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The Season of Christmas

In the current Catholic calendar, the Season of Christmas lasts from First Vespers on Christmas Eve until the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, which usually falls on the Sunday after the Epiphany. This time includes many other important Christian Holy Days (the feast of the Holy Family, the feasts of St Stephen, St John the Apostle, the Holy Innocents, St Thomas Becket and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.)

During the Season of Christmas the Priest wears white or gold vestments and the church is decorated with extra flowers to mark this special season of the Church’s year. The Gloria (the song of the angels at the birth of Our Lord) is sung once again, having been omitted throughout Advent.

What is Christmas?

In today’s secular culture, Christmas to many people means Father Christmas (or Santa Claus), stockings, presents, greenery, lights, snow, mince pies and much more! However, for Catholics, Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, as a little baby in Bethlehem – a real event, within the realm of history.

So Christmas is first and foremost a Christian holy day. Even the term itself is an abbreviation of the phrase "Christ mass," which reflects the primary understanding of Christmas as an important feast day in the Church’s liturgical year. The celebration of the Christmas season does not actually begin until December 25th – even though the shops have been trying to make us celebrate Christmas from mid-October – and so, an important part of New Evangelisation is to put “Christ” back into “Christmas” – and also to put the “Mass” back into Christmas!

Christmas in the family home:

Christmas in the family home is perhaps best observed by attendance at Midnight Mass. If that is not possible, the family may prepare for the feast by praying the Office of Readings before the crib in their home on Christmas Eve and by attending one of the four different Masses which the Church celebrates on Christmas Day - the Vigil Mass, Midnight Mass, Dawn Mass and Mass During the Day, each of which has its own distinct prayers and Readings. However, the message of all the Readings is the same: ‘Today is born for us a Saviour, God-with-us, the Light that the darkness cannot overcome.’

It is especially fitting if families try to attend Mass together on the Feast of the Holy Family as this feast celebrates the family unit and the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. This feast falls on the Sunday after Christmas and presents the Holy Family as the model for all Christian families, and for domestic life in general. Our family life becomes sanctified when we live the life of the Church within our homes. This is called the "domestic church" or the "church in miniature." St. John Chrysostom urged all Christians to make each home a "family church," and in doing so, we sanctify the family unit.

The week after Christmas:

The week after Christmas is called “The Octave of Christmas” and part of the Divine Office each day is taken from Christmas Day, except where otherwise specified for the various feasts which fall during this week.

The Solemnity of Mary Mother of God commemorates the divine motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the God-Bearer, Mother of our Lord and God Jesus Christ. It is celebrated on January 1st, one week after Christmas. In celebrating this Solemnity, we are not only honouring Mary, who was chosen among all women throughout history to bear God incarnate, but we are also honouring our Lord, who is fully God and fully man. Calling Mary "mother of God" is the highest honour we can give Mary. Just as Christmas honours Jesus as the "Prince of Peace," the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God honours Mary as the "Queen of Peace". This solemnity, falling on New Year's Day, is also designated the World Day of Peace.

The Epiphany of the Lord:

The Solemnity of the Epiphany is celebrated either on January 6th or, at the decision of the local Episcopal conference, on the Sunday between January 2nd and January 8th. This is when the Messiah is revealed as the light of the nations, as the Magi arrive to worship Our Lord and give him their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The word “Epiphany” means “Manifestation”.

Epiphany is considered a fitting time for the blessing of homes. Therefore, on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, our priests bless chalk which is distributed at the end of Mass. This is used, along with the “Blessing of the Home at Epiphany” prayer sheet which you will find inside your newsletter on Epiphany Sunday – and which gives full details of the significance of this blessing. But briefly, the family gathers to pray psalms and listen to readings and inscribe the Cross, with the year and the initials of the three wise men Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar over the lintels of the doors: 20+C+M+B+11 (for 2011). The initials C+M+B can also be interpreted to mean Christus Mansionem Benedicat, (Christ bless this house).

When does the Season of Christmas end?

In our secular culture today, many consider that the Season of Christmas comes to an end on “Twelfth Night” – or 6th January (the date of the Feast of the Epiphany, although the Bishops of England and Wales have now transferred this feast to the Sunday which falls between 2nd January and 8th January). However, it is actually the Solemnity of the Baptism of Our Lord which concludes the season of Christmas. This is when the Church recalls the baptism of Jesus, by St John, in the River Jordan and this Solemnity reveals the Trinity to us.

Many of the incidents which accompanied Christ's baptism are symbolical of what happened at our own Baptism. At Christ's baptism the Holy Spirit descended upon Him; at our Baptism the Trinity took its abode in our soul. At His baptism Christ was proclaimed the "Beloved Son" of the Father; at our Baptism we become the adopted sons of God. At Christ's baptism the heavens were opened; at our Baptism heaven was opened to us. At His baptism Jesus prayed; after our Baptism we must pray to avoid actual sin.

And finally …

Although the Season of Christmas liturgically ends with the Octave of the Epiphany, there is one more feast associated with Christ's entry into the world and this is Candlemas (also known as "The Feast of the Presentation and Purification”) when we celebrate Christ's Presentation in the Temple and Mary's ritual purification which took place 40 days after His birth, as Jewish law required.