Some changes to the traditional calendar have affected some deeply ingrained Catholic notions about the make-up of the Christmas season. I’m not writing this to criticize the changes, so much as to note them.
Epiphany Date Change Preceded the Second Vatican Council
Epiphany was traditionally celebrated on January 6 as a holy day of obligation. Over time, the number of holy days of obligation increased to twenty-eight. Bishops of many countries obtained permission from the Holy See to reduce the number of holy days of obligation, either by removing the obligation to attend Mass on a feast or by transferring the feast to a nearby Sunday. Epiphany is one of several holy days that has been transferred in most countries to a nearby Sunday. In countries where Epiphany is still celebrated on January 6, it remains a holy day of obligation.
In most countries at this time, Epiphany is celebrated on the closest Sunday to January 6 that occurs between January 2 and 8th, and Epiphany is not celebrated on January 6 unless January 6 falls on a Sunday.
That means there are no longer Twelve Days of Christmas during most years. Do most people who sing the English carol about the Twelve Days of Christmas notice when there aren’t actually twelve days of Christmas any more?
Table 1 shows the twelve days of Christmas in the traditional liturgical calendar for the year 2015/2016. Note that the 1960 liturgical calendar is followed when the Extraordinary Form is celebrated. Christmas starts in this calendar on December 25, on the feast In Nativitate Domini and ends on the 12th day, on January 5. According to the 1960 calendar, January 6 is the feast called In Epiphania Domini.
Note that the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei confirmed that it is legitimate to continue to celebrate the Mass and Office of the feast on the days prescribed in the 1960 Calendar, but there is no obligation for the faithful to attend Mass on that days. Many traditional Catholics I know chose to attend Mass on Epiphany even though there is no obligation.
Table 2 shows Epiphany for 2015/2016 assigned to Sunday, January 3 in the Ordinary Form calendar. The day before Epiphany Sunday in 2016 is Day # 9, so the number of days of Christmas is reduced to nine. During a year when when January 6 does not fall on a Sunday, the date is demoted to just an ordinary weekday, so, in 2016, January 6 is listed merely as Wednesday of the Week after Epiphany.
In the song about the twelve days of Christmas, the True Love gives gifts to his lover on every day of Christmas. Maybe the song should be changed to end on the ninth day of Christmas in 2016? But only in 2016. The next year, there will be another length of days.
Let’s see, which of the traditional gifts for the twelve days of Christmas would not get delivered in 2016? Ten Lords a-Leaping, eleven Pipers Piping, and twelve Drummers Drumming. The lover need not despair of never getting all these gifts, if she can wait three years. 2019 is the next year on which January 6 occurs on a Sunday.
Forty Days Count Down to Seventeen
And what happens to the forty days of the old Christmas season? Every Roman Catholic who attends Ordinary Form Masses is affected by this change. In case you don’t remember or never heard this before, the Christmas season used to be celebrated for a total of forty days ever since the early centuries of the Church–until 1969. Liturgical scholar Dom Prosper Gueranger wrote a century earlier, in 1868, “We apply the name of Christmas to the 40 days which begin with the Nativity of Our Lord, December 25, and end with the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, February 2.
February 2 is also called Candlemas. In the revised 1969 calendar, February 2 is observed as the Presentation of the Lord. See ”February 2: A Feast of Manifestation, Purification, and Candles” for more information about all the layers of meaning that are part of this important feast.
If you worship at a church that follows the changed 1969 calendar, the total number of days of the Christmas season varies, and the number is always going to be much shorter than forty days because February 2 is no longer the end. The end of the Christmas season was moved to the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, which falls either on the first Sunday after January 6, or on the following Monday.
This change means that according to the new calendar the Christmas season for 2015/2016 end on January 10, seventeen days after Christmas instead of forty. And every year, this calculation too will need to be made anew.
Table 3 shows the Forty Days of Christmas in the traditional liturgical calendar. The days of the week on which the dates fall change every year, but the number of days does not change.
You don’t really have to do the math yourself and figure out the days if you attend Masses in the Ordinary Form according to the calendar of 1969. You can simply follow along in the paper missalettes in the pews.
This little exploration of the changes to the dates when we celebrate Christmas is intended to give you a glimpse of the big picture. Sometimes the more things change, the more they don’t remain the same.