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The End of Christmas: Dispelling the Misconceptions

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Jan 26, 2016

Most Catholics recognize the end of the Christmas season ends with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which occurred in the Ordinary Form/current calendar on Sunday, January 10, and the Extraordinary Form on January 13th.

But there are some Catholics who claim that it is still Christmas and it will last until February 2, commonly referred to as Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (or Purification of Mary in the Extraordinary Form Calendar). The claim is twofold:

  1. The Christmas season parallels the Easter season, lasting 40 days until February 2. 
  2. This extended Christmas season is traditionally what the Church did before Vatican II's changes.

But Christmas season ends on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord currently in both forms and even before Vatican II. Two years ago I did an extended analysis, but there are repeated misconceptions that convince some that Christmas continued until Candlemas.

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord Ends the Christmas Season -- In Both Calendars

A prevalent claim is that the 1969 reform of the General Roman Calendar as advocated by Vatican II changed the Liturgical calendar drastically, including shortening the Christmas season. This is not true. There were multiple changes to the calendar: feast day classification was changed, different saints days were removed or moved, but the basic structure of the seasons or temporal calendar has only minor differences. The table comparing the two calendars in my previous article illustrates this. The main differences are:

  1. Tempus per Annum or "Time of the Year" season is found in both calendars, but the English translation is "Ordinary Time" in the current calendar and "Time after Epiphany" and "Time after Pentecost" in the 1962 calendar. This the season that has green vestments and does not celebrate only one particular aspect of Christ's life. The only difference is changing the name of the seasons in English, because in both calendars there is a season after Christmas which is the Tempus per Annum in both calendars.
  2. The Extraordinary Form or 1962 calendar includes the Pre-Lent or Septuagesima season which occur three weeks before Lent. The current calendar continues Ordinary Time for three more weeks.
  3. The Christmas season had a fixed number of days in the 1962 calendar since the Baptism of the Lord falls on January 13, but the current calendar fluctuates depending on the number of Sundays, and the Baptism of the Lord is usually transferred to a Sunday.

It is often said "I follow the old calendar, where Christmas lasts until Candlemas." But in all my research of older missals and breviaries dating back to the Council of Trent which ended in 1563, the Christmas season has always ended on the Baptism of the Lord. This was not a change from Vatican II. It might have been a change from before the Council of Trent, but no one has in living memory this being an official practice of the Church. It is rather a small "t"-- tradition and not officially part of the Liturgical Year. 

Understanding the Terminology

The general statement of "Christmas lasts until Candlemas" is misleading because the word "Christmas" is quite generalized here. We need to understand there are different Christmas terms in the Liturgical Calendar:

  • Christmas -- This is the general term for actual feast day, the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord on December 25, a holyday of obligation. 
     
  • Christmas Octave --The eight-day period during which Christmas is celebrated, and includes the actual feast. The eighth day is also called the octave or "octave day," and days in between are said to be "within the octave."
     
  • Christmas Season--As defined by the General Norms of the Liturgical Year and the Calendar:
    32. Next to the yearly celebration of the paschal mystery, the Church holds most sacred the memorial of Christ's birth and early manifestations. This is the purpose of the Christmas season. 

    33. The Christmas season runs from Evening Prayer I of Christmas until the Sunday after Epiphany or after 6 January, inclusive.

    The Christmas season is a time of rejoicing at the birth of the Savior whose coming was awaited during Advent. Three great feasts (Christmas, Mary, Mother of God, and Epiphany) are celebrated during the season of Christmas.

  • Christmastide--This is a more traditional but interchangeable term for "Christmas season" which begins with the Vigil of Christmas, December 24, and ends on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
     
  • Christmas Cycle--This is an unofficial term applied to the Liturgical Year. The Paschal Mystery (Christ's redemptive work, particularly His passion, death, resurrection and ascension) is the central focus of the entire Liturgical Year, but tradition has divided the year into two cycles, the Christmas and Easter Cycle. The Christmas Cycle encompasses the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and first part of Ordinary Time (or Time after Epiphany). Each of these seasons point back to the Incarnation and Manifestation of Christ: Advent is preparation, Christmas season is the Feast, and Time after Epiphany or Ordinary Time applies this manifestation of God to man. The Christmas Cycle begins with the First Sunday of Advent and ends for the current calendar on Fat Tuesday, or the day before Lent begins. In the 1962 calendar the Christmas Cycle ends at Septuagesima or Pre-Lent.

The Christmas Cycle

February 2, which is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord or (Purification of Mary) occurs 40 days after Christmas. It is the last feast day in the Christmas Cycle, although in the Extraordinary Form it can fall during pre-Lent. Because the feast is a part of the Christmas Cycle is the main reason people often say "It's still Christmas" for Candlemas. But the reference is inaccurate, because one doesn't say "It's Christmas" during Advent, even though Advent is also part of the Christmas Cycle, nor does one say "It's still Easter!" in the middle of September. The Christmas Cycle merely means that those liturgical seasons of the year point toward toward the mysteries of Jesus regarding Christmas, and the other seasons of Lent, Easter and the larger part of Ordinary Time (or Time after Pentecost) point to the feast of Easter.

Ancient Marian Antiphons 

One final argument that is also used to "prove" that Candlemas is part of the Christmas season is the Marian Antiphons or Anthems that are sung at the end of Compline or Night Prayer in the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. There are four seasonal antiphons that divide the Liturgical Year:

  • Alma Redemptoris Mater (sung Advent through February 2)
  • Ave Regina Caelorum (sung February 3 until the Easter Vigil)
  • Regina Coeli (sung Easter until the Saturday after Pentecost Sunday)
  • Salve Regina (sung Trinity Sunday until the Saturday before Advent)

This is an ancient custom of singing these antiphons at the certain times of the year, dating back to 1249. And while the Alma Redemptoris Mater is sung through February 2, that doesn't indicate that it is still Christmas, because it begins during Advent. Again, this points to the custom of dividing the year into the two Cycles, and Alma Redemptoris is for the Christmas cycle. Again, Advent isn't Christmas yet, so just because this is sung until February 2nd also doesn't mean it is Christmas.

Common Sense

It really doesn't require that much sleuthing to verify whether February 2 is still part of the Christmas season. I did some extra footwork to illustrate that Vatican II did not change anything, but even without any other proof, our eyes and ears worshipping with the Liturgy of the Church can distinguish between the seasons. If the priest is wearing green vestments, that color is not the color of celebration or feast. The prayers and readings are another factor to indicate whether or not this is a continuation of a festal period. 

The feast of the Presentation of the Lord gives us one more time to bring our thoughts back to the feast of Christmas, but it is not part of the Christmas season, only the Christmas Cycle. 

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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