After Easter, Christmas is the next greatest feast in Christendom. For various liturgical, cultural, social, even psychological, reasons, just as secular establishments compete in commencing the festivities, Catholics also compete in delaying the end of the observations. While the former is pathologically symptomatic more of the world’s rejection of the penitential character of Advent than of its expectation of the birth of the Redeemer, the latter is somewhat indicative of modern Catholics’ reluctance to finally retire the exultation and mirth of the Lord’s Nativity in order to begin the rigours of Lent. Indeed, since Lent requires stricter discipline in terms of penance and diet, and Easter has never associated itself with gift-giving, only a few recognise that extraordinary—dare we say, superior—joy we ought to feel at the Resurrection of the Lord.
Liturgically speaking, below are the temporal durations of the different reckonings associated with birth of our Saviour:
- The Christmas cycle (cyclus natalicius) begins at first vespers of the First Sunday of Advent (movable) and ends at none of the Saturday before Septuagesima (movable). This covers the tempus Nativitatis, the tempus Epiphaniæ, and the tempus post Epiphaniam. For 2018, the Saturday before Septuagesima is 27 January.
- The Christmas season (tempus natalicium) begins at first vespers of Christmas (25 December) and ends on 13 January (Baptism of the Lord if not Sunday; Holy Family if Sunday). This covers both the tempus Nativitatis and the tempus Epiphaniæ.
- In the vetus ordo (with respect to the 1962 rubrics), Christmastide (tempus Nativitatis) begins at first vespers of Christmas (25 December) and ends at none of 5 January inclusive (previously, the vigil of the Epiphany). Whereas in the novus ordo (with respect to the 1969 rubrics), Christmastide (tempus Nativitatis) begins at first vespers of Christmas (25 December) and ends on the Sunday after Epiphany or after 6 January (Baptism of the Lord). This latter reckoning conflates under one name two traditionally distinct, albeit connected, times, rendering moot the tempus Epiphaniæ. (Moreover, it requires acclimatisation due to the transferability of Epiphany in the novus ordo: for 2018, if Epiphany is observed on its proper day, the Baptism of the Lord should be on Sunday, 7 January; but for those places where Epiphany is moved to Sunday, the Baptism of the Lord is immediately moved to Monday, which is 8 January.)
- The Christmas octave (octava Nativitatis) begins at first vespers of Christmas (25 December) and ends at second vespers of 1 January (traditionally, the Circumcision of the Lord).
Popular understanding of Christmas, and its ending, typically gravitates towards lengthening the observance, as much as possible:
- According to popular tradition, Christmas ends on 6 January, Epiphany of the Lord, to complete the so-called 12 days of Christmas.
- According to popular piety, Christmas ends on 2 February, Purification of the Blessed Virgin, to complete the so-called 40 days of Christmas (parallel to the 40 days of Lent).
- According to extended popular piety, Christmas ends on 9 February, simply because it is the octave day of the Purification.
We do not intend to weaponise this exposition of the different reckoning of the temporal terminus of Christmas to exacerbate the pointless argument about which is correct. Rather, we wish to highlight with this the comforting fact—which in recent times has been invoked for the purpose of furthering causes surreptitiously pernicious to and glaringly incompatible with the faith—that Holy Mother Church has always accommodated the different pious customs of Her children.
Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.