When Does Christmas Actually End?? The 12 Days of Christmas and Beyond – A Traditional Catholic Understanding of the Christmas Season

Christmas ends on January 6th…no wait, January 13th…NO, February 2nd! There’s more than one answer – read below to find out!

My husband went out to run some errands for me the day before Christmas, and I’ve never heard him sound so down in the dumps.

“It’s so sad – it’s the day before Christmas and everyone is taking down all the Christmas decorations. It’s not even Christmas Day and to the world Christmas is already over.”

Sad to say – this is the common mistake spread by Protestantism. There is little to no concept of penitential preparation before Christmas – on the contrary, Christmas is celebrated all during Advent, with the final crescendo ending on Christmas Day when families get together for food, gifts, and generic “winter”-type festivities. It certainly wasn’t the way Christmas was historically celebrated for the hundreds and hundreds of years before the various sects of Protestantism began to destroy the customs and feasts of the liturgical seasons.

For the traditional Catholic, Christmas has JUST begun on Christmas Day! Our family tries to make it a point to not listen to Christmas music until Christmas Day, but I have to admit I indulged myself a bit when we went to go get our Christmas tree this year.

This misconception so prevalent in our society inspired me to dig a little deeper and geek out on the traditional Catholic season and liturgical cycle of Christmas, so that I could finally settle the question of when Christmas is actually supposed to end.

The Traditional Liturgical Season of Christmas

Liturgically speaking, the season of Christmas can be a bit confusing as to when it ends. Some say it ends after the 12 days of Christmas, others on the feast of the Epiphany (January 6), still others on the feast of the Purification (February 2).

So when in the world are we supposed to take down these Christmas trees of ours???

To find the answer I went to my trusty pre-1955 St. Andrew Missal!

Here are some terms that are good to know:

  1. The Christmas octave is the first 8 days of Christmas from Christmas Day December 25th to January 1st.

2. The Twelve Days of Christmas (sometimes called “Christmastide” which is confusing because the St. Andrew missal refers to Christmastide as ending on January 13) was established during the Council of Tours in 567 as a 12-day period starting from December 25th and ending on January 5th, the day before the feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord. It is said that “it [the Council of Tours] proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive season, and established the duty of Advent fasting in preparation for the feast.” (1)

3. The Christmas “season” (also confusingly called “Christmastide”) begins with the vigil of the feast (Midnight Mass) and ends in the temporal cycle on the octave day of the Epiphany, January 13; in the sanctoral cycle on the Purification of Our Lady (February 2) (2).

4. The sanctoral Christmas cycle or 40 days of Christmas, much like the 40 days of fasting in Lent and the forty days after Easter being the Ascension, is marked on February 2nd by the feast of Candlemas, or the purification of Our Lady. (3) This reminds of a book that was lent to me by a friend – The First Forty Days – to prepare me for the time AFTER birth, which most first time moms tend to neglect! It’s so interesting to see that it was even a custom before and during the time of Our Lord, and that Our Lady must have taken special care of herself those 40 days.

5. Octave of Epiphany – lasting 8 days from the feast of the Epiphany (Jan. 6) to Jan. 13.

6. Time after Epiphany, while not “technically” Christmas but still related and overlapping with the Christmas cycle, begins the day of Epiphany and ends on Septuagesima, which is the pre-Lenten season comprising of 3 Sundays – Septuagesima (70 days before Easter), Sexagesima (60 days before Easter) Quinquagesima (50 days before Easter). Quadragesima – 40 days before Easter – is also commonly called Lent and interestingly enough is the etymological root of “Cuaresma” in Spanish and other Romance language translations.

Here’s a convenient infographic I made to help understand the overlaps:


Circumcision of Our Lord – January 1st

This day celebrates three different elements – the octave (or eighth) day of Christmas; honoring Mary the Mother of God (on which was celebrated a second Mass at the basilica of St. Mary Major); and what is commonly known in traditional circles as the feast of the Circumcision, where Our Lord Jesus Christ first shed His drops of blood for mankind. This last bit (the circumcision) the Novus Ordo seems to have removed along with the first element and renamed this feast as “Mary the Mother of God”…maybe because in the minds of the proponents of Vatican II it was slightly inconvenient for people to reflect on circumcision since it involved sacrifice and blood…too “gory” for the modern world!

I have always wondered – why do we celebrate a feast in which was featured a ritual which is no longer required in the New Law, on account of which St. Paul “withstood him [St. Peter] to the face” (Galatians 2:11)? My St. Andrew Missal explained this quite beautifully:

“Moses commanded that all the young Israelites should undergo this rite on the eighth day after birth (Gospel). It is a type of Baptism by which a man is spiritually circumcised (emphasis added). ‘See,’ says St. Ambrose, ‘how the whole sequence of the Old Law foreshadowed that which was to come; for circumcision signifies the blotting out of sins. He who is spiritually circumcised by the rooting up of his vices is judged worthy of the Lord’s favour (emphasis added). While speaking of the first drops of His sacred Blood that our Redeemer shed for the cleansing of our souls, the Church emphasises the thought of the cutting out of all that is evil in us.”

St. Andrew Missal, pg. 176

The Epiphany of Our Lord – January 6th

The feast of the Epiphany (January 6) – meaning “manifestation” from the Latin epiphania – marks the coming of the three magi – Caspar, Melchior and Baltasar – after which is commonly distributed “Epiphany water” – powerful holy water on which the day previous has been performed the lengthiest exorcism given to any sacramental (more than your average Sunday Mass holy water) by traditional priests.

The Feast of the Epiphany is the continuation of the mystery of Christmas, but it appears on the Calendar of the Church with its own special character. Its very name, which signifies Manifestation, implies that it celebrates the apparition of God to his creatures…

The Epiphany is indeed a great Feast, and the joy caused us by the Birth of our Jesus must be renewed on it, for, as though it were a second Christmas Day, it shows us our Incarnate God in a new light. It leaves us all the sweetness of the dear Babe of Bethlehem, who hath appeared to us already in love; but to this, it adds its own grand manifestation of the divinity of our Jesus. At Christmas, it was a few Shepherds that were invited by the Angels to go and recognize THE WORD MADE FLESH; but now, at the Epiphany, the voice of God himself calls the whole world to adore this Jesus, and hear him.

Dom Prosper Gueranger, “The Liturgical Year”

Purification of Our Lady or “Candlemas” – February 2nd

This was the day that marked 40 days after Our Lady gave birth to the Infant Jesus, which according to traditional Mosaic law at the time was when a new mother would have recovered sufficiently from birth and the newborn child would be presented in the temple at Jerusalem.

“Mothers were to offer a lamb, or if their means did not allow, ‘two doves or two young pigeons’. The Blessed Virgin took with her to Jerusalem the infant Jesus, and the Candlemas procession recalls the journey of Mary and Joseph ascending to the temple to present ‘the Angel of the Covenant’ (Epistle, Introit) as Malachy had prophesied. ‘The wax of the candles signifies the virginal flesh of the Divine Infant,’ says St. Anselm, ‘the wick figures His soul and the flame His divinity.’ The Purification to which the mother of the Saviour was not obliged to conform, as her motherhood was beyond ordinary laws, is not placed in the foreground by the liturgy and the Presentation of Jesus is the principal object of this feast.”

St. Andrew Missal, pg. 1085

Since that time, the Catholic Church established the beautiful ceremony of “the churching of women”, something I myself have done after both my births! As I stated before, cultures all over the world have traditionally marked the first 40 days after giving birth as a time of rest, recovery and peaceful transition for new moms.


“The Seventieth” in Latin, the season of Septuagesima marks the 3 Sundays before Lent, a sort of pre-Lenten preparation and transition away from the celebratory nature of Christmas and Epiphany. This is something that was removed from the Novus Ordo Missae and something completely foreign to me since I had grown up in the Novus Ordo.

“This liturgical period is a prelude to Lent and a remote preparation for Easter. It serves as a time of transition for the soul, which must pass from Christmas joys to the stern penance of the sacred forty days.”

St. Andrew Missal, pg. 238

So there you have it! An explanation of the Christmas liturgical season as it actually stands, explained by multiple reliable sources. So we’ll be taking down our Christmas decor on or slightly before the feast of the Purification, February 2nd 🙂 what is your favorite feast day of the Christmas season?

Sources cited and paraphrased:

  1. Chapter 6 of Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs: The Year of the Lord in Liturgy and Folklore, by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., 1952
  2. St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Missal, p. 125.
  3. https://www.fisheaters.com/customschristmas1.html

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