's the evening of Jan. 7, the day after the Epiphany. Even many people we know who make an effort to extend the Christmas season are beginning to take down their trees and other decorations at this point. Yet I'm reluctant to do so just yet, even if we're not going to make it to Valentine's Day. Liturgically, the new calendar places us in a series of days leading up to the Baptism of the Lord, which marks the beginning of Christ's public ministry as well as the opening of Ordinary Time. Thus, the new calendar gives us at least a few more days to savor Christmas.

The old calendar gives Christmas an even longer lease on life, perhaps another reason I'm so attached to it. The Feast of the Holy Family, while celebrated the Sunday after Christmas in the new calendar, is reserved for this coming Sunday in the old. The Baptism of the Lord is pushed back a few more days, being a weekday feast (most years) occurring on Jan. 13.

At a minimum, therefore, we'll be keeping the tree up for six more days. After all, there continue to be more needles on the tree than on the floor, if only because we vacuum semi-regularly. Perhaps if we stretch logic just a little, there's even justification to keep the tree up through the end of the month. In the old calendar, after the Baptism of the Lord there is no such season as "Ordinary Time"; rather, there are the "Sundays after Epiphany" through Septuagesima Sunday, the beginning of the two-week period leading up to Lent. I feel that the continued mention of Epiphany is enough of a reason to have a fast-dying pine tree in the house!

Alas, try as I might, I can't justify keeping the tree up through Feb. 14, St. Valentine's Day, though. Believe it or not, that's only four days prior to Ash Wednesday!

Borrowed from, here is the proclamation of the dates leading up to Easter, traditionally sung in church on the Feast of the Epiphany.


  1. Franz, we keep our Christmas decorations up until Candlemas- the Feast of the Presentation- or as they say in the East- the Meeting (or Encounter) of Our Lord with Simeon and Anna. It marks the fortieth day after the birth of our Lord and "churching" for mothers happens then. Hearkening to the years of wandering in Exodus and the time of Jesus' fasting in the desert at the beginning of His public ministry, forty is a both a significant and tidy number. "Ten" represents authority (as in the Decalogue) times "four" which represents totality (as in the four corners of the Earth), so it has that sense of right completeness.

    1. Nice! I'm not sure why I didn't think of Candlemas when I was typing this post last night. It makes perfect sense the Christmas cycle actually continues for full forty days, concluding with Christ's presentation/Mary's purification. This lines up nicely with the way that Easter extends to the Ascension, forty days after Easter, and finally to Pentecost, fifty days after. Sadly, the Christmas season is slightly obscured in the new calendar by the abrupt liturgical transition to ordinary time, whereas the Easter season is less obscured since it continues all the way to Pentecost. I like how nicely the old calendar, on the other hand, highlights the continuation of Christmas with the "Sundays after Epiphany" just like there are "Sundays after Pentecost." Thank you!