Does Christmas End on Epiphany?


We all know that Christmas officially begins on Christmas Eve, but when does Christmas end?

 

On the Feast of the Epiphany (celebrated either on January 6 or on the Sunday between January 2 and January 8), the Church celebrates the event where the Magi, also called the Three Wise Men or Three Kings, traveled from the East to pay homage to the newborn King, Jesus Christ.  Many Catholics believe that this is the date when the Christmas season officially ends, being the end of the 12 days of Christmas.

However, according to the Roman Catholic Calendar for 2014, Ordinary Time doesn’t officially begin until the Monday after the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which falls on the Sunday after Epiphany.  This means that the Christmas season actually extends beyond the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

In older traditions (which are still kept in the liturgical calendar of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass) Christmas lasted until Candle-mas, or the Feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of the Lord, which isn’t until February 2nd.  This marked the end of a long 40 day “Christmastide” that corresponded to the 40 days of Lent.  On February 2nd the Church celebrates the day that Mary entered the temple with the Child Jesus when her days of purification after giving birth were fulfilled (according to the Mosaic law)  and when Simeon made his well-known prophecy about Mary and the Child.  It is called “Candle-mas” because of Simeon’s prophecy of Jesus being a light for the Gentiles.

Another element to throw into the mix is that the “octave” of Christmas ends on the eighth day after Christmas, which is January 1 and the Feast Day of Mary, the Mother of God.  Major feast days are usually celebrated not just during 24 hours, but given the honor of an octave (8 days) which is a custom that traces its roots to Old Testament feasts.  The end of the octave can been seen as the end of the Christmas feast proper, after which begins the longer Christmas season that extends either to the Baptism of the Lord for the Ordinary Form (this year January 12, or the Sunday after Epiphany) or the Presentation of the Lord for the Extraordinary Form (February 2). However this understanding of a proper Christmas ‘feast’ in some traditions is also associated with the 12 Days of Christmas which culminates on Epiphany.

Confusing? You bet. Unfortunately the confusion is not cleared by going deeper into Church history.

 

A Bit of History on the Feast of the Epiphany

The feast of the Epiphany originated in the East as a major feast day.  The name Epiphany, meaning ‘manifestation’ or ‘theophany’ (understood particularly as a manifestation of Israel’s Messiah to the Gentile nations), has also been associated with the other biblical manifestations of Christ. Historically, at least three events were celebrated on the same January 6 feast day—the feast of the Nativity (not Dec. 25), the visit from the Magi, and the Lord’s Baptism—in various locations in the first centuries of Christianity, and sometimes also a fourth, Christ’s first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana. It was called generally the feast of the Epiphany because these were all epiphanies of Christ. Eastern Rite Catholics today, for example, celebrate the ‘epiphany’ of the Lord’s baptism on January 6, and not primarily the ‘epiphany’ of the visit from the Three Wise Men, while Latin Rite Catholics currently celebrate these two feasts on consecutive Sundays.

To make things even more confusing, the visit from the Magi that is today most associated with Epiphany in the Latin Rite likely occurred after the Presentation in the Temple (which is celebrated on February 2), because it was after the Magi visited the Holy Family that they fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous threats.

 

So, When Does Christmas End?

When Christmas ends depends on the Rite (Latin or Eastern), the liturgical calendar (Ordinary or Extraordinary), and whether you’re looking for the end of the Christmas ‘feast’ or the end of the Christmas ‘season’.  But overall, here is what sounds good to me:

  • The Christmas feast itself ends on the final day of its octave, which is the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, on January 1st. Keep your feasting and merriment going for the full 8 days.
  • The ‘peak’ of the Christmas ‘season’ is Epiphany, the end of the 12 Days of Christmas.  Jesus is now revealed as a light to the Gentile nations.  Keep your Christmas decorations, especially your Christmas lights, up at least until this day is over; or better, 8 days for the full octave.
  • The official end of the Christmas season is the Baptism of the Lord the following weekend (the end of the octave of Epiphany), after which Ordinary Time begins. Keep your nativity scene displayed up through this day or until the Presentation of the Lord on February 2nd.

These are just suggestions of course.  The varying Christmas traditions reflect the universal nature of the Church (all tribes and tongues!) which has been going strong for 2,000 years. Everyone is on the same page generally speaking in keeping the feast of Christmas, even though there have naturally arisen differences over the millenia in exactly how this is done from place to place.

 

Catholic Gifts Related to the Feast of the Epiphany:

 

 

 

 

 

About Gretchen

Gretchen is a recent convert and completely in love with the Catholic faith. She is very active in her parish and has recently joined the Lay Dominicans. She has special interests in theology, Thomistic philosophy, & politics. She holds an M.A. in Christian Apologetics & currently works on copywriting and social media for The Catholic Company.
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12 Responses to Does Christmas End on Epiphany?

  1. Mary says:

    Loved learning more about the octaves of Christmas… Very enlightening!!!

  2. Judy Acosta says:

    Thank you for this information, I will pass it on to my Catechism class when we resume next Wednesday.

  3. Father Martin Chevalier says:

    Gretchen,

    It’s never easy to give an answer about anything in the Church’s calendar of feasts and seasons since there are so many traditions and different calendars and countings going on which influence how and when something is observed. Even the revised Roman calendar is inconsistent, and also transfers observances around depending on a variety of factors! Nice job in explaining generally.
    One note: Christmas technically still begins at midnight on December 25, not on Christmas Eve. For some reason, the Jewish tradition of the day beginning at sundown didn’t get applied to the Christmas feast like it did to the Triduum and the Easter festival. Modern culture’s penchant for convenience and premature celebration still doesn’t make it so – look at the readings for the vigil Mass for Christmas. Until the Vatican II liturgical revisions in the 1960s when a vigil Mass was added to all the major feasts, the FIRST Mass of Christmas was at Midnight, and, historically, that was the “newest” of the Masses for Christmas, the earlier tradition being the Mass at Dawn and the Mass during the Day, both celebrated on Christmas Day itself. So while Midnight Mass pushed the observance of Christmas to its midnight limit, the vigil Mass has – not yet – pushed the beginning of the Christmas season to sundown on December 24.

  4. John says:

    Thank you. Excellent work ! I recall growing up Catholic, and I still am, that our Christmas Tree was up well into January, which must have been the Presentation. I hope that all who read your posting will pause and consider when these feasts start, conclude, and most importantly why. There is a Treasure in the Catholic Church beyond measure. Thank you again.

  5. Reuben C. Gracia says:

    Dear Ms. Gretchen,
    Thank you for a very informative posting on the Epiphany of our Lord as well as about when does Christmas ends. I pray that you be continually blessed by the Lord to continously proclaim His glory not only to Catholics, but to our other brothers and sisters as well! God bless!

  6. Gretchen says:

    Thank you for the clarification Father. Some of the information I read indicated that the Divine Office evening prayers are what starts off the Christmas feast, said on Christmas Eve.

  7. Michael says:

    Dear Gretchen,
    Bless you for verifying what I read on my parish Catholic calendar! It is on January 13 this year. Wow! I hope to still see evergreens in the church chapel. I will privately listen to my Christmas music in the car on the way to mass on Sunday evening. And, maybe for the last time on the way home from mass. I enthusiastically researched on when is the official last day of Christmas. I am admired by how the Vatican celebrates it for 40 days! It seems to be the standard of what the Christian lifestyle is all about. Incredible!

    Very Respectfully, your fellow believer in the WAY,

    Michael

  8. Gretchen says:

    Thank you Michael! And I’m not sure that the Vatican still celebrates it for 40 days . . . last year the decorations came down after the Feast of the Baptism according to one witness who blogged about it (previously it stayed up until the Presentation). I’m not sure if that was the case this year as well.

  9. Michael M says:

    The Baptism of the Lord works well as a final epiphany of the Liturgical Christmas Season because the Gospel story recounts a ratification from Heaven of the Mystery of the Incarnation. (This is my beloved Son…)

  10. Carole says:

    This was definitely a timely post. I was researching this info earlier today as I wanted to confirm when to take down our church Christmas decorations. Your info corresponds & expands on what I learned. Thanks for posting.

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