Back in my SPU days I had this great professor, Dr. Spina. Dr. Spina was a liturgy enthusiast (read: snob), as is proper for any Episcopalian, and he used to put us low-church evangelicals to shame with questions such as, “How do you know your church service has begun?”
We’d all just sort of blink at him like morons.
Another one of his questions that seemed designed to stupefy us was simply, “When does the Christmas season begin?”
We were all too intimidated to risk giving the wrong answer to what seemed like an easy question. Dr. Spina would take a dramatic pause, daring us to embarrass ourselves.
“Christmas!” he would say, as if it should be obvious. “Christmas begins . . . on Christmas.”
Then he’d start in on his lecture on the water-carriers in the book of Judges, or some such topic.
So, here’s my new dummy question, which I still can’t get a straight answer on.
When does the Christmas season end?
Commercially, obviously, Christmas is over at the end of the day on December 25th, when all the presents have been opened and the wrapping paper is piled like snowdrifts onto the living room floor.
Liturgically speaking, things are a bit harder to pin down.
Traditionally, as the song goes, Christmas has twelve days, starting on Christmas day and extending until Epiphany on January 6th. That’s a nice neat number. The twelve days of Christmas. Some denominations, like Episcopalians and Lutherans, have mostly preserved this number. I quite like the simplicity of that, and for the last few years I’ve been taking my decorations down on Epiphany.
But as it turns out, for Catholics, Epiphany no longer marks the end of the Christmas season.
I recently discovered that the Catholic Church has made several changes to this tradition over the last 100 years, and has made things a little trickier for us. The first was creating the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus’ baptism was originally part of the Epiphany celebration. But Epiphany also celebrates the arrival of the Magi and this aspect of the feast had eclipsed Jesus’ baptism in the popular imagination. In order to ensure that the baptism was also commemorated, the Church instituted a new feast day on the Sunday after Epiphany. So now it’s the Baptism of the Lord that marks the end of the Christmas season, which would be sometime between January 7th and 12th.
To make things more complicated, certain dioceses allow Epiphany itself to be moved to the Sunday between January 2nd and 8th, which means (I’ll spare you the liturgical trigonometry) that the Baptism of the Lord could be celebrated as late as January 13th.
So this year, Christmas ends on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which this year is on January 10th.
Is that when I should take down my decorations?
Here’s another wrinkle: since the Christmas season commemorates the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, there’s a good case to made that the Christmas season isn’t really over until February 2nd, traditionally called Candlemas, when Catholics celebrate Mary’s ritual purification, the prophecies of Simeon and Anna, and the first entrance of Jesus into the temple as a baby.
In fact, as tradition has it, if you don’t manage to get your Christmas decorations down on Epiphany Eve (the twelfth night of Christmas), you’re supposed to wait until Candlemas to do so, or it’s bad luck!
So if I miss my chance on Epiphany or Baptism of the Lord, I get another few weeks of Christmas decor before Candlemas arrives on February 2nd.
In another sense, I suppose, we are always working inside the Advent-Christmas cycle and commemorating the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Even outside of Advent through Baptism, there’s the Annunciation on March 25th, where we celebrate Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit (nine months before Christmas day), the Feast of the Visitation on May 31st, celebrating Mary visiting Elizabeth while they were both pregnant, and the Birth of St John the Baptist on June 24th, chosen due to the timing of Elizabeth’s pregnancy six months before Mary’s. All three of these dates are related to December 25th in the liturgical calendar.
So, should I . . . never take down my decorations? Maybe I can leave up all the outside lights all year round without embarrassment, since in a certain sense we are celebrating Jesus’ birth all year long.
I’m joking, of course. Having a Christmas tree up in July would be some kind of liturgical malpractice.
What about you: do you have a traditional “end” to the Christmas season in your home?