When is Christmas over?

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Tree needles are covering the floor. The Wise Men are nearly at the manger door. So just when do Catholics bring the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord to a close and return, quite literally, to ordinary time?

Some take the tree down on New Year's Day. Others pack away the crèche with the arrival of the Magi on the Jan. 6 feast of the Epiphany (this year celebrated on Sunday, Jan. 8). But technically the liturgical season of Christmas isn't over until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, this year celebrated not on a Sunday - because of the way the calendar falls - but on Monday, Jan. 9.

According to Father Paul deLadurantaye, diocesan secretary for catechetics and sacred liturgy, the Baptism of the Lord is included in the Christmas season because it is a continuation of "the manifestation of the Word of God" - what the Christmas season is all about.

Jesus' baptism is His "public manifestation," Father deLadurantaye said - a manifestation that began privately to shepherds on the feast of the Nativity of the Lord and the Magi on the feast of the Epiphany.

Catholic homes usually leave Christmas decorations up until at least the Epiphany, if not the Baptism of the Lord, Father deLadurantaye said. If your tree is fading fast, however, the Nativity scene could always stay out until the Christmas season officially ends.

Though it isn't the official teaching of the Church, some view Feb. 2, or the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, as a suitable ending to the Christmas season. This reasoning dates back to the "Law of Moses" when, in the Old Testament, the firstborn sons were presented in a temple 40 days after their birth and their mothers were purified, as outlined in the Book of Leviticus.

But, said Father deLadurantaye, "We don't consider that the Christmas season any longer."

"If you go back to prior to the (Second Vatican) Council (and) the old calendars, yes, some churches did leave their Nativity scenes up until the Presentation of the Lord, but most of them took (them) down after the Epiphany or the Baptism."

Most years, the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated on the Sunday following Jan. 6. But this year, according to the current liturgical calendar, because that Sunday (Jan. 8) is being used to celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord falls to Jan. 9. Ordinary time begins Jan. 10.

Next year, however, Jan. 6 falls on a Sunday. Epiphany is celebrated that day, and the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated the following Sunday, on Jan. 13.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012