When does Christmas actually end? Here are the different views

Three Kings Three Kings. | Credit: Shutterstock

How many days is Christmas? When should you finally take those lights off the porch or remove the tree? Read on for some of the arguments for and against commonly agreed-upon end dates for Christmas.

‘Christmas is one day’

This, of course, is the simplest answer. Christmas is typically celebrated on Dec. 25 for most of the world — or Jan. 7 for Churches using the Julian calendar (Jan. 6 for yet another, considerably smaller, part of the world.) On this day, the liturgy celebrated is the feast of the Nativity of the Lord. Priests wear white vestments on Christmas, which is different from the violet they wear during Advent. 

‘Christmas is an octave’

There’s also an argument to be made that Christmas is eight days long. The Church regards Christmas as an octave, or eight-day celebration. The octave of Christmas begins on the feast of the Nativity of the Lord and concludes on the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on Jan. 1. 

During the eight days of Christmas, clergy wear white, except during St. Stephen’s feast day and the feast of the Holy Innocents, when they wear red. 

‘Christmas is 12 days’

We’ve all heard the Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” While it’s unclear as to why anybody would give 23 separate birds or five golden rings over 12 days, there actually is a liturgical precedent for claiming that Christmas is 12 days long. 

Twelve days after Christmas is the feast of the Epiphany. This day marks when the Magi encountered Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and gave Jesus the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

In the Latin rite of the Catholic Church, Epiphany celebrates the revelation that Jesus was the Son of God. It focuses primarily on this revelation to the three Wise Men, but also on his baptism in the Jordan River and at the wedding at Cana. 

In the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church, Theophany — as Epiphany is known in the East  — commemorates the manifestation of Jesus’ divinity at his baptism in the River Jordan.

But here’s where it gets a little confusing: While the traditional date for the feast is Jan. 6, in the U.S. the celebration of Epiphany is moved to the second Sunday after Christmas in the Novus Ordo. In 2024, American Catholics will celebrate Epiphany on Jan. 7, and last year it fell on Jan. 8.

During the 12 days of Christmas, clergy wear white, except during St. Stephen’s feast day and the feast of the Holy Innocents, when they wear red. 

‘Christmas ends on Jan. 13’

In the “usus antiquior” of the Roman rite, per the general rubrics of the Roman Breviary, “Christmastide” includes both “the season of Christmas” (the 12 days seen earlier) and “the season of Epiphany,” which is the eight days from the Epiphany on Jan. 6 to the commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord on Jan. 13. What is now called the season of Epiphany was, until 1955, observed as the Octave of the Epiphany.

‘Christmas ends on Candlemas’ 

Candlemas, or the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, is Feb. 2. On this day, many Catholics bring candles to the church to be blessed. They can then light these candles at home during prayer or difficult times as a symbol of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World.

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Candlemas is the last day that the Marian hymn “Alma Redemptoris Mater” is sung at the end of the night prayer of the Divine Office. The “Alma Redemptoris Mater” is used from the beginning of Advent through Feb. 2, and so Candlemas has come to be associated with the close of the Christmas season. 

Candlemas is still observed with public, Christmas-themed celebrations throughout the world, including in Peru, Puerto Rico, France, and Belgium. 

On the other hand, Septuagesima Sunday — which is not part of Christmas — has been known to fall before Feb. 2, giving the lie to the Christmas-is-until-Candlemas view. 

What do the U.S. bishops say?

According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the liturgical season of Christmas ends with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. 

After the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, clergy are to wear the green vestments of Ordinary Time. The feast, which the USCCB states is the end of Christmas, is observed this liturgical year on the Monday after Epiphany, Jan. 8.

So when does Christmas end?

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So what is the exact right time to observe the end of the Christmas season? That is largely a personal call based on your own traditions, customs, practical matters, and other factors.

For safety reasons, CNA recommends that you take your tree down as soon as it starts shedding a lot of needles, but other than that, there’s an argument for leaving things up as late as Feb. 2. Of course, your neighbors may disagree. 

Merry Christmas!

This story was first written about Christmas 2021. It has since been updated.

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