We all know that Christmas officially begins on Christmas Eve, but when does Christmas end?
On the Feast of the Epiphany (celebrated on January 6, but in most areas the feast is transferred to 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, 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. Feast days are not celebrated for just 24 hours, but rather they are 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 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 (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 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 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 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 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 tree and lights, up at least until this day is over; or better, 8 days for the full octave of Epiphany since historically this is such a major feast.
- The official end of the entire 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: