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When Is Christmas Over: January 1? Epiphany? Candlemas? (Whatever that Is)

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Susan E. Wills - published on 12/31/14

You may be amazed at the answer.

Everyone knows that Christmas begins on the evening of December 24. From past experience by the look of the neighborhood, you’d think Christmas ends—regardless of the date—on the Sunday following January 1, the last day before most people return to work and school after “Christmas break” or “the Winter [unspecified] holidays.” That’s the day when outdoor lights disappear and once-cheery trees are stripped and dumped at the curb for the next trash pickup.

So, here’s a little quiz. When does Christmas end for Roman Catholics?

  1. December 26
  2. January 1 or 2
  3. January 6
  4. February 2
  5. All of the above
  6. None of the above

It’s a bit of a trick question. First, we’ll eliminate the easy ones: “e” is out because “a” has not (and possibly never) been correct since the “Octave of Christmas” was established in the late fourth century, at or close to the time that December 25 was fixed as the date of Christmas. In an Octave (and we used to have at least 18 of them), every day is a celebration of the first day of the Octave (although the readings change). As of 1955, all Octaves were suppressed, except Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. But—here’s a little hint—the forgotten Octave of Epiphany still influences the Roman calendar. 

What of “d,” February 2? Candlemas, celebrated forty days after Christmas, is traditionally the official end of Christmastide, marking the end of the liturgical seasons of Christmas and Epiphany. The season of Epiphany, although still observed in the Extraordinary Form (Latin Rite calendar), is no longer a liturgical season in the Ordinary Rite. That doesn’t mean it’s any less important, however. The Feast of the Purification of Mary is the oldest Marian feast day, dating to at least the fifth century. It also marks the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, and the encounter with, and prophecies of, Simeon and Anna (see Luke 2:22-40).

Candlemas deserves far more attention than it receives in a typical US parish, so indulge me for a moment. It is a pivotal day in the year and in salvation history. The Holy Family fulfills the obligations of the old law that arose from Jesus’ birth, through the sacrifice of turtledoves for Mary’s ritual purification and the consecration of Jesus, as a first-born male, to God.

The feast also commemorates the third and final infancy epiphany since Jesus’ birth—the first to the poor shepherds, the second to the three Gentile kings (or Magi or Wise Men), and the third to the elderly, righteous Israelites Simeon and Anna. It will be thirty years before the next epiphany, when Jesus approaches his cousin John to be baptized in the Jordan (now remembered on the first Sunday following Epiphany and in the first Luminous Mystery of the Rosary).

The prophecies of Simeon are bittersweet. Recognizing Jesus as the promised Messiah, Simeon addresses God (in words that, differently translated, became the “Nunc, Dimittis” of Night Prayer in the liturgy of the Church):

Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.
(Luke 2:29-32)

But then Simeon addresses Mary:

Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted / (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.(Luke 2:34-35)

For this reason, the same event is remembered in the fourth Joyful Mystery (the Presentation in the Temple) and the first of the Seven Sorrows of Mary (the Prophecy of Simeon). It is the link between the joy of Christmas and the sorrows of Holy Week. It links Jesus’ birth and his death. The Infant is both “a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel” (
Night Prayer) and “a sign that will be contradicted … so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”

The name Candlemas comes from Simeon’s referring to Jesus as the light to the Gentiles and it is on this day that beeswax candles are blessed for use at home as well as for the Blessing of the Throats on February 3, the feast of St. Blaise.

Pope Saint John Paul II brought attention to another aspect of the meaning of Candlemas: linking the consecration of Jesus to God with the consecration of priests and religious to God. On January 6, 1997, John Paul announced that the first annual “World Day for Consecrated Life” would be celebrated on the upcoming Candlemas, February 2, 1997. In 2015 in the US, this celebration is transferred to the following Sunday “to highlight the gift of consecrated persons for the whole Church.”

Now things get complicated and history offers little help to sort them out.

There would seem to be a strong case for “b,” after Evening Prayer on January 1 or on January 2, the day following the final day of the Octave of Christmas, which is the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. Because every day during the Octave of Christmas is celebrated as Christmas Day, it makes sense that Christmas would end with the Octave. While the feast of Christmas does end on the night of January 1, the Christmas Season is still going strong.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" culminate with the Epiphany of the Lord, referring to the visitation or adoration of the Wise Men (Three Kings or Magi), celebrated on January 6—option "c"—on the Ordinary calendar of the Roman Catholic Church (when it is observed as a Holy Day of Obligation). If not designated as a Holy Day of Obligation, Epiphany is moved to the Sunday between January 2 and January 8 (inclusive). The 1969 revision of the General Roman Calendar made the Feast of Epiphany part of Christmas Time. So "c" is out.

And that leaves us with option "f," none of the above.

According to the Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar:

Christmas Time runs from First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of the Nativity of the Lord up to and including the Sunday after Epiphany or after January 6. (No. 33)

The Sunday after Epiphany is The Baptism of the Lord. This year in the United States, the Feast of the Epiphany has been moved to Sunday, January 4. The Baptism of the Lord, therefore, falls on January 11, and this means that in 2015, the Christmas Season ends with Second Vespers on January 11; the first Mass in Ordinary Time will be on January 12. Although the Octave of Epiphany is officially gone, it remains part of the Christmas Season by forestalling Ordinary Time until after the Baptism of the Lord. Weekdays between Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord are designated "Tuesday after Epiphany" or "Friday after Epiphany," for example. In The US, the Memorial of St. John Neumann is observed, trumping "Monday after Epiphany." And Wednesday, January 7, is called "Christmas Weekday." If any reader can explain that, much appreciated! You can verify this by seeing where green begins to appear on the USCCB’s Roman Liturgical Calendar.

So why not leave your decorations up until late on January 11, 2015 or even February 2 if you’re truly courageous? Neighbors may shake their heads, but it could also be an opportunity to reintroduce them to the wonderful season of Epiphany and the glorious, multi-faceted Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord.

Susan Willsis a senior editor for Aleteia’s English-language edition.

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