Well over two months ago, a great deal of bandwidth was spent on the theme of the proper day to begin the celebration of Christmas. A whole array of people, practicing Christians and the largely unchurched, believers and unbelievers alike, shook their collective finger in a censorious wag against those primarily commercial outlets — mostly retail stores and commercial radio — which had already by the beginning of November, and in some cases even before Halloween, to "celebrate" (which is to say, to market, sell, and package) Christmas. It was unacceptable, these critics noted, to anticipate the holiday so dramatically, suggesting not mere calendrical propriety, but even more the integrity of the holiday itself.
To be sure, the majority of those who clicked their tongues at the anticipation of Christmas were more than content to begin their own celebration of Christmas — decorated trees, carols, cookies, parties, Santa Claus and all — on the day after Thanksgiving. (For those not from the U.S.A., Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday in November.) Indeed, for such people, the Christmas season just means the season leading up to December 25, and perhaps, depending on when Christmas falls during the week, those days which come until the Sunday following, and for a few brave souls, until the celebration of New Year's Day. Indeed, so earnest were these folks at beginning Christmas at the "right time", that they flooded the very beginning of December with Christmas parties and Christmas concerts and Christmas shows and Christmas plays, while television happily complied and aired the most popular Christmas movies and specials so that, by about half-way through December, most of the public celebration of Christmas, apart from the once-vilified commercial outlets, has come to an end, leaving only the private celebrations in one's home or hotel or cruise ship, as a reminder to pierce the egg-nog-addled brain that Christmas had not yet come.
Ironically, these critics came themselves to be the subject of criticism, this time from earnest Christians. They were reminded that the Christmas season does not end with Christmas, but rather begins with Christmas. Without denying the legitimate place of joyful anticipation during December, they reminded whoever would listen that Christmas needed to be kept from Christmas onward, that the Twelve Days of Christmas are not a kind of countdown (as television stations hosting their own "30 Days of Christmas" from Thanksgiving onward would have the viewer believe), but an extended celebration of Christmas into the New Year. (I will here set aside, without prejudice, those Christians who keep the Julian calendar, and therefore whose December 25 is the rest of the world's January 7, and therefore whose Christmas has just begun!) Many laudable customs, like the decorating of the tree, considered by some to be de rigeur after Thanksgiving, were not so long ago held off until quite late. (My mother tells me that, as a little girl, in her household the tree was decorated by Santa Claus when he visited on Christmas Eve, although her father noted that Santa needed a little help, so he would put the lights up early!)
However, what I want to consider here is not when Christmas ought to begin, but when it should properly end. As we know, the ersatz Christmas that begins after Thanksgiving ends sometimes as early as sundown on December 25, occasionally until New Year's Day, but almost certainly never much after, and most always well before. What, however, can we say about those Christians who want to keep their devotional Christmas more in line with the Christmas season as understood by the Church?
It is possible, of course, to give a definitive liturgical answer to the question of the end of the Christmas season. At least in the Roman rite, Christmas comes to a close with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord, which falls either on the Sunday following the Epiphany (or, occasionally, the Monday following...it's complicated) for those following the calendar of the the Ordinary form, or the Octave day of the Epiphany, which is to say, January 13. Does that mean that faithful Catholics ought to keep their decorations up — trees, stockings, lights, and all — until the celebration of the Lord's Baptism? Well...maybe. The thing is, while the devotions and customs of the Christian faithful ought to respond to the liturgical life of the Church, it's rare that they will coincide precisely, and generally attempts to force them to do so produce unhappy effects. Said simply, the date when one takes down a tree is not covered by rubrics or canon law, nor should it be!
More than that, the Christmas season has several endings, nested as it is like a Russian doll. At the heart of Christmas is the Christmas octave, from Christmas itself through New Year's Day. A few days further, on the Fifth of January, closes the famous Twelve Days of Christmas, followed by Epiphany, another turning point, which is itself followed by a period of time (traditionally another octave), closing with the Baptism of the Lord. So, you could say Christmas "ends" on January 1, or January 5, or January 6, or as late as January 13.
But what do we say of customs, like those in Italy, where lights are kept up well past the Octave of the Epiphany, and the presepi, the Nativity scenes remain until the beginning of February? Are the Italians merely stubborn? Is it just a ploy to attract shoppers to the ubiquitous January sales?
Actually, the liturgy itself offers another answer. While the Christmas season may be definitively over by January 13 at the latest, there are echoes of Christmas that continue on. At Compline, at least in the Roman rite, the antiphon Alma Redemptoris Mater, first heard at the beginning of Advent, continues to be sung until February 2. The votive Mass of the Virgin on Saturday also retains elements of Christmas, including the Gospel of the Mass of Dawn on Christmas Day, recalling the wonder of the shepherds as they saw and then pondered what they had seen and heard, the Virgin meanwhile treasuring these things in her heart — and in the Dominican rite, also the Preface of the Nativity is used — all the way until February 2. Why February 2? Because on that day the Church commemorates the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, and the Purification of his Blessed Mother, on the fortieth day in accord with the Law, the Fortieth Day of Christmas (imagine that carol!). Even in the midst of Septuagesima, as it will be this year, the Church will suspend what she is doing and look back to the joy of Christmas Day and the mysteries celebrated during the Octave and the Twelve Days and the Epiphany (and among the Dominicans, will take up again the Christmas sequence Lætabundus). Christmas, in short, has a long arm, and its deep tones leave lingering echoes in the heart of the faithful.
So, should the tree come down? Should you take down your lights? Sure, if you like to. But, if something in you wants to keep a memory of Christmas through Candlemas, then you have good company in the liturgy of the Church!