We all know that Christmas officially begins on Christmas Eve, but when does Christmas end?  It’s complicated …

On January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany (in most places in the U.S. the feast is transferred to the Sunday between January 2 and January 8), the Church celebrates the biblical 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 liturgical calendar, 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 popular “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

CHRISTMASTIDE

In the older tradition (which is still kept in the liturgical calendar of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass) Christmas lasts until Candlemas, or the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin 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 historically called “Candle-mas” because of Simeon’s prophecy of Jesus being a light for the Gentiles. Today is better known as the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord.

THE CHRISTMAS OCTAVE

Another element to throw into the mix is that the “octave” of Christmas ends on the eighth day after Christmas, which is January 1st, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God.  Because Christmas is a Solemnity, the highest ranking of all feast days, it is not celebrated for just 24 hours; it is given the honor of eight days (octave) of celebration which is a custom that traces its roots to Old Testament feasts.

The end of the octave is 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 of the Mass (the Sunday after Epiphany) or the Purification of Mary for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (February 2 – Candlemas). However this understanding of a proper Christmas ‘feast’ in some Eastern 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 on 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 6th, 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.

In fact, in days of old, it was January 6th that was the traditional Christmas gift-giving day, because this was the day that the Baby Jesus received his gifts from the Magi.

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.

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh gift sets

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’.  Here is a summary of the above information:

  • The Christmas feast proper ends on the final day of its octave, which is the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, on January 1st. Keep your feasting, parties, and merriment going for the full 8 days.
  • The ‘peak’ of the Christmas ‘season’ is January 6th—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 tree and lights, up at least until this day is over.
  • The official end of the entire Christmas season is the Baptism of the Lord the following weekend, after which Ordinary Time begins. Keep your nativity scene displayed up through this day, or better yet until the Presentation of the Lord on February 2nd (which is a feast of the Baby Jesus).

These are just suggestions, of course, to help you get the most out of celebrating the Christmas season to the full.  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 millennia in exactly how this is done from place to place.

The most important thing to remember and practice is that Christmas BEGINS on December 25th, and is to be merrily celebrated for many days afterward, either 8, 12, or 40! Do you have any thoughts to add? Please share in the comments below.

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

This article was originally published in January 2013 and updated in 2016. © 2013-16 The Catholic Company. All rights reserved.

Comments

  1. Judy Acosta says

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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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.

  8. 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…)

  9. 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.

  10. Ryan K. says

    Thanks Gretchen…

    I knew a lot of this and have tried to guide my faithful friends in this knowledge. Of special interest is the first line of your article: “We all know that Christmas officially begins on Christmas Eve, but when does Christmas end?” If we all know this, why do all too many priests and parishioners insist on decorating our sacred spaces in the fashion of Christmas at the beginning of December – displaying Christmas trees and Nativity scenes with newborn saviour present before the day of His birth – instead of valuing the meaning of Advent during Advent and saving the value of Christmas for its designated season. In her post of 2014/01/05, 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.”

    I believe that this is very important since what we do ought to be consistent with what we believe (Lex orandi, lex credendi), and conversely… incorrect liturgical action creates incorrect beliefs in people or confusion amongst the faithful evidenced by their insistence on celebrating Christmas during Advent.

    I hope many people read your post and remember not only when to take down their Christmas decorations but also when to put them up.

    In Christ, – Ryan

  11. Mireya Ingram says

    I am going to choose February 2, the Day of Jesus presentation to the Temple, tHEN I will take down the XMas Tree, the Nativity Set, & other Christmas decorations. I leave the window electric “welcome lights” on year round. I think that especially during these convoluted times, we must remember, be proud, and flaunt it, that this is a Nation based on “Judeo-Christian” principles & traditions, and celebrate those traditions by all means possible, especially “lights”. I hope no one is against that, or takes offense, because then, too bad. Conversely, I hope more people picks up on this practice, to show the world that this Nation is happy to have been founded on Judeo-Christian values. Let’s lit up the entire Nation. Cheers in Christ, Mireya

  12. Elida says

    Thanks for all your beautiful teachings on our Lord Jesus Christ who came to dwell amongst His Beloved Ones .

  13. Carolyn says

    Although I attend and love the ordinary form of the Mass, I love celebrating the Christmas season until Candlemas. One of the reasons being that I like the saying that in the Catholic Faith we feast more than fast — Easter lasts longer than Lent and Christmas lasts (or used to last) longer than Advent. I’ll share your article with our RCIA. Thank you.

  14. Anna says

    I love the picture of the Magi presenting gifts to the Jesus. Do you have any information on it? Is it a painting? I’m looking to replace artwork I lost to the fire in my home and if prints are available I’d be very interested in purchasing one.

  15. Jim says

    I just counted, 06JAN is the 13th day. Counting 25DEC as the first day 05JAN is the 12th day. Count w/me – 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30 & 31DEC. 01, 02, 03, 04 & 05JAN.
    So we either celebrate the Epiphany on the 13th day or we don’t count Christmas Day itself, which means the octave of Christmas is 02JAN.

  16. Prodi-Gal says

    Thank you, thank you Gretchen! Very helpful information in addition to yours is the comments, thank you one & all!

  17. says

    I liked it a lot. Very very interesting. What if you took the tree down a few days before the Epiphany. I still have my Christmas tree light on outside of my house. I have my Angels outside. We took our tree down Sunday and the Epiphany is tomorrow.

  18. Jean C says

    I also celebrate Christmas until February 2d. I usually don’t decorate my tree until Christmas eve and usually still have it in decent shape to come down the 2d. My lights are battery so no fire from electrical wires(plus I need to mist my tree at least once dailly for freshness). And have many flameless candles spread around my room with the tree.

  19. Rose says

    God bless you, Miss Gretchen!
    My Christmas cards are still on my desk at work and wondered when Christmas officially ended – I read your main points quickly, but will go back and have a “proper” read.
    Thank you very much for the clarification.

    I wish you a very blessed New Year 2016.

  20. Gil says

    Thank God Christmas season is long because I still have not given my Christmas gift to one of my assistants! LOL

    Thank you for writing such an informative article. I look forward to reading your other ones. May our Good Lord continue to pour Himself out upon you and your loved ones.

    Pax vobis

  21. Evelyn says

    Great summary! Thank you for taking the time to evangelize on this :) I’m always trying to teach my kids these traditions and they appreciate it… I just have one comment, I believe Epiphany is referred to as a Solemnity :) though still a feast, it’s one of the bigger ones :)
    I only take my tree and villages down after this weekend… My main (old world) Nativity stays until Feb. 2nd… last night we enjoyed cutting the Rosca de Reyes (Kings’ Roll), delicious bread!
    Again, thank you for the info; very pleasing to read.

  22. Ray says

    Thanks for this intriguing review of the actual dimensions of the Christmas season. As a kid, I knew that our observance of Christmas, including our decorations and special foods, would go at least to Epiphany. As a “mature” adult, I delight in leaving all the decorations in place until the Lord’s Baptism, because I enjoy them so much — and, I’ll admit, also because of all the work in putting them away, and it’s really a bit sad to see them all disappear for another year.

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