It’s almost universal knowledge that Christmas is officially celebrated on December 25th, the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord. While some may be thankful that the hustle and bustle of planning family dinners and purchasing thoughtful gifts are over, the Christmas season is only just beginning on the 25th. While the most popular carol of all suggests just twelve days, it’s a topic of hot debate among Catholics. When does Christmas actually end?
It turns out that the answer to when Christmas officially ends is not so simple because there are technically three separate Christmas “seasons”: the Christmas octave, the liturgical Christmas season, and the traditional Christmastide season that concludes with Candlemas.
The Christmas Octave
An octave is an eight-day period within the Church in which Easter or Christmas is celebrated that includes the actual feast day. The eighth day is considered the “octave day,” and days in between are “within” the octave. Each day of the octave is considered to be an actual day of the feast and is celebrated as such.
Therefore, the Octave of Christmas begins Christmas Day on December 25th and extends until the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the January 1st.
The Liturgical Christmas Season
The liturgical Christmas season is situated after the Advent season and before the beginning of Ordinary time. It begins with the Christmas Eve vigil Masses and concludes with Feast of the Baptism of the Lord on January 8th.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also has a handy calendar available on their website, with descriptions of each feast day of the liturgical Christmas season.
In the older tradition kept in the liturgical year of Extraordinary Form of Mass, the whole “Christmastide” season lasts for forty days (corresponding to the forty days of lent) that concludes with Candlemas on February 2nd, also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Presentation of the Lord.
When someone asks you when Christmas ends, ask them: Do you mean the Christmas octave, the liturgical Christmas season, or Christmastide?