When Does the Christmas Season Start?

Christmas Day Is Just the Beginning

12 trees of Christmas
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We've all noticed how the starting date of the "Christmas shopping season" seems to get earlier and earlier in the year. Decorations are often even available for purchase before Halloween. So when does the actual Christmas season start, in terms of the liturgical year?

Anticipating the Christmas Season

The early start to the commerical "Christmas season" should come as no surprise. Stores obviously want to do whatever they can to increase their sales figures, and consumers are willing to go along. Many families have holiday traditions that involve preparing for Christmas in visible ways starting in November: putting up Christmas trees and decorations, holding holiday parties with family and loved ones, and so on.

What most people think of as "the Christmas season" is the period between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. That roughly corresponds to Advent, the period of preparation for the Christmas feast. Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (the Sunday closest to November 30, the Feast of Saint Andrew) and ends on Christmas Eve.

Advent is meant to be a time of preparation—of prayer, fasting, alms-giving, and repentance. In the early centuries of the church, Advent was observed by a 40-day fast, just like Lent, which was followed by the 40 days of feasting in the Christmas season (from Christmas Day until Candlemas). Indeed, even today, Eastern Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, still observe 40 days of fasting.

This "preparation" season has bled into secular traditions as well, resulting in the pre-Christmas season that we're probably all familiar with. Technically, however, this is not the true Christmas season as observed by churches - that has a start date that's actually much later than you might think, if you're only familiar with popular culture depictions of Christmas.

The Christmas Season Starts on Christmas Day

Judging by the number of Christmas trees that are put out to the curb on December 26, many people believe that the Christmas season ends the day after Christmas Day. They couldn't be more wrong: Christmas Day is the first day of the traditional Christmas celebration.

You've heard of the twelve days of Christmas, right? The period of Christmas feasting continues until Epiphany, Jan. 6 (twelve days after Christmas Day), and the Christmas season traditionally continued until the feast of the Presentation of the Lord (Candlemas)—February 2—a full forty days after Christmas Day!

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, the first Sunday after Epiphany. The liturgical season known as Ordinary Time begins the next day, typically the second Monday or Tuesday of the New Year.

Observation of Christmas Day

Christmas Day is the feast of the nativity, or birth, of Jesus Christ. It is the second-greatest feast in the Christian calendar, behind Easter, the day of Christ's Resurrection. Unlike Easter, which is celebrated on a different date every year, Christmas is always celebrated on December 25. That's exactly nine months after the Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, the day on which the Angel Gabriel came to the Virgin Mary to let her know that she had been chosen by God to bear His Son.

Because Christmas is always celebrated on December 25, that means, of course, that it will fall on a different day of the week every year. And because Christmas is a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics—one which is never abrogated, even when it falls on a Saturday or a Monday—it's important to know what day of the week it will fall on so that you can attend Mass.