Are there really 12 Day of Christmas?

December 22, 2023

Though the stores will move on to their "After Christmas" sales and radio stations will stop playing Christmas music, the Christmas season actually begins on Christmas Day. And according to the classic song, there are twelve days of Christmas. But is that true? How long does the Christmas season actually last?

According to the liturgical calendar, the primary celebration of Christmas is an octave (eight days) starting on December 25 and ending on January 1 with the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

The Christmas liturgical season lasts a bit longer, though. And it can get a little confusing to figure out.

If you go by the traditional "twelve days of Christmas," then it would take us to January 5, the eve of Epiphany (when the wise men visit the infant Jesus).

However, the current official definition of its length, according to the Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar:

33. The Christmas season runs from Evening Prayer I of Christmas until the Sunday after Epiphany or after 6 January, inclusive.

So the Christmas season begins with evening prayer on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve Masses celebrated before midnight are actually a vigil Mass for Christmas Day.

But when exactly does it end? The norms go on to help clarify.

37. Epiphany is celebrated on 6 January, unless (where it is not observed as a holy day of obligation) it has been assigned to the Sunday occurring between 2 January and 8 January…

38. The Sunday falling after 6 January is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

In the United States, the Epiphany is transferred to the first Sunday after January 1, which falls somewhere between January 2 and January 8. It is not commemorated as its own holy day of obligation, but remember that every Sunday is a holy day of obligation!

But when Epiphany falls on Sunday, January 7, or Sunday, January 8, then the Baptism of the Lord is observed on the following Monday instead.

Confused yet?  Here is how this all works out this year:

This time, Epiphany falls on Sunday, January 7, 2024.

This means that the Baptism of the Lord will be celebrated on Monday, January 8, 2024, ending the Christmas season.

Beginning on Tuesday, January 9, the Church returns to Ordinary Time and you will see the familiar green vestments return.

So, maybe the better question is - how long will you leave your Christmas tree, decorations and lights up?