Like many suburban neighborhoods, mine is loosely governed by a homeowners’ association.
For an annual fee, I cheerfully subjugate myself to its many regulations on such things as paint colors, mailboxes, lawn maintenance and holiday decorations.
So each year on the first weekend of January, I dutifully remove our home’s exterior lights.
All the while, I seditiously whisper, “Christmas isn’t over,” while hoarding rogue creches and garlands inside behind drawn curtains.
In this neighborhood, Christmas is over a bit too soon. So too in any retail facility, where it is practically Valentine’s Day on December 26.
For the church, Christmas is not a single day, but a whole season. In fact, the commercial/secular holiday season and the liturgical Christmas season are almost totally nonconcurrent, overlapping only briefly on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
And even within the church, there is some disagreement about when Christmas ends. For most in the United States, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord (usually the second Sunday in January) marks the end of the liturgical Christmas season and the beginning of Ordinary Time.
However, for many Catholics outside the United States, Eastern Rite Catholics, and those who follow the Tridentine calendar, the end of Christmas is tied to Epiphany, celebrated on its traditional date — Jan. 6. Epiphany is observed as more of a major feast in parts of Europe, often a holy day of obligation and sometimes an official state holiday. In some rites, there follows an Octave of Epiphany, or eight days of extended celebration. The Christmas season then concludes on the eighth day, Jan. 13.
But wait, there’s more! Some Catholics maintain that the celebration of Christmas might extend as far as the feast of the Presentation of the Lord (or Candlemas) on Feb. 2. Candlemas celebrates the introduction of the Christ Child to the temple, an event that occurred 40 days after his birth. It is the last time “baby Jesus” appears in the lectionary, so some suggest this is an appropriate scriptural endpoint to Christmastide. Including Candlemas as part of the Christmas season is less liturgically rooted but more cultural, a domestic tradition of popular piety.
So, is Christmas over?
According to the Code of Elves, the guiding dictum of the movie “Elf” starring Will Ferrell, one must “treat every day like Christmas.” For the elves, it means gifts and sweets and mistletoe every day.
For us, it means that the birth of Jesus constantly informs our lives and our worship. Without the Incarnation — the Word made Flesh — there is no Eucharist. Without the manger there is no cross. Without Christmas, there is no Easter. Each time the Mass is celebrated, it rests on the fundamental reality of the Incarnation.
Liturgically, we return to Ordinary Time this week. My Christmas decorations are now stored away, inside and out. But this discussion is not really about decorations. The seminal truth of Christmas — that God became man to live among us — remains in our hearts throughout the dark winter and indeed every day of the year.