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Christmas to Candlemas: When is the Real End of Christmas?

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles ) | Jan 15, 2014

The Christmas season ended on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Or did it?

It seems inevitable every Christmas that there will be polite disagreement among Catholics as to when the Christmas season officially ends. Usually the discussion revolves around when to take down the Christmas decorations. Most of my friends will wait until after the Epiphany or after the Baptism of the Lord. But every year someone will say that that they are following the traditional end of Christmas, February 2nd, 40 days after Christmas, which is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord or Purification of Mary (commonly called Candlemas, in Greek Hypapante).

It seems mainly an argument of semantics. Is the dispute over the actual length of the Christmas season (or Christmastide) comparing the Ordinary Form calendar with the older 1962 Extraordinary Form (or even earlier versions)? Are they following the Christmas Cycle and not the season? Or is "tradition" not related to the Church, but just a secular family or cultural custom?

I have always enjoyed studying and understanding the structure of the liturgical calendar. When I got married I added new celebrations to our calendar--my husband's birthday, our anniversary, my in-laws' birthdays and anniversaries. As the years progress, these dates have become familiar to me and as dear as my own family's dates. Through my baptism I am a daughter of God and a member of the Church. Shouldn't I get to know the dates and ins and outs of Mother Church's celebrations?

The Liturgical Year has many intricacies. The Sanctoral Cycle is usually easy enough to follow because the dates are fixed (with exceptions) but the Temporal Cycle of the liturgical seasons is more changeable from year to year. How will the seasons fall during this particular Liturgical Year? How is the date chosen for Easter? Will Lent and Easter be late or early this year? What day of the week is Christmas? How long will be the Christmas season? I equate it to my family looking ahead to see what day of the week their birthday will be this year. So it is with this thought process I want to understand more closely whether or not Candlemas has been part of the Christmas season.

Although there are many differences between the current General Roman Calendar and the 1962 Extraordinary Form Calendar, the structure of the liturgical seasons is still very similar. Below is a combined calendar (created by my friend, Michele Quigley) of both the Ordinary Form and Extraordinary Form calendars. The table below breaks down both calendars:

 

GENERAL ROMAN CALENDAR (ORDINARY FORM)

EXTRAORDINARY FORM CALENDAR (1962)

Advent (violet)
Sunday falling on or closest to 30 November and ends December 24. (4 Sundays)

Advent (violet)
Sunday falling on or closest to 30 November and ends December 24. (4 Sundays)

Christmas Season (white)
December 25, Christmas until the Baptism of the Lord inclusive, from 15 to 20 days long. (2-3 Sundays)

Christmas Season or Christmastide (white)
December 25, Christmas until the Baptism of the Lord, January 13, inclusive, 24 days. (3 Sundays)

Ordinary Time (green)
Monday after the Sunday following January 6 (Baptism of the Lord) and continues until Tuesday before Ash Wednesday inclusive. (5-9 weeks during this time before Lent, in total 32-33 Sundays, 33-34 weeks)

Time After Epiphany (Basic Cycle) (green)
January 14 to Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday (0 to 5 Sundays)

 

Pre-Lent (violet)
Septuagesima Sunday to Shrove Tuesday (3 Sundays)

Lent (violet)
Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord's Supper exclusive, 43 days. (6 Sundays)

Lent (violet)
Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday, includes Passiontide. (6 Sundays)

Sacred Triduum
Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday

Sacred Triduum
Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday

Easter Season (white)
50 days from Easter including Pentecost. (8 Sundays)

Easter Season (white)
Easter to Saturday after Pentecost (8 Sundays)

Ordinary Time (green)
Monday after Pentecost and ends the First Sunday of Advent. (24-28 Sundays, in total with earlier time 33-34 weeks)

Time after Pentecost (Basic Cycle) (green)
Trinity Sunday to Saturday before Advent (23 to 28 Sundays)

 

Comparing the two calendars, the colors and weeks do not vary except the three weeks of Pre-Lent beginning with Septuagesima (I do think the white section after Pentecost is the same for both calendars, for Trinity and Corpus Christi Sundays). In the sections of green, which is in both calendars Tempus ad Annum, "The Season Throughout the Year," the translations of titles differ. "Time after Epiphany" is the Basic Cycle after Christmas, and "Time after Pentecost" is the second, whereas in the Ordinary Form these are both designated as "Ordinary Time".

Examining just the Christmas seasons of each calendar, Christmas begins on December 25, has an octave of Christmas ending on January 1. Epiphany falls on January 6, except in the current calendar the US transfers it to Sunday. Each calendar has the Christmas season end on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which is moved to Sunday (with one exception) in the current calendar.

In the 1962 calendar, the length of the Christmas season (or Christmastide) is fixed at 24 days, because the feast of Epiphany is not transferred to Sunday and the Baptism of the Lord is always on January 13. But in the current calendar, the length of the season varies depending on what day Christmas falls. This year the season lasted 19 days, but it can vary in length from 15 to 20 days. The following table illustrates how the feasts would fall and the length of the season depending on the day of the week Christmas falls.

Solemnity of Christmas December 25

Feast of the Holy Family

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

Solemnity of the Epiphany

Baptism of Our Lord

Length of Christmas Season

Sunday

Friday, December 30

Sunday, January 1

Sunday, January 8

Monday, January 9

16 days

Monday

Sunday, December 31

Monday, January 1

Sunday, January 7

Monday, January 8

15 days

Tuesday

Sunday, December 30

Tuesday, January 1

Sunday, January 6

Sunday, January 13

20 days

Wednesday

Sunday, December 29

Wednesday, January 1

Sunday, January 5

Sunday, January 12

19 days

Thursday

Sunday, December 28

Thursday, January 1

Sunday, January 4

Sunday, January 11

18 days

Friday

Sunday, December 27

Friday, January 1

Sunday, January 3

Sunday, January 10

17 days

Saturday

Sunday, December 26

Saturday, January 1

Sunday, January 2

Sunday, January 9

16 days

 

The main difference in comparing the two calendars is that the all the pre-Vatican descriptions divide the year by two cycles, the Christmas and Easter Cycles. The seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Time after Epiphany point to the feast of Christmas. The Easter Cycle consists of pre-Lent, Lent, Easter and Time after Pentecost. As I don't read Latin, I'm not sure if this is an official designation, or just a common description. While the official descriptions in Church documents of the current Ordinary Form calendar doesn't have these separate designations, I have found the separation of Christmas and Easter Cycles described in various books, including Adolf Adam's Liturgical Year: Its History and Its Meaning After the Reform of the Liturgy. There does seem to be a natural division, but the documents do continually emphasize that the Paschal Mystery is at the center and heart of the Liturgical Year, and all events point back to that one central Feast of Easter.

I have never found any traditional Church calendar that continued the "Christmas Season" all the way through Candlemas. It is more of the "Christmas Cycle" that one can see prolonged Christmas focus for the 40 days of Christmas which end on Candlemas. The Christmas Cycle is different than the actual Christmas season. After the Baptism of the Lord, the Christmas season ends. The priest wears green vestments, and "Time After Epiphany" begins. The green in the "Basic Cycle" is not a celebration like the Easter and Christmas seasons, but does continue to focus on the Manifestation of Christ. It is not Christmas anymore, but a time of spiritual growth, applying the gifts we have learned through the Advent and Christmas seasons. It is a time of rest before the Easter Cycle begins. But the time is not the Christmas "celebration". No one says it is still Easter as the summer months continue, even though that time it is part of the "Easter Cycle". The same rules apply to the Christmas cycle. The green vestments signal a time of no feasts.

Here is where there is weakness in the argument that the Christmas season or celebration continues through February 2nd, because pre-Lent in the traditional or Extraordinary Form calendar, which begins with Septuagesima (the ninth Sunday before Easter), often falls before February 2. For example, next year it falls on February 1st, and in 2016, January 24. So the focus in the Extraordinary Form cannot continue celebrating Christmas when pre-Lent arrives. Even the Christmas Cycle ends earlier during those years. In looking at the calendar, cycles, and seasons, It seems Candlemas is a really an isolated feast day , not part of a season, that concludes the focus of the Christmas cycle. It is a feast that points back to Christmas, when the Light of the World was born, but even more so leads forward to Easter, where we celebrate Lumen Christi (the Light of Christ).

There is evidence of it being a secular custom to keep up Christmas decorations until February 2. Robert Herrick (1591-1674) has a poem entitled Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve which describes this tradition:

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all
Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas hall;
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind;
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected there, maids, trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see.

Christmas decorations before the Victorian period were minimal, mostly evergreens and herbs and creche scenes. Modern times tend to have much more decorations, including lights and Christmas trees. So while decorations might have remained until Candlemas, they weren't as invasive as current Christmas decorations. I do think many people like to follow this tradition because the actual Christmas season is exhausting, and waiting until February 2nd is easier than having to take down all those decorations after a harried Christmas.

While there is no proof that the Church has continued the Christmas season for 40 days until Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord does stand very prominent and is considered a "Christmas feast". The tradition including the feast of Candlemas as part of the Christmas season is not liturgically historical, but indicating that it is part of the Christmas Cycle during the Time after Epiphany is liturgically correct. There seems to be more indication that keeping up the Christmas decorations is a cultural custom rather than a traditional religious one.

The Vatican takes down the Christmas decorations after the Baptism of the Lord, except the Creche/Nativity scene. The Christmas season is over, but the Christmas Cycle continues. My meditations and focus will still be on the Nativity and Epiphany, but in a more subdued way until Candlemas, the final Christmas feast. Having the Nativity scene on display throughout this period will be my compromise.

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Show 1 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jan. 16, 2014 11:03 AM ET USA

    The combined liturgical calendar and associated table are worth their weight in gold. Thanks for posting them.

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