Irrepressibly joyful as the season is, Christmas remains an occasion of recurring conflict for contemporary Christians.
One challenge is to “keep Christ” in what often passes as “X-Mas” or “the Holidays.”
Yet even those intrepid souls resolved not to banish the Babe of Bethlehem (once again) to the outskirts of civilization face a further, and one might say more fundamental, question: precisely when Christmas is to be kept.
Eons ago, after reverting to the faith of my youth, I chanced upon a disc of what purported to be “Christmas music” by J. S. Bach. On closer inspection, the contents turned out to be cantatas for the Sundays of Advent. Years later I would discover that Bach had, of course, written exquisite pieces for Christmas, properly so-called.
It was my first encounter with a conundrum that has long since become an old if annoying acquaintance: the conflation of Christmas with its anticipatory season, such that, just when a Christian is ready to break out the eggnog and tinsel, that spicy beverage is no longer sold in supermarkets, and the neighborhood alleyways are scattered with undecorated evergreens.
In countercultural circles, it is agreed that the keeping of Christmas is to be preceded by the keeping of Advent, and hence to commence when the rest of society is turning from candy canes to chocolate hearts.
In those same circles, however, there seems to be far less certainty concerning the vexing question of when it becomes appropriate, or even obligatory, to lovingly place Christmas back upon the shelf.
Though I am no authority when it comes to matters calendrical, two decades of familiarity with the traditional Roman Missal have convinced me that answering this question requires a careful parsing of the multiple senses in which the word “Christmas” is rightly employed.
From the broadest to the narrowest, these uses are as follows:
The Christmas Cycle of connected commemorations begins with the first Sunday of Advent and ends on February 2nd, with Candlemas. In this sense, all of December and January are Christmas, and we can calm our nerves by reflecting that the world is not yet (completely) insane.
Next comes Christmastide, beginning on the Vigil of the Nativity (December 24th) and ending on January 13th, the Octave of the Epiphany and Baptism of our Lord.
Said Christmastide can be subdivided into the Christmas season, or “twelve days of Christmas,” from Christmas Day to Epiphany Eve; and the Octave (and also the Season) of Epiphany.
Since Christmas itself has an Octave, the next-smallest unit of Christmas is that eight-day period.
Finally, we have Christmas Day itself, weighing in at a mere twenty-four hours, but punching (as they say) far above its weight.
Of course, Scrooge is perfectly right to insist that the man who honors Christmas in his heart will “try to keep it all the year.”
And on a similar note, one may observe that every Mass is in fact Christ’s Mass, pointing to the greatest possible meaning of the phrase.
As for my family, notwithstanding the sadness of the event, our tree generally comes down on January 14th. But a little light burns in our hearts until February 2nd, and I’d like to think it never goes out completely in the remainder of the year.