A reader writes:
When does the Christmas season officially start? Stores start playing Christmas music the day after Halloween, the neighbors put up their decorations on Thanksgiving, and my kids want to get our tree now. It's not even Advent yet! According to the Church, when does the Christmas season begin, and how long does it last?
Some Christians complain--quite rightly--about the commercialization of Christmas. A few years back, the slogans "Christ is the reason for the season" and "Put Christ back in Christmas!" were popular. But while stores obviously want to do whatever they can to increase their sales figures, much of the blame for the extended Christmas season falls squarely on our shoulders, as the reader notes above. We get out the decorations in November; we put our trees up early (see When Should You Put Up Your Christmas Tree?); we start holding Christmas parties at the beginning of December.
Judging by the number of Christmas trees that are put out to the curb on December 26 (see When Should You Take Down Your Christmas Tree?), many people believe that Christmas Day ends the Christmas season. They couldn't be more wrong: Christmas Day is the first day of Christmas. The period of feasting continues until Epiphany, the 12th day after Christmas, and the Christmas season traditionally continued until the feast of the Presentation of the Lord (Candlemas)--February 2--a full 40 days after Christmas! (Since the revision of the liturgical calendar in 1969, however, the liturgical season of Christmas ends with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.)
What most people think of as "the Christmas season," the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, roughly corresponds to Advent, the period of preparation for the Christmas feast. Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. It's meant to be a time of preparation--of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and repentance. In the early centuries of the Church, it was observed by a 40-day fast, just like Lent, which was followed by the 40 days of feasting in the Christmas season. (Eastern Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, still observe 40 days of fasting. See Celebrate Advent . . . With a Fast! for more details.)
In our world of instant gratification, however, we don't want to wait until Christmas to eat a Christmas cookie--much less fast or abstain from meat on Christmas Eve! Still, the Church gives us this season of Advent for a reason--and that reason is Christ. The better we prepare ourselves for His coming on Christmas Day, the greater our joy will be.
More on Advent and Christmas:
- The Season of Advent in the Catholic Church
- When Does Advent Start?
- When Should You Put Up Your Christmas Tree?
- Preparing for Christmas With the Advent Wreath
- Reviving Advent: Daily Scripture Readings
- Reviving Advent: The Saint Andrew Christmas Novena
- When Should You Take Down Your Christmas Tree?